Programming

Al Jazeera America CEO and President Say Net is On Course

Al Shihabi and O’Brian see long runway ahead for fledgling network 5/20/2014 12:41:00 PM Eastern

In a rare public appearance following the August 2013 launch of Al Jazeera America, the network’s CEO and president affirmed its strategy during a Paley Center breakfast panel Tuesday, asserting its name would eventually be accepted by U.S. viewers just like “Yahoo and Google and names that sounded silly when they started.”

CEO Ehab Al Shihabi (pictured left) and 30-year ABC News veteran Kate O’Brian (pictured right) said the network continues to make strides, with Al Shihabi shrugging off layoffs last month as “realignment.” Moderator and Paley president/CEO Pat Mitchell noted the net received two Peabody Awards on Monday.

Even so, at 55 million U.S. homes, the network lacks scale comparable to all-news peers like CNN and Fox News, though O’Brian said she doesn’t consider the all-news nets true competitors. “We don’t do pundits, we don’t do yak-yak-yak,” she said. Mitchell noted the network had minimal coverage of the lost Malaysian jet, a story CNN feasted on for weeks, to the dismay of critics but to viewers’ apparent satisfaction.

One potential hurdle to Al Jazeera America’s growth is its name, which for some too closely links it to the media conglomerate controlled by the government of Qatar. Al Shihabi asserted the company is “very proud of the name. It has a brand value.” Masking the affiliation with parent Al Jazeera Media with another name could confuse viewers and the marketplace. And given “the strong firewall between the funding and editorial,” he said there was no point trying to start a new brand from scratch.

O’Brian, who joined Al Jazeera America almost a year ago, believes the name associations are “a generational thing” that will eventually fade. “There will come a time when it will turn over and people will get used to the name,” she said. “We all got used to Yahoo and Google and names that sounded silly when they started. People get used to the quality associated with the name and then they’ll just focus on what the channel does.”

When the network set up shop in late 2012/early 2013, it received some 26,000 resumes for 800-plus positions spread across 12 U.S. news bureaus, O’Brian said. That burst of hiring slowed and then reversed slightly this spring, when dozens of employees were laid off and the sports unit disbanded. “When you start up, you need more capacity,” Al Shihabi said. “I call it realignment.… It wasn’t a shocking exercise.”

Pressed a bit by Mitchell to rationalize the cutbacks given the company’s stated plans to make a sizable initial investment in the U.S., he said the financial commitment to Al Jazeera America, in the context of the immense riches of Qatar, “wasn’t that massive. It was really tiny. The whole concept is to build on the asset of Al Jazeera.”

Editorially, O’Brian said, the restructuring was not a sign of lowered ambitions. “There’s no news organization that wouldn’t want more. But if you look at what we’re covering, we’re doing things in ways that other news organizations can’t do.… Yes, we don’t have an unlimited budget, but we certainly are doing quality programming and that has been the goal from the beginning.”

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