Having had little luck getting picked up by U.S. cable and satellite providers, Al Jazeera English is taking its appeal to consumers via a grass roots marketing campaign that attempts to dispel long-held attitudes about the network.
On Tuesday, Al Jazeera English launched a Website that bluntly addresses popular perceptions about the English language off-shoot of Al Jazeera, the most-watched news network in the Middle East.
The site, IWantAJE.net, lets consumers send electronic letters directly to their cable or satellite provider demanding the channel. It also includes a “Speak Out” forum and a “Hits & Myths” page debunking popular assertions, such as: “Al Jazeera Supports Terrorism”; “Al Jazeera is Anti-Semitic”; “Al Jazeera is Anti-American”; and “Al Jazeera Shows Beheadings.”
AJE is available in 130 million households internationally but is only carried in the U.S. in Burlington, Vt., Toledo, Ohio, and Washington D.C.; executives have been negotiating with U.S. providers since the channel launched in November 2006. Tony Burman, managing director of Al Jazeera English, declined to offer specifics about negotiations here, but he said the network is “confident of a breakthrough in the U.S. with a major cable carrier.”
The web site launch will be followed next week by a significant advertising initiative targeting national publications and web sites. The new campaign will be similar to a recent effort that featured ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Foreign Policy and on their web sites and was tied to the network's Gaza coverage.
Al Jazeera English is also on the cusp of a carriage deal in Canada, which could put the network on the air there as early as this fall. Any network wishing to be broadcast in Canada must be sponsored by an existing network in order to gain the approval of Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). The Toronto-based Ethnic Channels Group, which operates 12 channels across Canada, sponsored Al Jazeera English. The CRTC is currently studying the application after which there will be a 30-day public comment period.
“I think we’re hoping, and actually expecting, that there will be a bit of a bandwagon effect,” says Burman, adding that the network is hoping to capitalize on the change in tone on international issues ushered in by the election of Barack Obama.
“The Bush era is over. President Obama wants a new deal between America and the rest of the world,” he says. “I think for Americans to really assess that, they need to look beyond their borders. Our hope is that Al Jazeera English will fill that vacuum.”
Indeed, AJE filled a news vacuum during the recent war in Gaza, when Israel’s decision to ban foreign journalists from the region arguably gave Al Jazeera English a priceless amount of exposure. As the only English language news organization with a presence in Gaza, its reports and video were widely seen on television sets in the U.S. and Canada. PBS’ World Focus aired full segments. And other networks, including NBC News and the CBC, aired video from Al Jazeera English.
Traffic on the network’s Website – which records about 22 million visits per month, according to the network – spiked by 600% during the war in Gaza. More than half of that traffic came from North America, where the network can be seen on its YouTube channel and via www.livestation.com/aje.
And with Western news organizations facing painful budget cuts to their foreign bureaus, the need for news from abroad has only served to further the network’s cause. Including the original Arabic language service, Al Jazeera operates 69 bureaus internationally. That’s more than the BBC or CNN. (See related story: ANALYSIS: Lack of Foreign Resources Plagued U.S. Mumbai Coverage)
“The interest in international news is increasing ironically at the same time that other organizations are cutting back,” says Burman. “At the end of the day, we may be the only ones standing.”
And Burman hopes that selling proposition can neutralize any misperceptions about Al Jazeera’s agenda.
“Cable companies and satellite carriers are commercially driven,” he says. “They see this as a market opportunity. If anything, the attention directed toward AJE has really indicated that if they put this channel on their system that people will watch it. And that’s really the name of the game for these people.”