Al-Jazeera Arrives

by Brendan James

Nikki Usher wonders whether Al-Jazeera America — which debuts today — will be “must-watch-TV or not watched at all”:

AJAM’s promise boils down to more hard news: 14 hours of daily live news, news updates at the top of every hour, documentaries, investigative reports, eight to twelve-minute news pieces, and fewer commercials. But is this what Americans want? Some defenses of AJAM forget that PBS (and the BBC) already exists and is not thrillingly popular among American TV households. NPR has its own oligopoly on serious radio news. If this new channel is basically Al Jazeera English tailored for the PBS/NPR audience, we can expect a left wing approach on foreign affairs, where the U.S. Syrian rebels are activists and the Arab Spring is an unalloyed good.

What makes AJAM truly odd and unpredictable, though, is that nobody knows what its metrics of success will be, because its success is not riding on market viability. It’s riding on Qatar’s approval. The financial well for coverage of uncovered issues, the money to hire talent, the desire to keep open bureaus – all of this depends on the good will of a benefactor whose intentions are still inchoate.

Despite the expected hyperbole regarding the network’s foreign owners, Jeff Jarvis worries the network won’t stand out enough:

Here’s what concerns me about Al Jazeera America: They hired people straight out of traditional TV news; they tried hard not to hire foreigners. But what I was hoping for was a new form with new perspectives. Instead, on On the Media, the producer of the evening news, Kim Bondy, said: “It has some of the sensibility of CBS Sunday Morning. It should also look a little bit probably like Rock Center. And we’re stealing a couple of pages out of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” NO! This is your chance to reinvent TV news, not copy it! I’d rather they listed lots of shows and then said, “Ours will look and sound nothing like them!”

Meanwhile, Debra Kamin profiles Israel’s first international channel, i24news, which is looking to push back against AJ in English, French and Arabic:

It’s a mix that, by leaving out Hebrew, immediately signals i24’s ambition to speak to viewers beyond Israel’s borders. While English and French were obvious choices, the network’s founders say the decision to broadcast in Arabic was taken consciously to build an audience in parts of the world most hostile to Israel. “People will watch us because they hate us, and they will watch us through curiosity,” said Frank Melloul, the network’s Swiss-born 39-year-old CEO, who says he believes he can eventually compete with CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera for viewers. “They will see how we cover the 70 percent of international news, and if they can trust that, then they will also trust how we cover Israeli news.”