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Al Jazeera America Prez on Brand Challenges: We’re Overcoming Them Quicker Than We Thought

TCA 2014: ”I just want more people to watch,“ anchor Tony Harris adds

Al Jazeera America is coming into its own, recently winning two Peabody Awards for its self-proclaimed “no-spin journalism.” But it still has a ways to go to overcome a problem it created for itself — the cable news channel’s name, which is jarring for some Americans but innocently translates to “The Peninsula.”

On the network’s challenges, Shannon High, senior vice president, Programs and Documentaries said at Tuesday’s Television Critics Association panel: “We’re much faster than we thought overcoming them.”

AJAM brass admit the accolades help, and those are also flowing in at a speedier rate than expected: “I thought it would take some years, honestly, to get that recognition,” Kate O’Brian, president of Al Jazeera America added.

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Anchor and filmmaker Tony Harris was more blunt. “I’m surprised at how good we are, frankly,” he said. “I just want more people to watch.” “I will robo-call people, don’t make me,” Harris joked.

O’Brian countered Harris by assuring the Beverly Hills Hotel entertainment journalists that her cable news channel is “trending in the right direction.”

Also read: Layoffs, Low Ratings and Image Problems – Al Jazeera America Faces Uphill Battle

The afternoon panel also touched on a far more somber subject: the three Al Jazeera English journalists jailed in Egypt. Last month, Egyptian courts gave Peter Greste, an Australian, and Mohamed Fahmy seven years in prison for charges that included spreading false news, conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood, and endangering national security. A local cameraman named Baher Mohamed was sentenced to ten years after being convicted on a second, separate charge.

“It’s outrageous,” O’Brian said. “It outrageous for the Al Jazeera journalists who are our colleagues. It’s outrageous for journalism.”

“We absolutely want to keep this story in the forefront of people’s minds,” Harris, who previously worked at Al Jazeera English and CNN, and knows the imprisoned reporters, added. “We … know that there is work being done — backchannel work being done. I remain optimistic … I think this is going to be resolved.”

Thus far, a social media campaign with the hashtag #FreeAJ has had 750 million impressions, O’Brian told the audience.

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With last year’s AT&T integration, Al Jazeera America is on track to reach 59 million households, O’Brian boasted in her address. The cable news channel has 12 U.S. bureaus, with access to more than 70 bureaus worldwide.

This September, as previously reported, AJAM will launch a new six-part docuseries, directed and produced by Alex Gibney. “Edge of Eighteen,” the only show highlighted at Tuesday’s panel, will focus on education and the lifestyles of youths.