Al-Jazeera America logs 1st anniversary amid low ratings, high awards

NEW YORK — Al-Jazeera America marks its first anniversary on the air next week, and if you haven’t watched much, you’re not alone.

The news network has recorded some startlingly low ratings and recently shown signs of retrenchment with layoffs and by cutting some live newscasts. Al-Jazeera America has also won awards for its work, seen some recent audience growth and its chief executive insists a steady growth plan is on target.

After several unsuccessful years trying to get its English-language network carried widely in the United States, the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera bought and closed Al Gore’s Current TV network last year and set up the U.S.-focused AJAM to replace Al-Jazeera English in the U.S. It is now available in nearly 60 million cable and satellite homes, just over half the U.S. market.

“The quality of the channel is very much what was promised,” said Dave Marash, a former reporter for ABC’s “Nightline” and Al-Jazeera English. “It is serious of purpose, by far the best news channel available to American viewers.”

Al-Jazeera America won Peabody Awards for documentaries on cholera in Haiti and a deadly factory fire in Bangladesh. The network had six first-place finishes in the National Headliner Awards, which honors notable journalism. Two weeks ago, the National Association of Black Journalists honored AJAM for “creative, compelling, character-driven storytelling.”

Aside from award judges, not many people have seen those stories.

So far this year, Al-Jazeera America has averaged 17,000 viewers in prime time, ticking up to 23,000 during the first week of fighting in Gaza. CNN has averaged 453,000 and Fox News Channel 1.87 million in the same period, the Nielsen company said.

Ehab Al Shihabi, AJAM’s chief executive, considers that comparison unfair. The other news networks have been operating much longer, and are available in more homes. Their audiences were small at the start, if they even allowed Nielsen to measure them, he said.

AJAM’s first year should instead be judged on the quality of its journalism and growth in distribution, he said.

“Americans are not yet aware of Al-Jazeera America,” Al Shihabi said. “We are, on a gradual basis, continuing our advertising, continuing our outreach. Awareness and perception will take time.”

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gives the network a chance to showcase strength in international reporting, Al Shihabi said it also covers stories in the U.S. that its rivals don’t. The prime-time newsmagazine “America Tonight” recently traveled to all 50 states for stories — reporting on gang violence in Alaska, a slow-moving project to sculpt the image of Crazy Horse on a South Dakota mountain and a woman in Detroit who makes coats for homeless people. Next month, director Alex Gibney delivers a new documentary on high school students’ lives.

“I do think there’s a market for it,” said Jon Klein, a former CNN U.S. president whose new startup just launched an online channel for Sarah Palin. “But to launch a cable channel in America today is a scary proposition because there is so much clutter in the marketplace. It is as much a marketing proposition as a content proposition.”

He’s not sure Al-Jazeera America has broken through with its message, saying people seem to be more aware of the swashbuckling news organization Vice.

There were rough times for selling hard news, too. Fox and MSNBC are more known for their points of view while CNN, which suffered through some of its worst ratings ever this spring, is beefing up its nonfiction, non-news programming.

Marash believes buying Current was a mistake because Al-Jazeera English was having modest success streaming its channel online. Because of cable deals, live streaming has stopped. People have to search for AJAM on their channel lineups and sometimes can’t even get a high-definition picture, he said. Al Shihabi said he recognizes online’s importance, but that Al-Jazeera is first a television network and TV is still a more lucrative business.

From the start, critics said the name Al-Jazeera — conjuring memories of Bush administration criticism post-Sept. 11 — is a handicap in the U.S. Al-Jazeera is determined not to change it, not wanting to dilute its brand worldwide.

AJAM laid off a few dozen journalists in April, and Al Shihabi recently told the staff that a smaller round of layoffs is coming. Some two and a half hours of live AJAM newscasts have been replaced by simulcasts of Al-Jazeera English programming, and staffers have been told to be mindful of travel expenses. Some wonder if the Qatar parent company’s deep pockets indeed have bottoms, and whether that reflects a lack of confidence in the American network.

“There is no rethinking here,” Al Shihabi said. “I just need you to be aware that I also run a business. I had a budget for my launch, and I have a budget for the operation for years one and two and three.”

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