Al Jazeera: Coming to a TV near you

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aljazeera_networkSeven years after it arrived in the U.S., Al Jazeera is putting up its sign.

As it launches a major expansion to become a full-fledged cable news channel in the U.S., the Qatar-owned network believes animosity toward its sister Arabic-language news operation has waned. Or at least it has dissipated enough to allow Al Jazeera to splash its name across its new Washington broadcast center, which is currently housed in a dingy, unmarked office building.

“Imagine six or seven years ago, trying to find real estate for Al Jazeera in Washington. I’m sure it wasn’t easy,” says Bob Wheelock, a former ABC executive in charge of setting up Al Jazeera America, as the network will be called. But now “we’re going to have signage, you know, just like CBS, ABC, CNN, CBN, just like everybody else,” he says. “We’re psyched.”

With the $500 million purchase of Current TV from former vice president Al Gore and other investors last year, Al Jazeera bought a place on cable boxes in 41 million homes. Now the network plans to grow from a news operation of 13 people to 200 people in cities across the country.

Because the network is owned by the Qatari government, it has deep pockets. It also has a name with painful baggage for U.S. viewers, thanks to its Arabic-language corporate sibling. And its forte, international news, has historically been a tough sell to American viewers.

“We hope to bring international news and more in-depth storytelling for the viewers,” Wheelock says. “There’s an appetite for news from elsewhere and for the documentaries we do and the type of coverage we do.”

Wheelock says the channel will continue to have a strong international focus: 60% of its coverage will come from its U.S. and Latin American bureaus and the rest from Al Jazeera’s networks overseas. “It’s what we’ve become known for, and we have the assets to do it.”

Al Jazeera English launched in 2006, and until now, viewers could find the network on just a few cable systems or online.

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the Al Jazeera Arabic-language network aired videos from Osama bin Laden, U.S. officials accused it of promoting terrorism.

Time has mellowed the hostility somewhat. Al Jazeera English’s coverage of Arab Spring political upheavals brought it an appreciative audience in Washington — including then-secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Confusion with Al Jazeera Arabic remains — as do suggestions that the network goes easy on Saudi Arabia and hard on Israel.

“They’re straight shooters as much as any major news outlet today. There is no unbiased news today,” says Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations. “The bias is in the selection of what stories you cover and how you cover them. Al Jazeera will bring its own bias, but it’s no more or no less than what we’re used to already in this country.”

Coleman says she watches Al Jazeera for its international news. “If you want to know what’s going on in Mali, it’s going to be Al Jazeera that’s covering it. We just don’t have any more foreign correspondents on the ground in (U.S.) television the way Al Jazeera does.”

“The stigma that a previous administration painted the channel with is dissipating greatly. If you watch us, you’ll like us,” Wheelock says. Al Jazeera English and the Arabic-language network are “two very distinct editorial channels. One caters to an audience in the Middle East, and one caters to an audience that is global,” he says. “Most of the detractors, the people who have negative ideas or thoughts, have never seen the programming.”

The network is building a broadcast center in Washington, enlarging its space at the United Nations in New York — “We cover the U.N. like most people cover local weather,” Wheelock says — and planning for bureaus in Detroit, New Orleans, San Francisco and five other cities.

Launching any new cable network is difficult: It requires getting cable systems such as Time Warner or Comcast to carry the network, then attracting both audiences and advertisers.

“You can fail at any one of those, and you have to succeed at all three,” says Larry Gerbrandt of the consulting firm Media Valuation Partners. Time Warner, a large cable system, carried Current but has said it might drop Al Jazeera America.

“We will never be the most-watched news channel in America, but we think there’s an audience that’s interested, is not afraid of information, is seeking more,” Wheelock says.