Could Al Jazeera America Be the Next CNN?


Al Jazeera America will come online on August 20, and have an opportunity to not only drive public conversation in the United States, but revitalize and de-commercialize America’s 24-hour cable news cycle. 

Until recently, Al Jazeera America’s internal structure was a mystery protected by executives and lawyers who were still navigating the acquisition of Current TV and ironing out the details of distribution. Thanks to the recruitment of former CNN heavyweights Soledad O’Brien and Ali Velshi, as well as other respected newspeople operating in front and behind the cameras, distribution deals with most national cable operators, and a revealing profile of the company in New York magazine, we now have a clearer picture of what Al Jazeera America will bring to the table, and to America’s living rooms, starting next month.

Once it airs, Al Jazeera America’s main challenge, en route to public acceptance and commercial success, will be distancing itself from its flagship sister network, Qatar’s Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera's general headquarters in Doha has been contending with international accusations of bias and corruption, political turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa, and the lingering international financial crisis governing the world markets. The network is seen as Qatar’s foreign policy mouthpiece, a classification that could make it difficult for Al Jazeera America to be taken seriously as an objective informant that's responsibly covering all news, foreign and domestic. 

On the positive side, Al Jazeera America will benefit from both its close ties to the Middle East and its global network, as it will be able to deliver news updates in real-time overnight, when other cable channels are running taped programs and mobilizing foreign correspondents. On the flip side, the news network is receiving criticism from analysts and reporters who are uncertain about its ability to run only American-produced content. Al Jazeera America will have to combat a looming identity crisis and define its role in the public discourse.

Although Al Jazeera America will, inherently, offer a unique brand of cable news, it stands to benefit from following the model of BBC Worldwide or CNN International, by providing American viewers with a 24-hour window into international affairs, as well as a unique perspective on domestic issues. It appears that Al Jazeera America's executives are already setting a tone for the network, enlisting Soledad O’Brien’s new production company to deliver world-class documentary specials, and establishing an evolving roster of programs that are primed to supply decipherable and topical information to viewers. Many executives see Al Jazeera America’s potential to provide American viewers with a different take on the same news as the network’s source of future success.

Al Jazeera America is a network funded by the Arabian Gulf country of Qatar, running on Al Gore’s old Current TV production hardware, and recruiting some of the industry’s best broadcast journalists. The network is poised for success, especially given existing cable news networks’ diminished reputation in the United States, but the stigma of foreign ownership and the challenge of breaking cable news whether or not it elevates ratings, stand in the way of Al Jazeera America's smooth rise to acceptance.