Posted by: nativeiowan | February 7, 2011

do you watch Al-Jazeera?

Donald Rumsfeld demonised it and George Bush allegedly said he wanted to bomb it. No one was quite sure whether the then White House incumbent was joking or not, but its offices have been hit by US forces. Twice.

Now something rather strange has begun to happen to the Arabic language news broadcaster al-Jazeera and the English language channel it launched nearly five years ago; American viewers have begun to demand it. It is clear some kind of watershed has been reached when the Kansas City Star publishes a cut-out-and-keep guide to the “easiest way to get al-Jazeera English”.

The Qatar-based channel’s acclaimed coverage of the Egyptian crisis has been referred to as the broadcaster’s “CNN moment”, doing for al-Jazeera English what the first Gulf war did for CNN, pushing it to the forefront of the public’s consciousness. Put simply, must-see TV. Now the challenge is to translate the plaudits into the major cable or satellite distribution deal the channel has long sought without success in the US.

The New York Times, which praised the channel’s “total immersion coverage of news events the whole world is talking about”, bemoaned the fact that US cable viewers were able to watch MTV’s controversial adaptation of E4’s teen drama Skins but not al-Jazeera English. “It seems like a perverse application of free speech,” said the paper. “But sex is sexier than foreign affairs and it certainly sells better.”

With China investing $7bn in foreign language media, we may also be witnessing the beginning of a shift, albeit slight, in the nature of global TV news and debate. Stephen Claypole, the former senior BBC News and TV news agency executive who is now chairman of the London and Abu Dhabi-based consultancy, DMA Media, says: “Al-Jazeera has the game by the throat, both in Arabic and English, and it has certainly lived up to its reputation as the most watched broadcaster in the Arab world in spite of intimidation and violence against its staff in Egypt.

“I have heard that [US secretary of state] Hillary Clinton watches it constantly and that Barack Obama has been viewing from the situation room. Although al-Jazeera English has been competent since its launch, it has been waiting for a huge story to call its own. Egypt is certainly that,” Claypole adds.

Al-Jazeera English is separate from the main al-Jazeera Arabic channel, which began broadcasting in 1996. Staffed largely by western TV journalists, the English-language service leveraged the advantages of its Arabic network and contacts in covering the emerging crisis. For a story of this scale in the Arab world, it absolutely had to be good.

Al Anstey, the former ITN executive who is the managing director of al-Jazeera English, describes it as an “extraordinary week” for the channel and a “truly historical” one for Egypt.

“We are being seen worldwide as a channel of reference on this story,” says Anstey. “There has been an exponential increase in the recognition of exactly what it is we do and the quality of our journalism and content. I always say the best way of addressing any misconceptions about al-Jazeera English is to switch on and watch.”

Al-Jazeera English is available in around 220m homes in more than 100 countries worldwide, including viewers with Freeview, Sky or Freesat in the UK. But fewer than 3m of those homes are in the US including – helpfully for the White House – Washington DC.

The failure to strike a major US distribution deal is partly a result of the political sensitivity that surrounded the perceived negative slant of al-Jazeera Arabic’s coverage of the Iraq war. It is also a reflection of the fact that cable operators do not think they can make money from a foreign news network on systems that are already full. BBC World News is distributed to around 6m homes in the US, against more than 10 times that for the entertainment channel BBC America (on which some World News bulletins air).

“For a long time al-Jazeera was seen as the Fox [News] for the bad guys — that’s a really unfortunate way of looking at it,” says Jon Williams, the BBC’s World News editor. “With the change of [US government] administration there’s been a slight change of attitude, and if this means that it does now get carriage in the US, then we welcome that. Al-Jazeera has done some great stuff … It wouldn’t be fair to single out its Egyptian coverage – it has been doing this for a while.”

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