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American Viewership of Al-Jazeera Rises Dramatically

by Barbara Surk and Adam Schreck

DOHA, Qatar  - American viewership of Al-Jazeera English rose dramatically during the Israel-Hamas war, partly because the channel had what CNN and other international networks didn't have: reporters inside Gaza.

This image taken from a computer screen and released by Livestation on Thursday Jan. 22, 2009, shows Arab TV station Al Jazeera's English-language channel as made available on the Livestation Internet web site. The image shows Ayman Mohyeldin, Al Jazeera's 29-year old correspondent, who reported on Israel's recent military offensive live from Gaza Strip for 22-days, and also shows message blogs from viewers. Viewing figures point to big gains in U.S. online interest, suggesting the war gave the Arab station its first significant chance to break into the American market.(AP Photo/Livestation, HO) But the viewers weren't watching it on television, where the Arab network's English-language station has almost no U.S. presence.

Instead, the station streamed video of Israel's offensive against Hamas on the Internet and took advantage of emerging online media such as the microblogging Web site Twitter to provide real-time updates.

During the 22-day conflict that ended last weekend, the station and its Arabic language sister, as they often do, aired far more graphic pictures than U.S. networks of dead and injured Palestinian children and women.

The images, viewed widely across the Mideast, generated enormous sympathy for Gazans in the Muslim world.

"Gaza ... was a breakthrough opportunity to make an impact with people who are less aware of Al-Jazeera than we'd like," said Tony Burman, managing director of the English-language channel in Qatar.

"There is an alternative perspective our channel provides, and Gaza was a good example," Burman said.

Al-Jazeera had another draw: Its reporters were inside Gaza while international networks such as CNN were barred by Israel from sending reporters in throughout the entire war. Israeli TV focused mostly on Israeli casualty reports and Hamas rocket barrages.

"Having reporters in Gaza - which others did not have - that's what made Al-Jazeera stand out and that's important on the Internet," said Jeff Jarvis, who teaches journalism at the City University of New York and writes about media on his Buzzmachine.com blog.

Overall, the station's Web video stream saw a 600 percent jump in worldwide viewership during the Gaza offensive - and about 60 percent of those hits came from the United States, according to the station's internal numbers.

Outside figures also point to big gains in U.S. online interest, suggesting the war gave the Arab station its first significant chance to break into the American market.

Traffic to Al-Jazeera's main Web page, which includes both the English and Arabic sites, spiked once Israeli airstrikes began on Dec. 27, according to Amazon.com Inc.'s Alexa Web tracking site.

Those figures show the share of Internet users visiting the site shot up about 22 percent over the last three months, with most of the gains coming since the start of the Gaza conflict.

The jump in viewership reflects wider trends in global media, where the Web increasingly is the place where viewers go to watch video and social networking sites and citizen journalism are merging with traditional news coverage.

Al-Jazeera English and Arabic are both bankrolled by energy-rich Qatar, a U.S. Arab ally that also supports the militant Hamas rulers of Gaza and which recently suspended its low-level ties with Israel to protest the Gaza offensive.

Feisty and sometimes graphic coverage of global carnage is an Al-Jazeera specialty, as is bracing commentary that has shaken up the Arab world and rattled the West.

Since Al-Jazeera English went on the air in November 2006, it has struggled to gain a spot on traditional American airwaves. The station says only three small cable operators offer the network in Ohio, Vermont and Washington, D.C.

None of the biggest U.S. cable systems carries Al-Jazeera English, claiming viewer interest is not sufficient.

The former Bush administration had accused Al-Jazeera's Arabic station of anti-American bias. Some members of the administration criticized the network after the Sept. 11 attacks because of its access to and willingness to air tapes of Osama bin Laden.

A frustrated President Bush even talked of bombing the Arabic-language channel's headquarters in 2004, according to a leaked British government memo.

The publicly owned cable system in Burlington, Vt. that carries Al-Jazeera English, has faced pressure and even calls for a ballot initiative to remove the channel by a group that claims the station is anti-American.

But the Internet has made it possible for the network to reach American viewers despite the limitations of its cable television broadcasts.

The English channel has a different staff and separate budget from the Arabic network. Its executives say they have no political agenda in coverage of the Mideast.

Politics aside, there is little question that the Gaza war gave the station a viewership boost - similar to what CNN got on cable in the 1991 Gulf War.

From its start, Al-Jazeera English has offered grainy, low-resolution access to the same broadcasts shown on cable television through its Web site. Higher-quality transmissions were also available for a price.

A few months before the Gaza offensive began, the network began the same broadcasts on a new Web-based platform known as Livestation, which allows users to watch high-quality broadcasts online live and for free.

The service, which is being developed by a London-based technology company partially backed by Microsoft Corp., has also signed up a number of other news networks, including Bloomberg Television and BBC World.

Livestation said Al-Jazeera English footage viewed on its site jumped to 17 million minutes worldwide over a two week period during the Gaza conflict, up from 3 million minutes in a similar time period before the conflict began.

The service did not break down those numbers by specific country. But it said that over one full week of the Gaza conflict, the number of U.S. viewers to Al-Jazeera English on Livestation surged by six times the usual level.

The boost in viewership was also reflected on YouTube where viewers can watch individual television reports. Over the past month during the Gaza crisis, Al-Jazeera was the most viewed English-language traditional news channel on YouTube's "News and Politics" category.

The network, like its global rivals, is pushing aggressively into other online media. It set up a page dedicated to Gaza coverage on the "microblogging" site Twitter and is experimenting with interactive maps. It also actively seeks photos and other eyewitness accounts from viewers.

Ayman Mohyeldin, the network's 29-year-old correspondent who reported on Israel's military offensive live for 22 days, became a well-known figure to many viewers.

Dressed in a bulletproof vest and helmet, the U.S.-educated journalist of Egyptian descent described in great detail life and death during Israeli air raids. He now has at least one fan club on Facebook.

Surk reported from Doha and Schreck from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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