How will Al Jazeera play in Philly?

After Al Jazeera America's first broadcast, interim CEO Ehab Al Shihabi (center) chats with newsroom staff. Advertisers, in Phila. and elsewhere, shy away from the controversial - which the Qatari media network has been.
After Al Jazeera America's first broadcast, interim CEO Ehab Al Shihabi (center) chats with newsroom staff. Advertisers, in Phila. and elsewhere, shy away from the controversial - which the Qatari media network has been. (BEBETO MATTHEWS / AP)
Posted: August 23, 2013

Al Jazeera has come to America, and that includes Philadelphia - a wonderful city, but not always the most congenial and cosmopolitan.

Philly can be picky.

So how does a new news outlet - one with a name that doesn't roll off the tongue in South Philly - position itself here?

"They could give away Frisbees on Penn's Landing," joked Peter Jaroff, an assistant professor of media studies and production at Temple University, and a longtime 6ABC news producer.

On Tuesday, Al Jazeera Media Network launched its U.S. cable news outlet, Al Jazeera America, promising a contrast to the "news-talk" format of U.S. networks. Requests for interviews of Al Jazeera officials were unsuccessful. The network is based in New York City, and the channel has 12 bureaus in the United States and 900 journalists and staff.

The marketing challenge the Qatari media network faces in endearing itself to the Philadelphia audience somewhat mirrors the challenge it faces nationally in building an audience, say media experts familiar with the Philadelphia market and Al Jazeera.

Philadelphia tends to be "less receptive to new ideas," Jaroff said. For example, at one point 6ABC, in a marketing redo, tinkered with its famous Action News theme song. Not a popular move.

"The blowback was phenomenal," he said.

It may also be a tough sell to get area advertisers to buy time on Al Jazeera, said Jon Seitz, managing director of Mayo-Seitz Media Inc., in Blue Bell, a company that buys advertising time and space.

"The top 10 advertisers in Philadelphia wouldn't even buy Howard Stern," said Seitz, hastening to add that he wasn't comparing Al Jazeera to Stern.

But, he said, advertisers, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, shy away from the controversial. Al Jazeera will be long dogged by its controversial willingness to give Osama bin Laden an international media platform.

Who would advertise on Al Jazeera? It might be a company that wants a Muslim audience, Seitz said.

Al Jazeera's promise to restrict advertising to six minutes an hour would be appealing to advertisers, Seitz said: "Any time you are in a less-cluttered environment, it's better."

To sell itself here and elsewhere as a credible news organization, Al Jazeera needs a good story that it does better and differently than traditional U.S. media, said Marwan M. Kraidy, a professor of global communications at the University of Pennsylvania and a viewer of Al Jazeera.

"It needs that sparkle to get it to break," he said.

"What it has going for it is that it's the new kid on the block. It can afford to experiment and be more adventurous. When you don't have the weight of tradition bogging you down, you can experiment."

It doesn't surprise Kraidy that Al Jazeera is advertising locally - on KYW NewsRadio.

"Philadelphia is a major city on the Northeast Corridor. They know that's their best bet, as opposed to Idaho," he said. "The city has a large and growing community of international [residents and businesses] and there are many universities, which might have people more interested in international news."

Kraidy said that ever since the 2001 terrorist attacks, he has noticed among his students "a thirst for news that is less parochial."

Al Jazeera will not open a bureau in Philadelphia.

"Right away, [that's] going to make their job more difficult for this market," Temple's Jaroff said.

"If they could say they had a Philadelphia toehold, it would give them something specific to try to entice a Philadelphia audience."

Audiences in Philadelphia might question, he said, whose interests a foreign-owned news network represents. "Whose interests do they have at heart? Is it that guy who lives in Philly?"

But, he said, to be fair, that's a question that might be asked of any huge corporate media network - whether foreign-owned like BBC, or owned by U.S. citizens.


Contact Jane Von Bergen at jvonbergen@phillynews.com or 215-854-2769, or follow on Twitter @JaneVonBergen. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.

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