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Wednesday April 12, 2006

Al Jazeera International targets June launch


LONDON: Al Jazeera International, the English language offshoot of the pan-Arab television news channel, said on Tuesday it was targeting a June launch. 

"If there are no problems we could be on air by the World Cup," its managing director Nigel Parsons told a media briefing in London, referring to the football championship that begins on June 8. 

He said an exact launch date couldn't yet be announced because it was hard to predict how long it would take to fine-tune high-definition television software. 

This will link the Middle East headquarters in Doha, Qatar with regional broadcast centres in Kuala Lumpur, Washington and London. 

He also said the network expects to sign carriage agreements in the United States prior to launch with direct-to-home satellite and cable network operators. He declined to name the companies, citing the need to finalise carriage fees. 

Nor would he reveal the size of the capital investment in the new channel or its operating budget. 

It is being funded by Qatar's Ministry of Finance under the aegis of the emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani. 

"It's a limited budget," Parsons said. 

He said the channel should initially reach around 80 million to 100 million households via cable and satellite and should garner a global audience of up to 50 million. 

"We are not going for a pay channel at the beginning ... what we are after is market share and hope that market share will drive the revenue." 

The station is targeting advertising revenue and intends to approach consumer branded goods advertisers like Nike Inc. "We will go after them," Parsons said. 

"The theory is that we will launch, get enough eyeballs and the revenue should follow." 

He said that audience estimate would not be guaranteed to advertisers: "Anyone who books to advertise in advance will get a good rate." 

Market research suggests that Al Jazeera is among the world's best-known brands. Parsons said Al Jazeera is perceived to be an "edgy, cool brand" and is particularly well regarded by 18- to 35-year-olds, a key target audience with advertisers. 

It is expected that non-Arabic speaking Arabs and others with English as a second or third language will watch. 

Al Jazeera's Arabic-language network has attracted intense criticism from the U.S., British and Middle Eastern governments, and the new English channel will work closely with it. 

"We will share resources, production facilities and story lists," Parsons said. 

He said the channel would operate from a perspective of the "developing world looking out. We will position it in that way". 

Parsons contrasted Al Jazeera's approach to stories with news giants like CNN, BBC World and others. "If you are a big channel in an industrialised country you will come at it from that perspective. We will have a different perspective." 

Despite run-ins with the U.S. administration over coverage of Iraq, Parsons said relations have improved. 

"They are a lot friendlier than they were 18 months ago," he said. "They realise they have an image problem and that it matters." - Reuters

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