World: Medium of the week - Al-Jazeera to go global and broadcast in English

The Arabic news network is looking to change Western perceptions. If you're an advertiser looking to reach a global English-speaking audience, the Arabic news network Al-Jazeera is unlikely to be your first-choice medium.

Set up by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, in 1996, the broadcaster gained the world's attention shortly after the 11 September terrorist attacks on the US, when it aired video messages from the chief suspect, Osama Bin Laden. Frequently criticised by the Bush administration, the network represents the type of controversy global brands like to avoid.

Now Al-Jazeera is planning to launch an English-language service in the second half of next year, with offices in London, Washington, and Doha, Qatar. Although distribution arrangements are still to be finalised, Al-Jazeera is confident it can secure global coverage for its new operation.

The network currently operates an English-language website, which receives up to 13 million page views per month. While he is reluctant to commit to specific viewing targets for the new TV service, the Al-Jazeera director of external programming, Paul Gibbs, says: "We have 35-40 million people watching in Arabic and there are more non-Arabic-speaking Muslims in the world than Arabic-speakers. There's Indonesia, India and Pakistan, which gets you into percentages of a billion."

However, the service won't be aimed solely at English-speaking Muslims.

Nor will it restrict its content to areas of Islamic interest. Its schedule will cover everything from European politics to the Canadian elections.

Despite this breadth of coverage, advertisers may need convincing. "Advertisers try to avoid controversy wherever possible," the Carat media manager, Mark Jarvis, says. "They will find it tough."

Al-Jazeera's challenge will be to improve its image outside the Arab world. While non-Arab audiences continue to associate the broadcaster negatively with Bin Laden, the global advertisers that frequent its rivals CNN and BBC World are unlikely to be interested.

Fortunately, perceptions of Al- Jazeera seem to be slowly changing, as Alastair Campbell's recent tribute in The Guardian testifies.

"Once advertisers see the product, they'll realise it's a mature news operation with very strong editorial ethics," Gibbs says.

According to the BBC World regional sales director, EMEA, Carolyn Gibson, international news networks are of most value to advertisers such as Shell and HSBC, which use the media to access the international business community.

"International news and current affairs is the type of programming that will interest a professional business audience," she explains.

However, Al-Jazeera says it doesn't intend to aggressively target business audiences and claims it doesn't share its rivals' obsession with hotel coverage.

This might sound like a dangerous strategy, but with funding from the Emir of Qatar secured, Al-Jazeera can afford to let its English-language service initially run at a loss.

"We're in this for the long term, Gibbs explains. "We're not going to be profitable in year one. The Middle East advertising market is tiny and global news advertising is not easy to attract.

"But if we get the sort of figures that the Arab network is getting then we don't foresee any problems in the medium-to-long term."

Established: 1996 by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa

al-Thani

Viewers: 35-45m illion worldwide

Offices: Washington, Doha and London

Key target markets: Indonesia, Indian subcontinent

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