Marash To Anchor Al Jazeera

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Al Jazeera International, the 24-hour English-language global-news network gearing up for a late-spring launch, settled industry rumors Jan. 12 when it named ex-Nightline correspondent Dave Marash as the news anchor at its Washington broadcast center.

Although they have still not yet determined just how much U.S. carriage they will get by launch, Al Jazeera expects to reach 30-40 million homes worldwide initially, including 8 million homes under a deal already signed with BSkyB in the U.K.

Marash, who covered international and domestic news for Nightline beginning in 1989, will be the senior anchor for the network’s U.S. headquarters in Washington, leading the five-hour block broadcast from the U.S. each day.

Marash joins Bureau Chief Will Stebbins, hired last year from Associated Press Television News, at the center, one of four the network will operate around the world. Forty staffers have been hired for the D.C. center, which will ultimately have 90.

The New York press has been speculating for several months that Marash would join the network. AJI also confirmed to the U.S. press that former Tribune magazine editor Mark Seddon will become the network’s UN correspondent.

AJI is funded by the Emir of Qatar, who launched the Arab-language Al Jazeera in 1996, and it will provide an objective, impartial worldwide perspective on news without political bias from any government agency, says its Commercial Director Lindsey Oliver, who joined the network last year after nine years at CNBC Europe.

The network will air via a single feed, following each news day around the world by broadcasting nearly five-hour chunks in English from each of its broadcast centers in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington. Viewers from around the world will all see the same content at the same time. The centers will be connected via a two-way fiber, which makes coordinating production easier.

“This is an attempt to decentralize the news,” Oliver said yesterday. “We really want to get this global-world-village feel of news.”

Oliver has spent the last six months crisscrossing the country, often with staffers already hired by the network in tow, to campaign for carriage on U.S. cable and satellite systems, as well as other platforms such as IPTV and cellphone video services like Verizon’s VCast.

Hoping to reach a core audience of young viewers and “middle-aged business people who are educated and news-savvy,” Oliver said the network will cobble together carriage on as many of these platforms as possible to get the widest distribution by launch.

Reception has been decidedly warmer in other areas of the world, particularly France, Germany, Scandinavia and the U.K., but Oliver said talks have been moving along in the U.S. She reports having had several second-round meetings with U.S. cable operators after allying near universal fears they have had that the network could be linked to a terrorist organization.

Earlier this week, one cable operator offered the network a carriage agreement, but Oliver has not yet accepted it, as the deal would put AJI on an Arabic tier, which could be “misleading,” she says, as the network programs in English. The original Arabic-language Al Jazeera is available in the U.S. via EchoStar’s Dish Network and several U.S. news organizations use its often controversial footage of the Middle East on their broadcasts.

“In the states, there’s always a skepticism,” she says. “We’re a credible news organization full of individuals with experience and journalistic integrity.”

Although the network has hired advertising agency TBWA to craft its consumer-marketing campaign, those plans are taking a backseat to getting distribution. AJI will not have a booth at this year’s National Show to help earn carriage, although Oliver plans to sit on panels at various other industry conferences.

Oliver acknowledged it could be a long time before U.S. consumer-products companies want to advertise on the network but said she has gotten advertising offers from international travel companies, such as airlines and couriers, who are interested in the fact that everyone around the world will see their ads at the same time.

AJI does not plan to release its programming schedule to the press for several months, but expects to devote the first half hour of each hour to hard-news reporting and the second to documentaries or talk shows. It has begun commissioning documentaries from outside filmmakers for those segments.