Facing Financial Pressures, Al Jazeera Expands Sports Programming

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Now that we've given you the weather, as it were, let's switch the channel to Al-Jazeera. The Qatar-based news network has always been controversial. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Al-Jazeera was denounced by right wing pundits in the U.S. as enemy media. Since then, it's established itself as a global competitor in the news business. It's expanded in both Arabic and English, on T.V. and online. But now Al-Jazeera is facing financial pressures and trying to figure out where growth is most likely. On the news side, it's recently scaled back some operations. Its English language channel now has one anchor in Qatar as opposed to four around the world. But the network is also expanding into the world of sport and the key to their success may in part lie with their funding from the Qatari monarchy.

Philip Seib: There was a bit of a insider joke that whenever Al-Jazeera encountered a problem, they would just throw money at it.

Werman: Philip Seib is a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California and author of The Al-Jazeera Effect.

Seib: I think the royal family has grown tired of that and we're not going to see that so much any more. But the model is still for growth. It is particularly concerned about reaching a larger audience in the United States where it has encountered politically inspired difficulties ever since it began.

Werman: Now they're also going to push into sports, how is that going to help their bottom line? They're very focused on European soccer, which is kind of a niche market here in U.S.

Seib: Right, but they're gambling that particularly by the time the World Cup comes to Qatar comes to 2022 that audience will have expanded. Al-Jazeera has always had sports channels and they are the most profitable part of the corporation. So this is a very logical expansion for them, and it ties right into the World Cup.

Werman: How about the Arabic language channel at Al-Jazeera, their main outlet. How is it coping with all the changes taking place in the Arab world. Is that pushing Al-Jazeera, generally, to realign their focus?

Seib: I think it is, and it's a very interesting story because one of the outcomes of the Arab revolutions of the past year plus is the arising of a new model for media. And the countries that have shaken off their dictatorships, they're a freer media now, and that means you have local television channels starting to pop up, and they offer the same kind of unfettered news that Al-Jazeera has specialized in, so I think Al-Jazeera, while it will continue to be a very dominant regional news channel, faces some interesting competition with local news, basically, arising in countries such as Egypt.

Werman: So, Phillip, you mentioned earlier some of the political difficulties Al-Jazeera has been facing in the United States as they try to get broadcast on various cable outlets. What specifically have they faced?

Seib: Well, they still have not escaped from the label that was put on them by the Bush administration as being the terrorist television channel. They've received some very good publicity over the past year, particularly, because they were the go-to channel for people wanting to see what was going on in the Middle East, beginning with the events of early 2011, and even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Congressional committee that Al-Jazeera was providing real news. But they still are finding resistance from the cable companies, and the satellite companies in the U.S., and I attribute that to politics. Certainly not due to the quality of what they're producing. They deliver a very interesting, good journalistic product. Al-Jazeera has always advertised itself as being the voice of the global South, and I think that's a voice that the United States needs to hear, whether it comes from Al-Jazeera or someone else. It's just that, for the most part, Al-Jazeera is the only television channel that provides that.

Werman: So, they're not terrorists. I mean…

Seib: No, no, that's a nasty labeling that lingers and I think is symptomatic of larger attitudes, broader attitudes in the United States about Arabs and Muslims, which is very unfortunate, but it spills over onto the Al-Jazeera product.

Werman: Phillip Seib at the University of Southern California and author of The Al-Jazeera Effect, thank you very much.

Seib: You're very welcome.