Bracing For ‘Impact,’ Al Jazeera America Prepares To Launch

By Alex Weprin 

AJAM interim CEO Ehab Al Shihabi

Al Jazeera America has a long, tough road ahead.

Ehab Al Shihabi, the interim CEO for the channel, acknowledges as much. Al Shihabi said that according to their market research, 75% of people surveyed that had never seen any Al Jazeera programming had a negative perception of the brand.

There was a silver lining however: among people who saw Al Jazeera programming, 90% had a positive perception of it. “There was a perception, but it wasn’t a reality,” Al Shihabi said.

The channel is embarking on a wide-ranging branding effort, encompassing both an advertising campaign and in-person meetings with politicians, interest groups and community leaders. The push will be in cities where AJAM has carriage, as well as in places it doesn’t.

“We have engaged in this opportunity by taking on a lot of dialogue, so that people understand our mission and journalistic identity,” Al Shihabi said. “With the heavy public affairs, with the heavy communications, with the heavy dialogue building, I think we can see most of the media coverage and most of the interactions, we can now move it on the positive side.”

Feedback will come quickly, as AJAM is planning to be rated by Nielsen at launch, even though it lost a few million households after acquiring Current TV and taking over its spot on the lineup. There is still a chance it finds space on other cable and satellite operators before launch.

A (Temporary) Home

Al Jazeera America’s New York headquarters sits inside a nondescript entrance on West 34th St. and 8th Avenue, inside the building that houses The New Yorker hotel (while the building does house the hotel, AJAM utilizes the Manhattan Center for services and utilities). There are TV screens on the sidewalk, though they have not been turned on yet, and a gold Al Jazeera America logo is emblazoned into the stone. The first thing you see when you walk in is a blindingly white lobby, while off to the right a security checkpoint looks like it would fit right in at a small airport.

Up a flight of stairs, the newsroom itself is vast, covering two floors (see photos in the slideshow below), with 150 or so desks flanked by 40 foot marble columns, while the walls are covered with flatscreen monitors and clocks. Natural light flows in through full-height frosted windows, a stark contrast to the cold, dark newsrooms at some other channels.

“It used to be a bank depository, and as I understand it was in quite decrepit shape,” Paul Eedle, Al Jazeera’s director of programming said on a tour this morning.

While it is now far from decrepit, the space is only slated to be temporary. Eedle says a search is underway to find a permanent home for all of AJAM’s New York staff. At the moment the network also uses Current TV’s old studio space on 33rd street, where Ali Velshi’s program will originate. Eedle hopes to move to a permanent space in two years.

An Undercovered Mission

AJAM’s programming has slowly been taking shape over the last few weeks. While there will be some genre news shows (Velshi’s business program, an upcoming sports show, a public affairs show and a morning show launching in a few months), most programs will simply be live news, whatever it may be. AJAM will have 14 hours of live news programming every day at launch, expanding in the months ahead.

“We cover the areas that are not being covered. We cover areas that undercovered. We consider ourselves to be the voice for the voiceless,” Al Shihabi says.

“There will be a lot of stories that our competitors will be doing in Washington and New York that may have resonance with other places across the United States,” says AJAM president Kate O’Brian, an ABC News alum.

The “giving voice to the voiceless” line is one that was used quite a bit on a conference call Thursday and during the studio visit this morning.

“The media landscape focuses on the 1% and then asks the 99% what they think,” Al Shihabi said today. “The whole idea is to focus on the 99%, because they are the decision makers, they are the shakers and the movers in my opinion. And then we ask the 1% what they think of what the 99% is saying.”

AJAM will also try to differentiate itself from competitors by having around half as many commercials, something that executives tout as a “huge advantage.” There will be a “high-profile” launch advertising partner, though who that is, is not yet clear.

Going Live, With No One Watching

AJAM’s primary New York City studio is in the basement of the 34th St. building. The floor is comprised of brushed steel tiles, with a curved glass desk and, as the centerpiece, a video wall that changes dynamically. Executives at the channel demonstrated the wall by putting up images from the chaos in Egypt.

Live news coverage will largely originate from 34th St., with a few programs from the 33rd St. studio, and others produced at the Newseum, AJAM’s home  in Washington, DC.

The network launches Tuesday, but the newsroom and studio were bustling as though it was already live. That is because, in a sense, it is. For over a month AJAM staffers have been operating as though they were on the air, including interviews, news reports and field reports from places like Egypt. The only people who saw it were those inside the channel’s offices and staffers in Doha, Qatar. But it is a vital part of making sure everything is ready to go come Tuesday.

AJAM’s programming strategy is based around appealing to an audience that Al Shihabi says is “underserved.” With  MSNBC and Fox News both locked in with partisan programming, and CNN focusing a good deal of time on celebrity stories and insider politics, AJAM claims that its research says there are 55 million households that simply want non-stop news without fluff.

“We are not looking at converting the audience of CNN, or converting the audience of Fox, or the core audience of MSNBC, we are talking about taking audience now, based on our journalistic identity,” Al Shihabi said.

While AJAM will be Nielsen rated, executives there tacitly acknowledge that expectations are low to start.

“The most important, the leading measure, is the impact Al Jazeera America will have on our audience,” Al Shihabi said. “We will do the impact, and we will let the audience chase us. We will never change the vision or the mission.”