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Al Anstey

Managing Director | 03 May 2014

There are always distribution challenges in every country. There are substantial numbers of cable operators in India and we are looking to further breakthroughs as well. However, news channels are weeping when it comes to carriage fees as they pay a huge amount.

Al Anstey is the Managing Director of Al Jazeera English, the international news and current affairs channel that broadcasts to 250 million households in more than 130 countries around the world. Al Anstey is responsible for leading the channel into its next stage of evolution, and oversees its day-to-day operations across its international bureaux, broadcast centres, and AJE’s programming.

Before taking on his current role, Al Anstey was Director of Media Development, overseeing Al Jazeera Network’s New Media and Distribution department. Prior to this, he was Director of News for AJE, in charge of the news division and the editorial content. He was a key member of the start-up team of AJE that designed the editorial vision, recruited AJE’s editorial staff, and set up AJE’s worldwide bureau network.

In conversation with exchange4media’s Abid Hasan, Al Anstey speaks at length about the Indian market, growing the Al Jazeera English channel, challenges and opportunities and more...

Q. What are the key focus areas for Al Jazeera for India in 2014?

I think, first and foremost is to continue and expand coverage of all the different amazing aspects of the stories and people across India. We believe India is a very incredible and important country; people look towards it with great interest – amazing stories, rich variety, different culture, different people, economy, development, the ongoing Elections – all of which make it so vibrant.

We would continue to maintain the integrity, diversity and comprehensive nature of our content. We have an extensive team in India and we plan to expand our network to enhance news coverage.

Q. You have completed more than three years in India. How has the journey been so far?

It’s been a good journey. When we started out, we had two full teams based from our bureau in Delhi and stringers across the country. We have excellent Indian journalists who reported for viewers in India and across the world. What we saw soon after the launch of the channel was good pick up and interest in the online medium since we had not developed the TV platform in India then. We saw steady increase in the viewership and reach. Thereafter, we launched on the TV platform in 2011; our presence in the television medium compounded and complemented our presence on the digital platform.

We have a very loyal viewership in India. Our viewers value and appreciate the content that we put out. They like the in-depth and comprehensive nature of the coverage. What we create is international – we are not seeing the world through western eyes.

Q. What are the challenges that you see in the Indian market – the BBC and CNN are doing well, while France 24 is a new entrant?

One of the first challenges, before we talk about the BBC and CNN, would be the Indian networks themselves. There are many high quality news channels, which are very dynamic and offer quality content with relevant local content. I would not call them as direct competition, but obviously there is real value to the content that they offer. We try to offer quality content while maintaining the integrity of the news. The way we tell our news in our programmes and the in-depth programmes from India are different. Where we stand out is the value of our content; the comprehensiveness and integrity that we bring to our news is what adds to our viewership.

Q. Talking about the India perspective, people see Al Jazeera as a ‘Muslim’ channel. How are you breaking the perception that it is a channel with a western agenda?

Al Jazeera is a Middle-Eastern or Muslim channel since it has an Arabic heritage. Seventeen years ago, the channel was Arabic, with the agents fundamentally speaking Arabic in the network across the region.

There was a perception that when we launched Al Jazeera English, we were an extension of that. But we tried to build our viewership as an English language international channel. The overall misconception about our editorial has vanished as we have addressed it by the way our content is presented to convey that our content is English and the network is global.

Coming on to the western channels, the BBC was designed by the people from the West. The feedback that we have got for our channel is that we are neither Arabic nor western channel, but an international channel that caters not just to the western world, but the developing world as well.

Q. In an interview a couple of years back, Al Jazeera’s Chief of Bureau in India had said that Al Jazeera is not an ad driven network; it is funded by the State of Qatar, so the pressure on ad sales is less. Are you still following the same revenue model?

What Anmol had said was correct at that time. It takes a few years to build the reputation of a new channel, eventually the viewership, distribution and reach of the channel grows. With this, grows the channel’s recognition. It then moves on to the third stage, which is revenue. We are not an ad-driven model because the editorial and the integrity of the editorial content comes first, which would otherwise be swayed by commercial opportunities. However, with a very substantial viewership across the globe, you look for revenue opportunities and other advertising opportunities. It’s sensible to do so.

We are funded by the State of Qatar and we will continue to be so, but that does not mean that we will neglect the opportunity to make revenue when it is sensible to do so, while maintaining the quality and integrity of the content.

Q. Talking about distribution, Al Jazeera is available on DishTV, Tata Sky and other digital platforms, but not with cable operators. Are there any distribution challenges that you have faced in India?

There are always distribution challenges in every country. There are substantial numbers of cable operators in India and we are looking to further breakthroughs as well. However, news channels are weeping when it comes to carriage fees as they pay a huge amount.

Q. How much carriage fees are you paying to these operators to be available on the prime band?

I won’t be able to share these financials. Different countries have different operating models. I respect the operating model in India. In some countries, the news networks are charged heavily by the cable operators. I would not be able to share that figure with you. We are on the same level with our competitors.

Q. Where can we see Al Jazeera five years down the line in the Indian market?

We would be an even more viewed channel, but more prominently viewed in all digital platforms. A country which is getting increasingly good bandwidth in the digital space, I believe we will be seen on all the platforms. The opportunity definitely lies in the technology moving forward – the second screen model, interactive programmes and documentaries. We are focussing on growing our viewership as well as the way people can consume our content through different platforms.

In terms of engagement with the viewers in India, we have a show called ‘The Stream’, which is a very interactive show. It takes contribution from the people, where they want to engage with our presenters about what’s happening on social media and the trends.

In terms of coverage, we will be developing our bureau strength in other cities of India besides Delhi.

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