After celebrating its first year on air, the English service of Qatar-based TV station Al Jazeera − memorably denounced by former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as ‘terror TV’ − is aiming to turn up the heat on its rivals in the global 24-hour news broadcasting industry.
Al Jazeera English (AJE), which celebrated its first anniversary last November, is planning a hard relaunch in the second quarter of this year with "new programmes and new people".
Nigel Parsons, AJE’s managing director, says that the broadcaster is in 'pole position' among international broadcasters in Africa, with AJE acknowledged as one of the three leading news channels in the continent. That, he says, is a “tremendous achievement”, adding that the TV station is also proving to be popular in Asia.
”We’re well past base camp. We’re not at the top of the mountain yet, and we’ve still got some way to go,” says Parsons.
The channel was launched at a time when some were beginning to question the future of the rolling news format of 24-hour TV satellite and cable channels, as many people are now turning to the internet for news. Parsons points out that in addition to its satellite feeds, AJE also streams video over the internet. “I don’t see all these new platforms, new technologies as sitting in separate boxes at all. It’s all part of the same product. Now you might re-version them slightly for different platforms for mobiles and whatever, but for us the television is the core platform, which is the push and pull of all these new technologies.”
The broadcaster’s financial model is very much a network model, he says, adding that Al Jazeera’s subscription-based sports channels are its main revenue drivers. “We are only a year old and I wouldn’t even pretend that we are close to breaking even. We’re not. The advertising cake for television in the Middle East is a relatively small cake and so I think it would be very difficult to break even on that. We have an opportunity now to pick up adverts from around the world.”
“The philosophy is quite simple: to get enough eyeballs. The commercials will follow the eyeballs. And I think we are quite a good way down that road towards achieving that goal … ” He goes on to say: “We’ve always said that really the period of three to five years, if you’re looking at serious commercial revenue or looking at a breakeven, is a standard model. I do believe that we are well on the way to getting the eyeballs. If 100 million people are watching us everyday and you want to sell something, you’re going to advertise with us.”
To be sure, AJE’s regional expansion is gaining pace. It has secured landing rights in Singapore and expects to be available on SingTel’s IPTV (internet protocol television) service early in the first quarter of the year. In addition, it’s also in talks with cable TV provider Starhub in Singapore and the news channel is now being offered as one of Cable TV’s channels in Hong Kong. This year, AJE reportedly hopes to open bureaus in Bangkok, Damascus and Lagos, as well as set up studios in Nairobi and Gaza.
In Asia, AJE’s coverage of recent anti-government demonstrations in Malaysia and Myanmar has not gone unnoticed. Parsons says the Malaysian government praised its ‘impartial and accurate’ coverage. In Myanmar, AJE was the sole international broadcaster which stayed to report on the violent government crackdowns on protesters by using undercover reporters with spy cameras, Parsons says.
“That coverage actually ran throughout the United States on (national network station) NBC,” says Parsons. “They took every single story and ran it.”
While AJE has undoubtedly achieved some success, it is still trying to shake off the ‘terror TV’ tag of its sister Arabic channels, which have been lambasted in the West for airing interviews with Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and the video testimonies of Islamic jihadists.
Indeed, the popular perception of AJE as an outlet for terrorist propaganda and political pressure from conservative organizations have stymied AJE’s efforts to be carried by major cable and satellite companies in the US, which Parson says is AJE’s “most challenging market”. This is despite the fact that top US leaders − such as former US president Bill Clinton and Republican senator John McCain − have given interviews to AJE.
Even so, Parsons says AJE, which currently reaches about two million US households, is in currently in negotiations with “a variety of other platforms” and is optimistic about increasing its market share. He adds that an estimated 50-60 per cent of its four to five million weekly web visits and around 50 per cent of YouTube downloads are from the US.
In response to criticisms of AJE as a mouthpiece for Islamic extremists, Parsons says the TV station’s critics are uninformed. “Most of them have never seen us,” he says. “They are forming opinions via third-parties. I will say to them ‘watch us’ because they are clearly misinformed and that is a problem.”
Indeed, AJE is the top international broadcaster in the Middle East because its sister Arabic channels are helping the budding upstart to better understand the nuances of the stories that it covers in the region, Parsons says. He adds they’ve also got “the best contacts and, by far, the best resources.”
For promoting free speech and airing open criticism of governments in a region where information is often censored, Parson notes that “at one time, Al Jazeera has been expelled from every single country in the Middle East – except Israel”.
“Arabs were astounded as their governments were openly criticized,” he says. “Many Arabs saw an Israeli for the first time as Al Jazeera gave the Israelis the right to reply on stories.”
“That had never happened before because Israel didn’t even feature on maps and other TV stations.”
Still, just how different is AJE compared with the likes of the BBC and CNN? Is it fulfilling its promise of providing a ‘different perspective’?
“I think we’ve shaken up a very tired old broadcast industry,” Parsons says. He explains that AJE is doing so by decentralising its newsgathering process − it has more than 30 bureaus and four equal-status broadcasting centres in Washington, London, Doha and Kuala Lumpur − and by having local reporters “telling you about their regions”.
“We want Africans to tell us about Africa and Asians to tell us about Asia,”
“We feel that audiences are tired of seeing themselves through foreign eyes, which was what was happening,” he says. “We allow viewers to put on a different pair of spectacles, if you like, each time we switch broadcast centre.”
And, as AJE and its sister Arabic channels are based in the Middle East and the developing world, “we have completely reversed the flow of information,” Parsons says.
While the broadcaster’s perspective is ‘different’, it seeks to practice responsible old-fashioned journalism, Parsons says. “It’s actually a return to core values, it’s about calling those in power…to account,”
“It’s representing the interests of the people in the street. It’s not to follow the political agenda that’s set by the politicians,”
“I think too many broadcast organisations got lazy. Whatever the agenda was, it was being set by the politicians and they were blindly following it. They thought they could get into bed with the Third Estate and it was ugly.”
Nigel Parsons was speaking at an INSEAD Knowledge-sponsored event in Singapore organised by the Foreign Correspondents’ Association.