Middle East: Al Jazeera goes global

Al Jazeera plans to set up an international news channel to rival established players such as the BBC and CNN. But will its "bad boy of broadcasting" image deter advertisers?

To the Arab world, Al Jazeera is the voice of the ordinary people and the first Arabic-language broadcaster unafraid to speak its mind.

To the West, it is Osama Bin Laden's favoured conduit to international audiences and the only broadcaster that the US allegedly considered bombing during the invasion of Iraq.

So, as the ever-provocative Al Jazeera TV network reaches its deadline this spring to launch an international channel in English, competing with the BBC and CNN in Europe and the US, it is no wonder that its bold plans have attracted much attention all over the world.

Al Jazeera International is based in Qatar, in Doha, and positions itself as "a fresh approach to news coverage" and "revolutionising viewer choice across the globe".

The channel will be funded by the Amir of Qatar (who backs the main TV network) for the first two years of its existence. That short period will provide an opportunity for the international channel to develop a viable revenue model based on advertising.

But will a brand with Al Jazeera's "bad boy of broadcasting" image - as the channel's British managing director, Nigel Parsons, describes it - be able to attract international advertising dollars? The broadcaster's coverage of local and world events has already led to an advertising boycott from Saudi Arabian brands.

Parsons believes the new, international channel will be able to use its reputation to its advantage. "We aim to reach 40 million homes through cable and satellite on launch," he says, adding that he expects to generate audiences in the English-speaking Muslim communities of South-East Asia, Asia and Africa through a natural empathy between the channel and this audience.

"In Europe, we will be targeting professionals and decision-makers and we have great feedback from the 20- to 25-year-old age group. Al Jazeera in Europe is seen by young people as being a bit edgy and cool, and we want to tap into that," he says.

Then there is the question of editorial independence. Parsons refutes any allegations that funding from a powerful political figure such as the Amir will compromise editorial independence. "Al Jazeera is one of the most independent organisations I have worked for in a long, long time, with no interference whatsoever," he says, adding: "We're not frightened of controversy or asking questions that others might be wary of."

In the Arab nations, Al Jazeera is among the leading free-to-air stations, with a daily reach of 26 per cent, equal to that of the joint market leader MBC1 and followed closely by Saudi TV, with 24 per cent.

One commentator believes media buyers see Al Jazeera and the rival news channel Al-Arabiya (which has a 23 per cent daily reach) as the most compelling offerings to advertisers in the region. Neither the BBC nor CNN comes close; both reach 14 million households, or 7 per cent each.

Nonetheless, the task ahead of Al Jazeera International is huge. Several commentators say that the obstacles the channel faces should not be underestimated.

BBC World's chief executive and director of the global news division, Richard Sambrook, believes the next thing the channel must do is establish a strong positioning.

"Al Jazeera says different things about its positioning at different times - sometimes it says it is going to be presenting a very Arabic perspective and sometimes it says it will present an international point of view like the BBC. It's vital that it has a clear positioning," Sambrook says. "Its USP is based on offering a non-Western perspective on news. I'm not clear whether it wants to - or could - bring that to an international English-language channel."

Parsons himself is more certain of the channel's direction, saying: "We'll be very similar in style and spirit to the Arabic channel. We already have a well-recognised brand worldwide. Essentially, we'll be setting out our stall by ourselves."

Parsons says that although Al Jazeera will be staffed by a large number of foreign journalists - including a substantial contingent of British and American talent such as Sir David Frost, CNN's Riz Khan and the British journalist Rageh Omar - he believes being based in Doha will make a difference to editorial perspectives. He says: "We want Africans to file African stories and Latin Americans to cover stories in Latin America."

Rani Raad, CNN's vice-president of advertising sales in Southern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, says the new channel must be wary of alienating potential advertisers with such an approach. "I would probably lose many, if not all, of my revenues if advertisers felt CNN had a particular perspective.

CNN's success, growth and loyalty from advertisers in the region is down to the fact that they see CNN International as giving every perspective rather than a particular point of view," he says.

Carolyn Gibson, BBC World's vice-president of sales in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the US, points out that Al Jazeera International will have to acquire audience very rapidly if it is to establish an advertising-based business model. And, she adds, the size of any potential audience will depend upon distribution - a major headache given the lack of available cable space; only this month was the BBC able to secure a US distribution deal, despite many years of trying.

Gibson also points out that the brand's associations may deter advertisers: "The environment in which brands are placing their advertising will be important. Al Jazeera is seeking to launch a brand extension but there may be an impact from the mother brand, which is established on controversy, and advertisers may wonder whether this is appropriate."

Girish Ahuja, Mediaedge Dubai's strategic planning director, agrees this is a risk and says attitudes to Al Jazeera in both Arab countries and the West tend to be polarised.

"While it was initially lauded as an Arab channel with a free voice, the Western perception of Al Jazeera has changed in light of 9/11 and the controversial Iraq footage that it aired repeatedly. While Al Jazeera would like its editorial style to be viewed as objective and alternative, it tends to be perceived as provocative," Ahuja says.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, audiences and advertisers should welcome a newcomer to the international TV scene, which has long been dominated by the same Western players.