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Al-Jazeera execs see the controversy over its coverage as a plus as much as a minus. "They have a hugely recognizable brand name, thanks to the U.S. Administration," says S. Abdallah Schleifer, director of the Adham Center for Television at the American University in Cairo. Parsons goes so far as to suggest that the English channel could cash in on al-Jazeera's bad-boy rep with viewers who have become cynical about the mainstream media. "In the younger market, al-Jazeera actually carries a lot of street cred," he says. "It is perceived as being slightly antiestablishment, the enfant terrible of broadcasting." In a 4 1/2-min. p.r. video being prepared for potential distributors and advertisers, al-Jazeera execs refrain from using bin Laden's image but otherwise do little to downplay militancy. To a techno beat, the video shows a gunman with an AK-47 rifle, street mayhem in Jerusalem and other disturbing images from the Arabic channel's news footage.
Al-Jazeera's coverage stirred business problems in the network's own backyard long before its executives decided to go West. For the past nine years in the Middle East, al-Jazeera has faced an unofficial boycott led by Saudi Arabia, whose government was stung by criticism on al-Jazeera of its rulers. The English channel is apt to employ the sort of guerrilla business tactics that the Arabic channel has used. Initially limited to advertising from Qatari companies, the Arabic channel gradually attracted international brands and boosted its revenues threefold by, among other things, making deals with parent companies rather than with regional subsidiaries. Although al-Jazeera is subsidized by the Qatari government, it has attracted advertisements from Nokia, Olympus, Sony, Adidas, Hyundai, Jaguar and others. But, says Pierre Azzam, regional director in Dubai of the advertising agency Impact-BBDO, ads on al-Jazeera seem to have dropped since the 2003 Iraq invasion because of political sensitivities--a claim that al-Jazeera denies. Nonetheless, anticipating commercial resistance to the English channel, Parsons is offering discounts to advertisers willing to sign substantial prelaunch deals.
The relaunch of a reformed Arabic channel, meanwhile, could enhance al-Jazeera's standing in the Arab world. It could also help ease resistance to its English sister channel, especially considering that despite being separate entities, the two organizations will consult on editorial plans and share space and technical crews in some foreign bureaus. The Arabic channel's new managing director, Wadah Khanfar, 36, a Jordanian who had served as bureau chief in Iraq and Afghanistan, bristles at the suggestion that al-Jazeera has succumbed to the Bush Administration's demands for reform in the Arab world. "We were never the channel of Osama bin Laden," he says, "and we are not going to be the American channel."