Roger Yu, USA TODAY
After Mike Viqueira was hired as White House correspondent for Al Jazeera's new American television venture, the former NBC News veteran braced for a barrage of negative reaction on Twitter.
"I expected some comments from people unfamiliar with Al Jazeera," Viqueira says. "Out of 300 comments I had on Twitter, there were maybe two that hinted at that."
"That," of course, refers to the lingering perception that Middle East-based Al Jazeera is anti-U.S. and a mouthpiece for terrorists, sentiments that took hold when it aired numerous Osama bin Laden videos in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and stories that were critical of the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq War. Indeed, for many Americans, the only encounter with the Al Jazeera brand came during those years.
As Al Jazeera America prepares to debut Aug. 20 on cable lineups in 48 million homes, Viqueira and his co-workers are eager to eviscerate that reputation. The new cable entry rests entirely on a bet that there is a good-size audience hungry for the straight down the middle, "serious and in-depth" journalism that its management boldly promises.
"The only thing I will say is watch and see," Viqueira says. "We are going to be about journalism and content."
Al Jazeera America, the latest offshoot of the Al Jazeera media conglomerate funded by the government of oil-rich Qatar, is buying its way into the lucrative U.S. market. After paying about $500 million in January for Current TV, a struggling cable network founded by Al Gore, Al Jazeera is gutting the channel and installing its own brand of news programming. It will be an entirely new network focused on U.S. domestic news and will be run separately from Al Jazeera English, which will be phased out in the U.S.
Now that the launch is barely a week away, the pace has picked up at AJAM. Nearly all 850 employees budgeted for the debut have been hired, including writers and editors for its website: www.aljazeera.com/america. (Several former USA TODAY reporters are among those hired by the network.)
It has opened 12 bureaus across the U.S., with reporters filing stories for rehearsal programs. The bureaus are in Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.
Several former anchors at rival networks - John Seigenthaler from NBC; David Shuster from MSNBC; and Joie Chen, Ali Velshi and Soledad O'Brien from CNN - have joined the roster. In July, former ABC News executive Kate O'Brian was named president, heading the editorial operation that comprises about two-thirds of its total employees.
Its journalistic credo - offering "fact-based, unbiased and in-depth journalism" - will be supported by "heavy investment," according to its interim chief, Ehab Al Shihabi, an Al Jazeera international operations executive who was tapped to oversee the launch. "We're not coming here just to survive. We're coming here to win."
Few expect AJAM - as its employees call it to avoid confusion with Al Jazeera Arabic - to pose an immediate threat to CNN, Fox News or MSNBC. But the network is seen as a buoyancy test for a U.S. cable news market saturated with partisan politics and ratings-driven gambits.
While journalists may be eager to join a news outlet that promises to air in-depth coverage, media analysts wonder how excited American viewers will be about a Middle Eastern-owned news operation with a controversial past and a programming approach that avoids shrill partisan voices. The fact that it's backed by owners who seem to have put profit on the back-burner gives the network's experiment a better shot, company watchers say.
"Al Jazeera enjoys the best economic model you can possibly have," says Philip Seib, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California, who has written books on Al Jazeera. "They have a lot of money. They want to be a global player. They want Qatar to be a global player. And to be a true global journalistic force, you have to reach the U.S."
Al Jazeera's executives aren't running from "the perception issue" or the fact that its unflinching airing of Osama bin Laden's tapes is just a few clicks away on YouTube.
Al Shihabi says lingering audience hostility toward the channel will fade as viewers become familiar with its format and focus. "Do we have competitors or those who want to attack us from different angles? Of course," he says. But, he adds, pointing to its American management and staff, "It is an American channel for the American audience."
While it'll be a fledgling upstart in the U.S., Al Jazeera's singular influence in the Middle East has been proved through the region's cycle of political upheavals and crisis. "No one could compete" with its coverage of the Gaza War in late 2008, says Shibley Telhami, a Brookings Institution analyst and a professor at the University of Maryland who has studied the organization. "When you have almost unlimited resources, you can cover it pretty darn well."
Its aggressive and pervasive coverage of the Arab Spring -- a wave of revolutions and demonstrations that began late 2010 in the region -- was also seen as contributing to the insurgent uprisings in neighboring countries.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera English, which was launched in 2006, broadened its reach to non-Arabic speaking Muslims in Europe, Asia and Africa. Streaming its networks through the Internet helped gain followers without access to cable or satellite subscriptions.
It also expanded into the Balkans in 2011 with a new channel. Al Jazeera Turk in Turkey is in the works.
Its entry into the U.S. comes at a precarious time in the cable industry, which is grappling with massive changes in technology and viewer behavior. Beset by stiff competition, dwindling advertising budgets and an accelerating pace of "cord-cutting" viewers ditching cable, the cable news business has been struggling to hold onto viewers. Many of them are going to streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu, and some are getting around costly cable fees by using cheap antennas for over-the-air signals.
CNN's ratings hit 20-year lows for a stretch of several months last year, according to Nielsen. In the second quarter of this year, the network's total viewership rebounded -- up 49% from a year ago -- partly due to a low-base of comparison, data from Nielsen show. With 477,000 viewers, it still trails Fox News (1.2 million) by a wide margin. Meanwhile, MSNBC's ratings fell 9% from a year ago to 362,000 viewers.
The sluggish ratings reflect the overall uncertainty in the pay-TV business. Cable and satellite TV providers lost about 210,000 customers in the second quarter of 2013, according to the International Strategy and Investment Group. Pay-TV penetration, which peaked from 2006 to 2009 at about 82% of U.S. homes, will likely fall to 79% in 2014, estimates PricewaterhouseCoopers.
The lone bright spot is sports. ESPN still gets the highest rate of license fees from pay-TV providers. Hoping to eat into ESPN's share, FOX will launch its own 24-hour national sports channel -- Fox Sports 1 -- on Aug. 17.
'STATION AMERICANS LOVE TO HATE'
AJAM may not have launched at all had Al Jazeera English been even mildly successful in the USA. Facing commercial and political hurdles, the network never found much of a cable-satellite audience beyond New York, Washington, D.C., and a few other smaller markets.
"There was an aversion in the marketplace, especially among (cable and satellite) distributors," Telhami says. "It's the TV station Americans love to hate."
While Al Jazeera Arabic has been been criticized as anti-Western and anti-Semitic, its cousin Al Jazeera English has exhibited a more moderate tone. And if Al Jazeera America hopes to succeed with an American audience, mimicking Al Jazeera Arabic would seem to be a swift path toward self-defeat.
Al Jazeera's reputation "still carries over from those days," says Mohammed el-Nawawy, a communications professor at Queens University of Charlotte who has written about Al Jazeera's impact. "That has led to many cable operators to refrain from carrying Al Jazeera English."
Al Jazeera English's reach plateaued at about 4.7 million households at the end of 2012, and it received only 4 cents per subscriber per month for its content from pay-TV providers, estimates Derek Blaine, a cable industry analyst at SNL Kagan. "People mostly watched online," says Stan Collender, an AJAM spokesman.
By assuming Current TV's contracts, AJAM enjoys more favorable conditions - at least for now. Tapping Gore's influence, Current TV expanded distribution to about 60 million households and received about 11 cents per subscriber from cable companies, Blaine says. By comparison, CNN is shown in about 100 million homes and gets about 60 cents per subscriber.
At its launch, AJAM will reach fewer homes, as Time Warner Cable dropped the channel shortly after Current TV unloaded it. Maureen Huff, a TWC spokeswoman, says while the company ended its contract with Current TV when the channel changed hands, it's in "active discussions" with Al Jazeera America about a new agreement.
AJAM will have more time to prove its worth with the still-under-contract pay-TV providers - Comcast, Verizon FiOS, AT&T U-Verse, DirecTV and Dish Network - that will deliver the channel to about 48 million homes.
Curiosity will initially drive some viewers to the network, el-Nawawy says. Enticing them to stick around with "a hard-news, serious approach" will be its biggest challenge, he says.
Ratings will be a secondary concern for its Qatari backers, who have shown patience and seem to care more about prestige and influence than the bottom line, el-Nawawy says. "The U.S. market has been the biggest challenge for Al Jazeera. There's national pride at stake here. And the emir (of Qatar) is taking this very seriously."
Of course, the very notion of a news outlet being owned by the government is anathema in the United States. Insiders at the National, an English-language Persian Gulf newspaper owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, say self-censorship abounds to avoid antagonizing the powers that be.
Telhami of Brookings sees a long-game strategy from the Qatari government. It's more interested in boosting market share than having a pro-government tool, he says.
"They understood that, in order to get a market share, you have to understand the market and cater to them," he says. "They know that, to succeed in America, they have to understand the American market."
COMMITMENT TO RESOURCES
Although AJAM has yet to reveal its complete prime-time lineup, it has announced several highlights:
•America Tonight, the flagship show hosted by Chen, is a live "news magazine" that will mix news and features, deputy launch director Paul Eedle says.
Its topics will include both the day's top news and "uncovered stories" on subjects such as feeding free-meal-eligible children during summer vacation, he says.
A recent rehearsal centered on the implications of the case of Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army soldier who was convicted of leaking classified national defense information to WikiLeaks. "It'll be an in-depth show," Eedle says. "There is no slavish format."
•Consider This, moderated by former ABC News anchor Antonio Mora, is a talk show that "involves people across the country," not necessarily just newsmakers, Eedle says.
•The Stream, hosted by Lisa Fletcher and currently aired on Al Jazeera English, will be tweaked and relaunched on AJAM for an American audience. It relies heavily on Twitter comments and viewer videos to steer the conversation.
"I don't think they're going to get into trashy shouting matches," Seib says. "People have enough of that. I think they're going to try to be innovative."
AJAM's staffers recently discussed how they would have covered the verdict in the case of Ariel Castro, a Cleveland man who was found guilty of kidnapping, raping and imprisoning three women for more than a decade.
"Our answer isn't to sit on live feed, but to find a compelling, interesting case and dig deeper," Eedle says. "What we'd be interested in is following up on the victims' experience. Looking at longer term. There have been other women who've been imprisoned. Can people recover? (We'd look into) sex trafficking and power between men and women."
Such journalism isn't cheap, and Al Jazeera America isn't revealing its news budget. But Al-Shihabi suggests the resources will be there, striking a note of insouciance about profits that would hearten many a newsroom. "We need to make a profit. But if there's a trade-off between our journalistic identity standards and maximizing our profit, we'll maintain our journalistic identity and reduce our profit."
The pitch worked in recruiting Velshi, a former CNN correspondent who will have his own business show.
"Telling the real people story is expensive," he says. "I now have the real estate and resources to tell that story."