Al Jazeera Sets August Launch for 'Unbiased' News Network

It's been nearly six months since Al Jazeera bought Current TV for $500 million; the media company has now set the launch of its new network, Al Jazeera America, for the week of Aug. 24.

In preparation, the network had a presence at last week’s Cable Show in Washington, D.C., with a booth on the exhibit floor and branded buses making loops around the convention center to pitch itself to distributors. Ehab Al Shihabi, executive director of international operations for Al Jazeera, who is overseeing the launch, told B&C it was “the opportunity for Al Jazeera America to prove to everybody it is part of the landscape of the American news channels.”

Al Jazeera America also offered a glimpse of some of its initial programming. At launch, key shows will include the flagship nightly broadcast America Tonight, Ali Velshi’s Real Money at 7 p.m., a 60 Minutes-style newsmagazine at 9 p.m., an American version of the Al Jazeera English documentary series Fault Lines, social media-driven talk show The Stream hosted by Lisa Fletcher and the daily half-hour talk show Inside Story.

The network plans to have at least 11 hours of rolling news a day and is also developing lifestyle, entertainment news and sports news programming. Al Jazeera America has hired former Versus executive Neal Scarborough as its senior executive producer for sports and Jessica Taff, formerly of YES Network, as a New York-based sports anchor and reporter.

Al Shihabi said Al Jazeera America will also have a morning show at launch. The program will not look like the Today show, he said, but will feature serious, in-depth news. “We haven’t finalized the detailed format, but I will tell you it’s not going to look like people sitting and talking about kitchens,” he said.

Turning Newsgathering Power to the People

The through-line for all of the network’s programs will be a commitment to fact-based, unbiased, investigative journalism, which Al Shihabi sees as its differentiator in the current American cable news landscape. Al Jazeera America will have 12 bureaus across the country at launch in an effort to shift the newsgathering focus to the people and regularly produce content from overlooked regions, rather than parachute reporters in for major news events. Where other news may elevate the voices of politicians or celebrities, Al Jazeera will look to elevate the consumer voice.

“We’re going to be putting a real emphasis on gathering money stories from people who we cover, not just from politicians and decision-makers and economists and academics,” Velshi said of his business program. “We’ll use all of them. But we’re going to do a more complicated form of journalism than just booking guests and talking about a topic.”

While Al Shihabi acknowledges that having well-known personalities like Velshi is critical for a young network, he’s most concerned with recruiting talent who can carry the identity of the Al Jazeera America brand, which he defines as giving a voice to the voiceless, covering under-covered areas, speaking to the mainstream and most of all, possessing a strong journalism background. “We’re not having bigname [people] without a journalistic identity,” he said.

Searching for a Leader

One key hire—a network president— is still missing, though Al Shihabi says he is “very close” to naming one and will “definitely” have someone in place before the launch. He said he is not concerned with whether the executive has led a network before; rather, Al Shihabi’s key criteria is someone who has leadership, a deep understanding of journalism, reflects the in-depth, unbiased identity of Al Jazeera America, is motivational and is a great public speaker.

Part of that president’s job will be to act as figurehead, reassuring some skeptical American news consumers—and distributors—that a media company backed by the deep pockets of the Qatar government does not have a political agenda. The network will launch in 48 million homes, but not on Time Warner Cable, which dropped the channel when it switched from Current TV last January.

The MSO said at the time it would reevaluate as the network develops whether it makes sense to carry it. Al Shihabi believes the simplest way to change minds is to get people to sample the programming.

“If they watch it, then they will understand it is not reality, it is a perception,” Al Shihabi said, noting he tells people to watch Al Jazeera English in the interim. “They have to expect that Al Jazeera America, it will be a different product covering domestic and international, but it will maintain the same core values.”

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