Al Jazeera's coverage of the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have boosted the network's viewership around the world. And not it's gearing up for its most audacious project since the launch of Al Jazeera English: A new, fully autonomous Turkish-language news channel.
Turkey is not an Arabic-speaking country and the Turkish language is written in the Latin alphabet.
A formal launch date for the new network, named Al Jazeera Turk, has reportedly been scheduled sometime in the coming months. The Qatar-based network just bid US$40 million to buy the Turkish Cine5 station, which is currently bankrupt and under the temporary supervision of Turkey's Savings Deposit Insurance Fund. Prior to bankruptcy, Cine5 was operated as a pay movie channel; founder Erol Aksoy has had high-profile financial problems since the global economic crisis began.
The $40 million bid followed on the heels of an unsuccessful $21 million prior bid by Al Jazeera for the station. Aksoy has said in the Turkish press that he would launch a lawsuit if the Turkish government sold Cine5.
While Al Jazeera has been quiet about plans for its Turkish-language network, snippets on the web show indicate that planning for the project has been extensive. Test broadcasts quietly began last month and profiles of Al Jazeera Turk employees are now showing up on LinkedIn.
Al Jazeera English is currently the only non-Arabic channel aired by the network. Al Jazeera has several specialty channels available via satellite besides their flagship news channel including Al Jazeera Sports, Al Jazeera Children's Channel, and the Al Jazeera Documentary Channel. The decision by Al Jazeera to expand into the Turkish market comes at the exact same time that the network played a crucial role in covering the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera's relentless coverage of the historic events in the Middle East has boosted the network's often troubled public profile in the United States. The United States government has began actively courting Al Jazeera, and prominent public intellectuals have called on American cable and satellite networks to began airing Al Jazeera English. At the moment, Al Jazeera English's U.S. distribution is limited to several small regional cable operators and syndicated content appearing on a few packaged left-wing programs. Americans wishing to watch Al Jazeera English, in most cases, only have internet viewing as an option.
Calls for Al Jazeera English to appear on American cable and satellite systems such as Comcast and DirectTV have grown exponentially over the past month. Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera English, told Fast Company that "There’s been an incredible amount of interest in Al Jazeera English from around the world, and the U.S. in particular. Almost half of our global web visits and livestream views have been from there. We’re even being watched in the White House. More local cable and satellite providers have started showing us now, and we're confident this will spread as people see more and more of our quality global news coverage."
Representatives at Al Jazeera English did not return comment to queries concerning the upcoming Turkish-language network.
One observer, Will Youmans, a graduate researcher at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor who writes for the popular Arab-American blog Kabobfest, notes that demand for Al Jazeera English in the United States is likely to be affected by new technological trends:
In the cosmopolitan cities and areas of the country, there will be a small, but real demand for the network, so we can expect greater cable carriage there. Still, it will be limited. My best bet is the channel will not be on basic cable anywhere. Expect it to be in premium, higher-priced cable tiers or in ethnic TV bundles. In other places where there is little interest in international news and a prevailing sense that Al Jazeera represents terrorists' views, cable carriage deals are highly unlikely in the short run. Gaining national coverage will only be possible with satellite deals. However, in the United States, cable is king. The long-run will be different. With the convergence of the Internet and TV, for example with the Roku box, and the proliferation of channels in digital cable TV, wider availability of AJE is probable.
Shawn Powers, a professor at Georgia State University who has written extensively about Al Jazeera, also told Fast Company that the events in Egypt and Tunisia changed American perception of the network:
Even as American networks refocused their gaze towards the Middle East, with CNN leading the charge, Al Jazeera English continued to be the place to go to for breaking, real-time news about the ongoing situation in what many describe as America's most important Arab ally. While the Al Jazeera network deployed seven teams of journalists in Egypt, CNN International relied on just two of its star journalists to cover events on the ground. The main American broadcast news networks—NBC, ABC and CBS—didn't get feet on the ground, so to speak, until days later.
As events in Egypt continue marching toward an unclear resolution, it is likely that Al Jazeera's leverage for signing additional distribution deals in the United States will increase.