By CLAIRE ATKINSON
Last Updated: 5:21 AM, August 19, 2013
Posted: 10:33 PM, August 18, 2013
When Al Jazeera America hits the air tomorrow, it will come with a big budget, a global network of 1,000 journalists and a mission to compete with entrenched rivals like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
What it won’t have? Advertisers.
The network launches with just six minutes of commercial time an hour — less than half the typical ad load of a cable news channel. Most of those will be in-house promos and local ad spots as national advertisers shun the controversial network.
The Mideast news outlet, funded by the government of Qatar, is gunning for an American audience despite a deep distrust in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq war.
While Al Jazeera is spinning the lack of ads as a positive for viewers, behind the scenes it is having a tough time persuading Madison Avenue to buy airtime on a network perceived as anti-American.
“I wouldn’t give them a dime, especially since we are in New York,” said one advertiser, who asked not to be named.
“They’re owned by an Arab country and they ran the [Osama] bin Laden tapes. I just wouldn’t trust them,” he said, referring to Al Jazeera’s role in gaining access to the late al Qaeda leader.
A major ad agency buyer who was pitched on the channel was even more blunt: “Not touching that one.”
“[Advertisers] have been especially interested in our decision to limit the number of commercial minutes each hour and how our commitment to fact-based, unbiased and in-depth reporting appeals to the same audience they are trying to reach,” an Al Jazeera spokesperson said.
By all appearances, Al Jazeera America isn’t having much better luck online. Its website, which is still in “beta” test mode, is devoid of ads so far, although the network said it will have launch sponsors.
CEO Ehab Al Shihabi acknowledged last week surveys showed 75 percent of Americans hadn’t seen any Al Jazeera coverage but still had a negative view of it, though he added that sentiment often softened once people viewed it.
Al Jazeera America has started running ads in The New Yorker and major US media publications asking audiences to give it a chance and promising that its global perspective will “change the way you look at news.”
While the network — based in the building that houses the New Yorker Hotel on 34th Street and 8th Avenue — may be unfamiliar, its line-up of prime time hosts certainly isn’t.
Ex-NBC News anchor John Seigenthaler will host its nightly newscast at 8 p.m. It will be followed by a magazine-style show hosted by CNN vet Joie Chen. Another former CNN face, Soledad O’Brien, is on board.
Former CNN business journalist Ali Velshi will host a 7 p.m. show called “Real Money.”
Al Jazeera America will launch in only about 50 million homes, or about half the country’s pay-TV households. It won’t be carried by Time Warner Cable or Cablevision, although Verizon FiOS offers it in the tri-state area.
It was able to gain that footprint only by forking over a lofty $500 million to buy Current TV, Al Gore’s struggling news network, and taking over its existing distribution deals.
“It’s hard to sell it to an American buyer,” said one ad agency buyer. “There’s so much backlash. I’d never advise anyone to buy it. It’s a much easier way to get that audience with less risk.”