What happens when you spend hundreds of millions of dollars to mold American public opinion about the Middle East, but no one pays attention? The region's premier media outlet is finding out the answer the hard way.
Last summer, with great fanfare, Qatar's Al-Jazeera — which for nearly two decades has served as the Arab world's most high profile broadcaster — kicked off a landmark expansion of its global presence when it launched Al-Jazeera America, or AJAM, a flashy new U.S.-based offshoot. True, the Doha-based television channel has long had at least some presence in the U.S., with studios and offices on Washington's K Street for its Al-Jazeera English component since the latter's launch in 2006. AJAM, however, marked the broadcaster's first serious, sustained foray into the coveted American media market.
But what was supposed to be Al-Jazeera's star turn has turned into a public relations disaster. Media trade newsletter Advertising Age reports that, six months into its launch, Al-Jazeera's much-ballyhooed U.S. outlet averages just 15,000 viewers nightly in prime time, with only 5,000 of them in the coveted 25-54 year-old demographic. That's less than half the total audience share pulled in by AJAM's predecessor, Current TV, before the ill-fated liberal media venture — the brainchild of former Vice President Al Gore — was sold to the Qatari channel for a reported $500 million in early 2013. And it comes despite the acquisition of high-profile (and doubtless pricey) media talent in the form of former CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien and former CBS White House correspondent Joie Chen.
Americans, in other words, are simply not tuning in. Blame Al-Jazeera's controversial reputation as a mouthpiece for radical Islamic causes (al-Qaida, for one, has long used the channel as a mouthpieces of choice to promote its jihadist message). Indeed, despite its efforts to style itself as the "Arab CNN," the channel can hardly be called an old-school, traditional broadcaster; rather, in tandem with legitimate hard-hitting journalism, Al-Jazeera also boasts deep, documented connections to both Islamic radicalism and anti-American sentiment.
Or perhaps it is simply that the market dominance of more mainstream news outlets like the Fox News Channel and MSNBC has proven more difficult to dislodge than originally envisioned. Whatever the cause, it's fair to say that, at six months old, AJAM is still only a marginal figure on the American news scene.
For now. The Advertising Age story notes that big-name advertisers are slowly beginning to contemplate the new channel — although few have bought in in earnest so far. But if there's one thing that Al-Jazeera and its benefactor, Qatar's ruling al-Thani family, have, it's deep pockets. (The country's former emir, Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani, is estimated to have a personal fortune in excess of $4 billion). In other words, AJAM doesn't operate under the same performance-based rules of the media market as its commercial counterparts. Which means that, with corporate advertising or without, AJAM will stay in business for as long as Qatar sees value in shaping what America thinks about the Middle East.
At a time when the Obama administration is actively pursuing a "more modest" and limited Middle East policy, and as a result actively disengaging from regional affairs, that's a thought worth pondering.