It’s been years since the Cable Show served as the year’s hottest marketplace for new networks looking to cut distribution deals with operators. But don’t tell that to the folks at Al Jazeera America (AJA). The news channel backed by the government of Qatar plans to launch late August following its $500M acquisition of Al Gore’s Current TV. And it was the most prominent new programmer at this week’s annual confab looking to establish itself in cable’s mainstream. “We’re having encouraging meetings” with distributors including Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, and Cox, Al Jazeera Media Network’s international operations executive director Ehab Al Shihabi tells me. He could use some deals: At this point AJA should reach about 49M pay TV homes at launch, mostly subscribers with Comcast, DirecTV, Dish Network, AT&T U-verse, and Verizon FiOS. But national advertisers typically steer clear of channels with less than about 80M. That may not be a big problem initially: AJA says it expects to have half the commercial load of its rivals. Meanwhile AJA picked up Current’s deals with cable operators which had them paying about 12 cents per subscriber per month according to SNL Kagan. But the channel’s “No. 1 priority is not the bottom line,” says Lisa Fletcher, a former ABC investigative reporter who hosts Al Jazeera English’s citizen journalism show The Stream. “I really believe this is a philosophical thing for them, to be the voice of the voiceless.”
Although AJA still doesn’t have a president, Al Shihabi says that operators no longer wonder whether it can provide credible, independent journalism. “The biggest question is, ‘how can you compete in a landscape that’s so saturated'” with news channels, he says. He hopes to quell that concern by pointing to AJA’s ambitious plan to hire 800 staffers, including seasoned pros such as former CNN business correspondent Ali Velshi, and open 12 domestic bureaus. The company also will launch AJA with a major marketing campaign promoting it across national and local TV, social media, print, radio, and out of home. Al Shihabi says AJA will mostly focus on hard news. Even so, “we will cover celebrities and how they’re attached to Main Street. They are doing a lot for their communities and that has not been highlighted.”
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