Medill News Service: Al Jazeera draws hundreds to fledgling online cable network

Subscriptions to Northbrook-based, an on-line digital cable news network created in April, skyrocketed Wednesday by almost 1,500 in response to the launch of the Al Jazeera English-language channel on the company’s network. Prior to this, averaged five to six new subscribers daily.

“We are driving a tremendous amount of traffic to the Web site because of the news coverage generated by that launch,” said Scott Wolf, chief operating officer of the network’s parent company, VDC Corp. The initials mean virtual digital channel. He also credited the company’s ad alerts that appear when someone inputs “Al Jazeera” in a Google search.

Wolf estimates that about 80 percent of new subscribers are specifically interested in the Al Jazeera channel. Access to typically costs $11.95 per month but Wolf introduced a promotional price of $8.95 per month Wednesday morning to further drive subscriptions. At 6 a.m., when Al Jazeera launched, 300 people were watching on and the numbers have climbed from there.

By early Wednesday afternoon total subscriptions were nearing 6,500.

Fleming Lee, 72, of DeLand, Fla. read an article about Al Jazeera’s new channel yesterday morning.

“I learned that the U.S. — great land of freedom of speech — was one of the few places in the world which would not be carrying it on cable or satellite,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I subscribed to specifically because I want to see Al Jazeera and get a viewpoint beyond the tightly restricted coverage of news and opinion by U.S. television.”

Sultan Muhammad, the communications coordinator for the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that a news channel based in the Middle East better understands the people of that region and be able to report from there more accurately.

“Juxtapose that to CNN flying international correspondents out to Yemen or Sudan who do not speak the language, have minimal sources in the region and they are limited by what is being told to them by translators and their own personal experiences,” Muhammad said.

CNN is unfazed by Al Jazeera’s launch. “Welcome to the 24-hour news club,” quipped Nigel Pritchard, CNN’s international public relations spokesperson.

Comcast Corp., a leading digital cable provider, entertained the idea of hosting the channel.

“We had some preliminary discussions with the network but it did not result in a carriage agreement,” said Angelynne Amores, a Comcast spokeswoman. “It didn’t work for both parties.”

The new channel faces many challenges relating to perceptions of bias. Nadal Ibrahim, the executive director of the Arab American Institute in Washington D.C. and founder and former publisher of Arab American Business Magazine, expects an initial surge in viewership based on sheer curiosity followed by a quick drop.

“Advertisers are going to follow the viewers. If Al Jazeera can attract viewership … I think advertising dollars are going to flow to it,” Ibrahim said. However, he added, “whether it can hold onto that viewership beyond this launch period is another question.”

Observers’ consensus is that the new channel will offer a different perspective on the news, something Ibrahim says “can’t be anything but good.”

VDC’s Wolf confirms this. The company, he said, has received many e-mails from people, thanking him for carrying unconventional programming.

“They’re glad that there is an alternative outlet out there for these types of channels.”

Ibrahim says he will “absolutely” watch English Al Jazeera.

“I’m just as curious as everyone else to see how this little experiment will work out,” he declared.

VDC added a second channel to its Internet repertoire Wednesday morning called AccuWeather, a channel based in State College, Pa. that offers localized weather forecasts.

copyright © 2006, Medill News Service