Launching Al Jazeera America is “frankly less challenging than people might think” network president Kate O’Brian insisted this afternoon. “The American viewer is looking for a particular set of things they just cannot find in the market place…unbiased news of quality and depth,” the well-respected ABC News veteran told reporters on a phone conference call walking up to Tuesday afternoon’s launch. “We really see that we are going to be fulfilling a need that the American viewer has,” she insisted. The network has opened a dozen domestic bureaus, hired hundreds of staffers, and, begun sending nearly daily announcements of program plans and hires of well-known talent, in the exec suites and on-air, including former CNN star Soledad O’Brien, former CBS News regulars Joie Chen and Sheila MacVicar, and former NBC News anchor John Seigenthaler, who will anchor the new network’s evening newscast. O’Brian said they’ve tried hard to staff the network’s 12 domestic bureaus with journalists from the area, as part of an effort to give “voice to the voiceless” by reporting stories not traditionally covered by national media from regions not traditionally spotlighted. “To do that best way is to hire someone who knows these stories. It’s very important for us to have some home grown coverage of different parts of the United States.”
Asked if the network would have covered the protests in Egypt this week, had it launched, O’Brian reiterated the network’s marching orders are not to cover U.S. only but “to cover news that is important to America,” adding, “The Middle East is extremely important to people in the U.S.”
“The amazing advantage of being part of the overall Al Jazeera networks,” she said is that it has 70 overseas bureaus, “giving us an amazing competitive advantage to deploy resources into places that our competitors don’t have the ability to do so easily. Wherever there is news we will be there, and whenever there is a big important news story ongoing, like what’s happening in Egypt today, we’re covering. Just because we’re Al Jazeera America does not mean we are ignoring stories around the globe.”
Media giant Al Jazeera, financed by the Qatar government, is “supporting us in a way where we really can go uncover these stories” not being reported by other domestic news outlets, she said. “It’s an amazing opportunity with an amazingly strong foundation – and we’re still a start up, still talking about things… still assembling more pieces of the puzzle.”
Ehab Al Shihabi, a senior exec at Al Jazeera, and acting CEO of Al Jazeera America, insisted the new network’s name is not a liability in this country. For some, the name brings to mind the platform the media outlet gave Osama bin Laden after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in ’01. For others, it brings to mind the recent resignations of some Al Jazeera talent at the media company’s networks over alleged network bias in coverage of the unrest in Egypt. But, Al Shihabi said, testing conducted earlier this year found a 75% negative response to the name among those who had not sampled Al Jazeera programming, but a 90% positive response among those who had. That’s why he’s working aggressively to expand the new network’s distribution beyond the nearly 50 million people who will be able to see it when it goes live Tuesday afternoon. Al Jazeera America inherited that coverage when it coughed up about $500 million last year to buy Al Gore’s Current TV distribution deals. Negotiations with Time Warner, which dropped the channel when Current TV went dark, are ongoing.
“It’s really beautifully produced, quality journalism,” O’Brian said of the new network, adding, “I think once we’re out there and people see us that will create the impact.” The programming will cause a “rolling success,” she said, turning into “ratings, which will turn into revenue.” When the network launches Tuesday, it will average only six minutes of ad time per hour – less than half its cable news competitors, which the two execs said was a plus.