The new channel has a lot going for it, but it has five big stumbling blocks to overcome on its way to U.S. success
Al Jazeera America — the first cable news channel to launch since Fox News back in 1996 — has a lot going for it.
It's got plenty of cash, funded by the oil-rich royal family of Qatar, allowing it to hire a staff of 850, create 12 bureaus in the United States (and 70 more all over the world through Al Jazeera's network), and it has the noble ambition to bring Americans good, solid and unbiased journalism.
Also read: Al Jazeera America Dropped By AT&T U-Verse
There's also a lot for the nascent network to worry about. Here are five things that could significantly hamper AJAM's progress:
1. It's only available in half the homes its competitors are
Al Jazeera America is taking over Current's airwaves, which didn't reach as many homes as cable stalwarts CNN, MSNBC and Fox News in the first place. Once it was announced that Al Jazeera bought Current, that number dropped even lower, when Time Warner Cable unceremoniously dropped the channel from its lineup.
When AJAM launches, it'll only be in 48 million homes, while its competitors are available in about 100 million. The channel is hoping to add more carriers – it's in negotiations with Time Warner now, interim CEO Al Shihabi said in a conference call last Thursday, and its website now has a "request Al Jazeera America" tab that tells viewers if the channel is available in their area and how to request it if not. But it still has a long way to go.
Then again, when Fox News Channel launched, it was only in 17 million homes.
2. Americans associate Al Jazeera with Al Qaeda
Al Jazeera first rose to the attention of most Americans after the 9/11 attacks, when the channel broadcast video from Osama bin Laden and did a live interview with the mass murderer. That was over a decade ago, but it left a lasting impression. Al Shihabi admits that 75 percent of Americans who knew what Al Jazeera was but had never watched it have a negative impression of it. While Al Shihabi is confident that their minds will change once they see what AJAM has to offer, they have to actually want to see it in the first place. Many won't bother.
3. Sponsors are wary or uninterested
AJAM will launch with just six minutes of advertising an hour. Its competitors offer 15-17 minutes. On one hand, it means more news for viewers to watch. On the other, it could indicate that AJAM doesn't have enough advertisers to fill that time. Several of Current's advertisers pulled out when it was sold to Al Jazeera. Though Al Shihabi says he's made good progress luring them back and selling them on AJAM's mission, we still don't know who is advertising on the channel, and Al Shihabi declined to say which company was serving as its launch partner.
Of course, as long as Al Jazeera's very wealthy owners are willing to pour money into the venture, it won't have to worry about ad money as much as its competitors do.
4. Americans don't want the kind of news AJAM is offering
AJAM is proud to give Americans what it believes they aren't getting from their news channels now and what they want – unbiased, in-depth news coverage free of pundits and opinion. No week-long coverage of trials or crazy celebrity news here!
But that seems to be what Americans want from their news channels. Fox News is far and away the highest-rated of the cable newsers and has been for years. What it brought America when it debuted in 1996 was "fair and balanced" news from a decidedly conservative angle, and plenty of opinion and talk shows reinforce it in primetime, like "The O'Reilly Factor." If its success has shown us anything, it's that the majority of cable news-watching Americans seek that out.
And though CNN has drawn criticism for its singular coverage of events like the "Poop Cruise" or the George Zimmerman trial, those have paid off in the ratings. Americans are watching. Will they watch the channel that refuses to offer it?
5. Americans don't know it's even there
Though AJAM has made itself known amongst media folks and journalists, that awareness hasn't necessarily spread to everyone else. Al Shihabi said he was banking on the network going "viral" and spreading by word of mouth based on its quality. In many markets, it'll have to, because AJAM's pre-launch marketing campaign has been pretty scant. Have you seen any commercials or billboards promoting AJAM's arrival? Are there any? Maybe there should be.