Review: Al Jazeera America has substance but may need spice
Published: August 21, 2013 12:46PM
Updated: August 21, 2013 12:47PM
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This undated publicity image released by Al-Jazeera America shows news anchor John Seigenthaler. Seigenthaler will host Al-Jazeera America’s central nightly newscast when the network goes on the air next Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013. Al-Jazeera has announced the hiring of several U.S. television veterans for its new network, but until Wednesday, Aug. 14, had said little about what its schedule would look like. Seigenthaler’s hour-long show will air at 8 p.m. EST. It will be followed by a magazine-style show, “America Tonight,” anchored by Joie Chen. (AP Photo/Al-Jazeera America)

In the first few hours of its debut broadcast Tuesday, the new Al Jazeera America news channel proved itself to be what you might expect in a new mainstream news channel. It was accurate, responsible and technically polished.

The question is: Is that enough?

The odds against the channel attracting a healthy audience are so formidable — more than half of American cable and satellite homes don’t even receive it — that Al Jazeera America (AJA) might need more than the just-the-facts-ma’am reporting that it aired in its debut. Despite its laudable goal of avoiding the polarizing aspects of cable news, AJA might be testing the proposition that the straight-up presentation of the news — sans some of the smoke and sizzle — can succeed in a crowded media landscape.

It’s also testing whether Americans will embrace anything called Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera America is the fully Americanized version of Al Jazeera English (AJE), the English-language version of Al Jazeera — the pan-Arabic satellite channel that revolutionized news reporting in the Middle East starting in 1996.

AJE launched in 2006 and was an immediate and lasting flop in the United States. Cable operators across the country declined to add it to their channel lineups.

So Al Jazeera’s owner, the royal emir of the oil-rich Persian Gulf state of Qatar, decided to crash the lucrative American market the old-fashioned way: He bought his way in. In January, Al Jazeera paid $500 million for Current TV, the little-viewed network part-owned by Al Gore. Al Jazeera didn’t want Current so much as it wanted Current’s contracts with cable companies, which ensure that it is delivered to about 45 million American homes. (On the eve of AJA’s launch, cable operator AT&T U-Verse unexpectedly dropped the channel, wiping about 5 million homes off its subscriber ranks and prompting a lawsuit by Al Jazeera.)

Having only partially solved its distribution problem, AJA still faces what might be called a perception issue but should be called a prejudice issue.

Among some Americans, the name Al Jazeera is associated with broadcasts of Osama bin Laden’s videotaped threats against the West, and anti-Americanism generally. More recently, the parent network has been harshly criticized inside and outside the United States for its allegedly biased coverage in support of ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi and his organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.

AJA spent its first hour on the air Tuesday subtly addressing this elephant in its control room. It aired a series of promos featuring its anchors and reporters, but also interviews with everyday Americans attesting that the arrival of AJA was welcome because the American news media wasn’t always so fair, either. Amid clips of MSNBC’s Al Sharpton and Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, the central message was clear: Americans were being denied the news they deserve. “It’s a business,” one man says of AJA. “They’re entitled to set up a business.”

Some of the Americans featured in those promos weren’t so ordinary: AJA slipped in clips of onetime Republican presidential candidate John McCain and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton praising Al Jazeera. Clinton, for example, said Al Jazeera “gets ratings” because “it’s real news.”

Amid all its hype about “telling stories that haven’t been told before” and “putting the news in viewers’ hands,” AJA also told viewers that it had “created hundreds of jobs” by starting the network and building an elaborate newsroom in Manhattan.

AJA’s initial news broadcast featured a conventional rundown of stories - turmoil in Egypt, gunfire at an elementary school in Georgia, wildfires out West, a feature on the new San Francisco Bay Bridge span. The broadcast featured a number of faces familiar to cable news junkies, such as former CNN anchor Tony Harris and former CNN business host Ali Velshi. Joie Chen, another former CNN anchor, hosts a prime-time show, and David Shuster, late of MSNBC, is a news analyst and reporter.

There was little flash. The lead story - “team coverage” of the Egypt crisis - consisted solely of talking-head reports from White House correspondent Mike Viqueira and Cairo reporter David Jackson, with Harris hopping in for some cross talk.

The other stories also were presented without gimmickry. If anything, AJA was behind the curve. The detention of reporter Glenn Greenwald’s partner by anti-terrorism authorities in London aired more than 24 hours after the news broke; a story on Kodak’s retrenchment missed some breaking news about the company winning court approval for its plan to emerge from bankruptcy protection.

“Inside Story,” a panel-discussion program that followed the inaugural one-hour newscast, featured three academic experts on climate change. They essentially agreed that ocean levels are rising and that major American cities are threatened - thereby producing none of the sparks that usually fly when such topics are discussed on cable TV.

To be sure, the network has a handsome look. Anchors deliver the news in front of a floor-to-ceiling video wall and, at times, they seem to be part of the news photo projected behind them. Names and datelines are rendered in distinctive yellow, black and white lettering.

At the moment, the national cable-news marketplace is bustling, and perhaps bursting. In addition to the four leaders — Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and HLN — there are successful niche and specialty players such as ESPN, CNBC, CSPAN, Bloomberg and the Weather Channel.

In late October, ABC News and Univision will launch Fusion, an English-language news-and-entertainment network aimed at younger Latinos. And that doesn’t count foreign-based news sources that are trying to chip off their own sliver of American mind-share, from the BBC to Russia’s RTV to China’s state-run CCTV.

Al Jazeera America’s slogan promises, “There’s more to it.” If it hopes to stand out in a crowded field, it knows it has to make good on that.