Can Al Jazeera Capitalize on Its Newfound Popularity?

Al Jazeera is receiving kudos from around the world for its coverage of the turmoil in the Middle East. Whether the Doha-based news service will be able to leverage that popularity into profit, however, is another question.

Founded in 1996, Al-Jazeera received a $147 million loan from the Emir of Qatar, where the channel is based, to fund its startup. It has struggled financially ever since. Al Jazeera began its English-language channel in 2006, hoping to establish an international rival to CNN and the BBC -- but that plan has yet to come to fruition.

Costly Coverage of the Middle East Crisis

"Despite the fact that it enjoys an estimated annual budget of around $100 million, subsidized largely by the gas-rich Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani of Qatar, Al Jazeera wants to win audience share and it wants to sell advertising," wrote British journalist Hugh Miles in a 2006 Foreign Policy article. "The network has consistently lost money since its launch, which is unsurprising, as no Arab channel makes a profit."

And since Miles wrote that, the channel's finances probably haven't improved much. Few, if any, advertisements appear on Al Jazeera English's website, which according to The New York Times has seen a 2,500% increase in traffic since last Friday. That dramatic increase is likely putting a strain on Al Jazeera's computer network, and therefore its finances.

And the network's costs will no doubt rise even further as it scrambles to provide up-to-the-minute coverage of the region's volatile political situation. Another financial strain is Al Jazeera's decision to provide access to its video feed to outside news services for free. Al Jazeera officials declined comment for this story.

More Attention Turning to the Region

Other news services are also seeing a surge in interest from people clamoring for news from the Middle East. The BBC reports a significant spike in the number of people visiting its Arabic-language website -- as does Al Hurra, the U.S.-sponsored, Arabic-language TV news channel. According to Deirdre Kline, a spokeswoman for the Middle East Broadcasting Networks -- which operates Alhurra -- daily visits to increased 540% between Jan. 23 and Jan. 30.

At the same time, BBC Arabic reported 1.3 million unique page views in the week starting Jan. 24. "This is the highest weekly reach ever measured, more than twice as high as the average week in December, despite the fact that the majority of our audience in Egypt, our biggest market, cannot reach the website because of the Internet restrictions introduced by the Egyptian government," says BBC spokeswoman Laura Brander in an email.

Fox News (NWS) says it saw a 44% increase for the World Content on its website between Jan. 25 and Feb. 1. Video views are up 30%. CNN couldn't be immediately reached.

Whatever financial strains Al Jazeera may be under, network officials haven't been afraid to open their checkbooks. The service, which has 3,000 staff members across the world including more than 400 journalists from more than 60 countries, has scored some big-name hires -- including Sir David Frost, the U.K. TV broadcaster whose interviews with U.S. President Richard Nixon were immortalized in the movie, Frost/Nixon.

Mostly Absent From U.S. Cable Lineups

Al Jazeera executives, quoted by The New York Times, say they want to have a bigger footprint in the U.S. But that desire is hardly surprising, given the size and influence of the American audience -- and the fact the network gets about 10% of its Web traffic from North America, according to the marketing research company comScore.

More people in the U.S. are visiting the website as the crisis unfolds, but Al Jazeera's TV channel can currently be seen only on cable systems in Washington, D.C., Vermont and Ohio. That may be by choice. Al Jazeera for several years hasn't asked some cable companies to carry its signal, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Perhaps Al Jazeera has been shy to do so, due to American accusations that the network was in cahoots with terrorists such as 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden, who has used it to communicate with the outside world. Middle East experts have repeatedly argued that such claims are unfair. Still, the network's relationship with the U.S. government is filled with tensions. One Al Jazeera correspondent is being held -- unjustly, his backers say -- at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Another was killed by the U.S. military in Iraq.

In an email, Comcast (CMCSA) spokeswoman Alana Davis declined to say whether the nation's largest cable operator was considering adding Al Jazeera to its lineup. "We can't speculate; however, we regularly examine our channel lineups and talk with a wide range of programmers to ensure that we are bringing the content that our customers want the most," she says. Her comments were echoed by Time Warner Cable (TWC). A spokesperson for the Dish Network couldn't be reached.

Backing a Channel With Many Critics

Qatar, whose sovereign wealth fund reportedly has as much as $100 billion in assets under management, is hardly losing sleep over the profitability of the Al Jazeera. Zubair Iqbal, of the Middle East Institute, tells DailyFinance that Al Jazeera is funded "essentially for strategic reasons. Qatar has ambitions to become a major player in the region. . . . I don't think they are interested in making money [on the network]."

But one way to gain a more global audience, Iqbal says, is for Qatar to back a channel that has many critics in Arab capitals -- to underscore the differences between Qatar's more liberal society versus its rivals in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The strategy appears to be working, now that Al Jazeera is more popular than ever.

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Beware of any News organization that gets it funding from just a few individuals or government.

February 04 2011 at 5:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think history will tell , President Obama has done more for American's then any president since FDR. He took over the presidency from one of the worst president's in history George W. Bush. Bush left a mess so large that I don't think anyone could fix it in one term , let alone two. If you look at the stock market, it has rebounded to 12,000, to me that is amazing. We where on the brink of total economic failure, President Obama approved the bail out that is working. If you give him a chance he will bring the country back to prosperity. It takes time, but every time he puts a program forward the right wing tries to block it , in fear that it may work . They don't want him to get credit for anything.

February 03 2011 at 6:44 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bigwave48's comment

bigwave48 you are either brainwashed or just plain deluded beyond belief. Would you care to explain such disasters as ACORN, Obamacare, growing the government at about 100%, spending more than all other presidents in history combined........and the list goes on and on like the list of broken promises like reapealing the patriot act and so on. Maybe if the man had ever had a job that made him accoutable for money then I might just say he is a lousey businessman but he has not. All he has ever been is a community organizer with no idea of what it takes to make a dollar. What we need in this counrty is to revert back to our constitution and get rid of the nanny state that has been created.

February 04 2011 at 2:03 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Al-Jazeera bears watching. They're more "pro-American" than PMSNBC.

February 03 2011 at 5:20 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to JC's comment

probably so and way too many simply spew negativity inspite of al jazeerO running live feed from caiRo--

February 03 2011 at 5:47 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I watch it and RT (russia today) alot because they are not swayed by either party in this country. they simply report the facts and leave it at that.

February 03 2011 at 7:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Better to trust a Kenyan lion than our Lyin' Kenyan

February 03 2011 at 4:18 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

barak is almost the same as MUbarack

February 03 2011 at 4:12 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mrtaxattorney's comment

MUbarack is more pro-American.

February 03 2011 at 5:21 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Obama will allow his Muslim terrorist buddies to take over Egypt

February 03 2011 at 4:11 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I once was a proud American..who saw things as they really were..and lately, as I read the garbage most of you write in these areas I wonder. Are you really that dense or just plain stupid?
Al-Jazeera should be on US Americans can see what is really happening in the world. Beheadings of Americans...letters from Osama bin Laden that we have to search the internet to find...people being paid $2 a day to work. We wonder why the world hates the U.S.. It has nothing to do with Mr. Obama or even Mr. has to do with two very special pieces of paper in Washington, D.C. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution both very clearly outlining rights.
In countries where religious dogma controls everything that happens you best be watching what is coming next.
Get a life free is not free..

February 03 2011 at 1:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Doug Pavelka

Never let a crisis go to waste. Isn't that what Rahm Emanuel said? First Obama tries to look Presidential for the oil spill, failed miserably. He then tries to use a mass murder for political gain, failed miserably. Now he's trying to capitalize on Egypt. All our allies are telling Obama to butt out of Egypts affairs. My God, what are the Liberals doing?

February 03 2011 at 12:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Doug Pavelka's comment

simply destroying America one step at a time.

February 03 2011 at 5:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

wow nice skew. Obama has stayed away from this mess. nothing like lying to impress your friends. You obstructionist are some of the most fail people in this world. At least we don't have to worry about him concocting some lie to invade an sovereign country to settle a vendetta. And what the liberals are doing is fixing the disaster left him by the worst US president ever.

February 03 2011 at 7:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Has no one the guts to tell it like it is? These guys are muslim 100% and we have enough of that BS already in the US.

February 03 2011 at 11:13 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to flytristar's comment
priority109 worse for propaganda than c_bs,cnn,msnbc,etc. nothing new here with them.

February 03 2011 at 11:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Obviously you have never seen the channel yet you have an opinion you bigot.

February 03 2011 at 7:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


February 03 2011 at 9:24 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to rp5599's comment