In Wake of Egypt Coverage, Al Jazeera English Pushes For Expanded Carriage

By Alex Weprin 

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There has been little doubt that Al Jazeera English has been providing far and away the most comprehensive coverage of the situation in Egypt over the last few weeks. As we reported last week, while AJE is carried in some small markets (and on satellite) here in the U.S., most cable operators don’t seem to be eager to carry the network.

Now, AJE is pushing back. The network took out a full-page ad in the New York Times over the weekend, and gave a pair of targeted interviews to the Times and Multichannel News.

The Times sent Brian Stelter to AJE’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar, where the leadership played up their journalism credentials, while also acknowledging that Al Jazeera has in many respects become the face of coverage of Egypt.

Wadah Khanfar, director general of Al Jazeera, acknowledged that covering the protesters around the clock “gives them some momentum.” He said that the network’s mission statement supported democracy, but added, “we’re not adopting the revolution.”

Similarly, Mostefa Souag, news director for the Arabic service, conceded that protesters might gravitate toward Al Jazeera’s cameras, well aware of the worldwide power of the images. But, he added, “we’re not here to create events. We’re here to cover events.”

Meanwhile, Al Anstey, the managing director of Al Jazeera English, spoke to Multichannel News editor in chief Mark Robichaux. MCN is the leading trade magazine for the cable business, and is read widely by senior executives at the cable operators.

Robichaux asked Anstey why AJE failed to gain carriage widely here in the U.S.

There’s two fundamental reasons for it. No. 1 is, we are a relatively young channel launching into a mature marketplace. We need to get known. And that takes time.

Add to that I think there were myths and misconceptions about what Al-Jazeera stands for and those misconceptions are being addressed now with every viewer that’s switching us on and sees the content. And I always lay down the gauntlet and say if you watch the content of Al-Jazeera English, those misconceptions, if they apply, are immediately dispelled.

And that’s what we’re seeing now and that’s why the increase of Web traffic of two and a half thousand percent in the first two days of this story. We’re going out 12 hours a day to 33 million homes at the moment in the United States.

As we wrote last week, there are plenty of challenges that could prevent AJE from gaining expanded carriage here in the U.S. By the time any deals are likely to happen, the conflict in Egypt will likely have been resolved, and AJE will have returned to its more normal programming, which is far more like the U.S. cable news channels than many observers would likely care to admit.

AJE will likely gain some new carriage deals as a result of its excellent Egypt coverage, but by the time it does, how many people will be willing to tune in regularly?