The upstart news channel differentiates itself from "infotainment"-ridden cable news fare, but will Americans watch?
Al Jazeera America is banking on the radical idea that U.S. audiences are so weary of opinion, punditry and sensational trials — and ready for in-depth, unbiased news coverage — that they'll look past their own biases and tune in, interim CEO Ehab Al Shihabi and president Kate O'Brian said Thursday.
"The American viewer is looking for a particular set of things that they just can't find on the market right now," O'Brian said.
But no matter how good the product is, Americans still associate the Al Jazeera brand with Al Qaeda, after the Arabic branch of the channel aired Osama bin Laden's videos and secured an interview with the terrorist following the September 11 attacks.
Al Shihabi said that he's entirely confident that impression will change once they see what it delivers: "We are not infotainment, we are in-depth and informative," he said.
Network research has also shown, he said, that while 75 percent of Americans who have never seen Al Jazeera have a negative view of it, 90 percent of Americans who have watched feel positively toward the channel.
But perception is not the only trouble: When the news network debuts August 20 at 3 p.m. ET, it will only be available in about 50 million homes. Neither Time Warner Cable nor Cablevision carry the channel, and Time Warner actually chose to drop Al Jazeera America's predecessor, Current TV, when it purchased the channel for $500 million in January.
Al Shihabi declined to say how talks with those cable providers are going.
Al Jazeera America has also had to win advertisers over. Many balked when Current was sold to the Qatar-based network and pulled their ads. Though Al Shihabi said he's not concerned that Al Jazeera America will have a problem finding advertisers, he also noted that the channel is launching with just six minutes of commercials per hour. That's less than half of the other networks, which average between 15 and 17.
Al Shihabi framed this as an intentional competitive advantage, but it may also be a necessity if Al Jazeera America isn't able to fill its ad times. Hershey's, Red Lobster and TD Ameritrade are among the many companies that pulled their ads from Current TV since its purchase.
Ultimately, Al Shihabi and O'Brian think what will win everyone over is the quality of Al Jazeera America's product.
"Whatever is the most important news, we're going to be covering it in a way that's appropriate," O'Brian said.
But what's appropriate may not be what Americans want to see. Though CNN was criticized for its nearly non-stop coverage of the George Zimmerman trial, its ratings went up during that time. Fox News is the highest-rated cable news channel by far, and it specializes in the kind of opinion and punditry-based journalism Al Jazeera America professes to be against.
Al Jazeera America's approach is noble, and its journalists have been enthusiastic about its mission. Beginning August 20, we'll see what kind of news America really wants to watch.