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Coming Soon to Satellite: Al-Jazeera, In English

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Coming Soon to Satellite: Al-Jazeera, In English

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Coming Soon to Satellite: Al-Jazeera, In English

Coming Soon to Satellite: Al-Jazeera, In English

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/4782139/4782140" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The Arab satellite news channel — known to many Americans as the station that airs statements of Osama bin Laden — will soon launch an English-language network. Al-Jazeera executives are hoping that Americans will tune in, out of curiosity if nothing else. However, the network has obstacles to overcome, including its image in the United States.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The Arab television network Al-Jazeera has been accused of promoting an anti-Western ideology. Al-Jazeera broadcasts in Arabic, of course. But the network that has outraged so many Americans will soon be speaking to us in our own language. Al-Jazeera is preparing to launch an English-language channel. NPR's Eric Weiner reports.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

You would think that Al-Jazeera might have trouble recruiting American journalists for its new English-language network. After all, how many reporters are clamoring to work for a network best known as Osama bin Laden's favorite TV channel? Apparently, quite a lot.

Mr. NIGEL PARSONS (Al-Jazeera International): We've been inundated with applications of, you know, the highest caliber, and we're really pleased with that, and it's starting to have a snowball effect.

WEINER: That's Nigel Parsons, managing director of Al-Jazeera International, as the new English-language network is called. Many of those applicants, he says, are employees of CNN and other US networks. Parsons says Al-Jazeera International will share some resources with its parent network, but it won't merely be a translated version. It will have its own correspondents and producers, and money is no object. Al-Jazeera International has access to the very deep pockets of Qatar, the tiny Persian Gulf state that is flush with oil and gas money. No expense is spared, as quickly becomes clear during a visit to the network's headquarters.

I'm standing in front of a giant construction site. This will be the new home of Al-Jazeera International. It's more than a hundred degrees out here; the sun is brutal. But the workers, mostly from India and Pakistan and Bangladesh, are continuing to hammer away here, trying to finish the job in time for the network's launch sometime next year.

Mr. HAFEZ AL-MIRAZI (Al-Jazeera): Well, I hope that it would demystify Al-Jazeera, the English language, for people.

WEINER: That's Hafez al-Mirazi, Al-Jazeera's Washington bureau chief. He acknowledges that Al-Jazeera suffers from an image problem in the US, but he says there's a good reason for that. Most Americans don't watch Al-Jazeera.

Mr. AL-MIRAZI: The problem for us is that people don't realize that, for example, if Al-Jazeera broadcasts five or six hours, total hours of old tapes of bin Laden since 9/11, Al-Jazeera broadcasts more than 600 or 700 hours of George W. Bush live speeches, press conferences--all of that stuff verbatim.

WEINER: Of course, before Al-Jazeera International can attract viewers, it has to find a cable or satellite company willing to carry it, and that could prove difficult given the excess baggage the network carries. TV analyst Tom Wolzien says that in the US market at least, Al-Jazeera International will probably be most successful at attracting what he calls curiosity viewers.

Mr. TOM WOLZIEN (Analyst): I think people sample different types of channels and decide whether it provides something that's useful to their lives or not. Personally, I'd find it interesting to watch what the US media is saying and then check out what Al-Jazeera is saying about the same thing.

WEINER: Attract enough curiosity viewers, and before you know it you have an audience--a small audience. Al-Jazeera International's Nigel Parsons says the network has realistic expectations.

Mr. PARSONS: I don't expect to be in every American household on launch day. I mean, if we can be in between five and 10 million houses, I'd be absolutely delighted, and then I'd--you know, if people can judge us on our own merits, that's all we ask for, and if enough people see us and say, `Look, I want some of that,' then they just need to get hold of their cable operator and say, `Why aren't you showing Al-Jazeera International?'

WEINER: American TV viewers clamoring for Al-Jazeera. That might be the network's idea of success, but some say that Al-Jazeera executives should be careful what they wish for. Arab media analyst Jamal Dajani says Al-Jazeera enjoys the distinct if dubious status as the bad boy of international TV news.

Mr. JAMAL DAJANI (Analyst): Now if you add it to this menu of English channels, I personally think it will lose its luster, it will lose its mystique, because people after all will say, you know, OK, well, it's interesting but this starts to look like CNN or Fox.

WEINER: OK. It's difficult to imagine anyone confusing Al-Jazeera and FOX News, but this is cable television, a medium so volatile that real journalists now face stiff competition from fake ones like Jon Stewart. Anything is possible. Eric Weiner, NPR News.

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