Souag made his remark during a media roundtable at Al Jazeera’s headquarters today in Doha to discuss the progress of its recently launched US channel, Al Jazeera America (AJAM).
It’s been nearly four months since the channel launched on Aug. 20, to very low television ratings. But because AJAM is so new, Souag, as well as the channel’s interim CEO Ehab Shihabi, stressed that they were not concerned about ratings at the moment.
According to the officials, AJAM has reached a 500,000 daily viewership in its first three months on air. Last month, the New York Post reported that the channel gets some 13,000 viewers a day, and declared that Al Jazeera America was “losing ground in the US” because it had failed to attract an audience.
Shihabi today clarified that the Post‘s figure refers to average viewership during any given time of day, rather than total viewers per day. According to the Financial Times:
“While still small, the numbers are similar to the ratings Fox News and MSNBC tracked during their first year.”
Still, AJAM’s figures are dwarfed by AJAM’s main competitors. According to Shihabi, CNN in the US has an average viewership of some 350,000 people, and 8 million daily viewers.
The AJN director general did not offer any clear timeline for when the new channel is expected to have a critical mass of viewers, but said the current focus is on expanding distribution in the US and developing a high-quality product.
Other points raised during today’s roundtable included that:
- Current TV (the channel Al Jazeera bought to transform into AJAM) reached some 45 million households and had an average viewership of 31,000;
- At launch time in August, AJAM had a reach of some 42 million American households, lower than planned because AT&T suddenly decided to drop carriage of the channel. A court case is ongoing;
- On Dec. 6, AJAM signed a distribution agreement with Time Warner Cable, the country’s second largest cable provider, and now reaches some 13 million additional homes in markets like New York, Los Angeles and Washington DC, bringing total distribution up to 55 million;
- Some 800 people are now employed in the US by AJAM, including about 350 journalists;
- AJAM has 12 bureaus across the states, and access to 70 of the network’s international bureaus; and
- In 2014, AJAM hopes to expand distribution to some 70 to 75 million American homes.
Al Jazeera’s managers insist AJAM is a “unique” product because it is able to rise above commercial interests – through the generous funding of the Qatari government – and focus on non-political, non-ideological, in-depth and investigative journalism, while also offering a mix of domestic and international content.
Souag declined to discuss financial costs of the channel, saying that would reveal more than they wanted to the competition. He added that operations are less than what other channels like Fox News and CNN spend, as AJAM leverages other Al Jazeera network resources, including international bureaus and correspondents.
The director general also sought to defend the network against allegations that its flagship Arabic channel had seen any decline in viewership, highlighting some 24.7 million viewers in October.
“Every day we have tens of articles coming out…seeking to distort the truth about Al Jazeera,” Souag said.
He roundly condemned Egyptian media and others for publishing unverified allegations – such as last week’s claim that a dozen people had been arrested at the network’s Cairo office. He said Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau has been closed, and there were no employees working there that could have been arrested.
Discussing network expansion plans, he said Al Jazeera hopes to increase distribution of Al Jazeera English and Arabic news channels in India in 2014, but said that it has no plans to launch an Indian-language channel.
He also said feasibility studies are continuing on an Al Jazeera French channel, but that there would be no firm plans on location, launch date or anything else until a budget has been approved.