The Arab Spring helped boost the popularity of regional news stations – and with more people watching, TV audience numbers are under the spotlight like never before.
Yet given the limited data on viewer numbers, the claims and counter-claims made by regional stations sometimes feels more like white noise than headline news.
The Qatar-funded Al Jazeera caused a media storm last month when it claimed it is the most-watched Arabic-language TV-news station in the Middle East and North Africa, ahead of rivals such as Al Arabiya, Sky News Arabia and BBC Arabic.
In covering Al Jazeera's press release, the respected global news service Agence France-Presse (AFP) was later forced to retract its report on subject, after it emerged that the “independent study” on Al Jazeera’s viewing numbers had not, in fact, taken place.
Quoting an employee of AFP, the Jeddah-based English language daily The Saudi Gazette reported that the alleged study was “inaccurate”, because “joint research across 21 Middle East and North African countries apparently carried out by Ipsos and Sigma” had not happened.
Despite the retraction, Al Jazeera sources insisted that the Qatari channel is number one in the region, according to the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper; the report by the leading pan-Arab daily was later endorsed by similar statements made by Al Jazeera to AFP.
“We have decided to publish those results in response to a campaign facing us after the Arab revolutions,” Al Jazeera’s director-general Sheikh Ahmed Bin Jassim al-Thani told AFP in a subsequent interview. “Many sides have attempted to spread rumors claiming that our level of audience has dropped.”
The follow-up AFP report did, however, state that Al Jazeera faces a fight in maintaining its audience share, amid competition from local TV channels, and in the face of public opinion over the Qatari network’s supports for new Islamist governments.
“Critics of the first-ever pan-Arab news channel claim that it has certainly lost audience in Arab states where Islamists have climbed to power, like Egypt and Tunisia,” the AFP report noted.
Sheikh Ahmed took control of Al Jazeera in September 2011, replacing Wadah Khanfar, who led the network for eight years. Al Jazeera had, under Khanfar, developed a strong editorial line – albeit one that sometimes drew intense criticism from the US establishment and elsewhere.
Yet some commentators raised questions over the appointment of Sheikh Ahmed, an executive at Qatargas and member of Qatar’s ruling family. The appointment “was said to throw the network’s independence into question in newspaper columns and conversations on social networking sites,” the Doha Centre for Media Freedom noted.
Officials from Al Jazeera declined to comment on this story when contacted by Al Arabiya.
Amid conflicting information about audience figures, commentators point out that the general trend for news stations is a positive one.
Santino Saguto, a Middle East-based partner at the consultancy and accountancy firm Deloitte, said that the Arab Spring has resulted in “dramatic increase” in TV-news viewership across the board.
“The number of daily news viewers more than [doubled] before and during the uprisings,” Saguto told Al Arabiya.
The Arab news market has become even more crowded in recent years. Last year saw the launch of Sky News Arabia, while the Bahrain-based Al Arab, headed by the veteran Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is set to hit the airwaves soon.
On top of that, there has been a boom in local news stations, which some commentators say has come at the expense of pan-Arab stations like Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera.
But Saguto said both the local and pan-Arab news channels have been affected positively.
“Increasing viewership has a positive effect on increasing advertising revenues, post-Arab spring, both at local as well as pan-Arab level, the latter remaining dominant given the presence of satellite platforms,” he said.
According to the Arab Media Outlook, quoting figures from Ipsos, Al Arabiya ranked above Al Jazeera in the UAE and the populous Saudi Arabia during 2012. But Al Jazeera is ahead in Morocco, while neither station ranked among the top 10 most-watched channels in Egypt.
Despite such figures, commentators point to a dearth of reliable audience data in the Arab world. So-called ‘people meter’ systems, which use in-home technology to provide representative audience data, are not prevalent in the Middle East region. Within the Gulf, only the UAE has a system in operation, although such a scheme is being planned in Saudi Arabia.
Saguto said this meant that audience data for the region was not as comprehensive as it could be.
“Historically, there has been limited data available on viewership. The development of audience measuring systems [such] as people meter in the UAE is a step forward in the direction of proper monitoring in the interest of the industry and advertisers,” he said.
Thomas Kuruvilla, managing director at Arthur D. Little Middle East, agreed that the statistics available on TV audience numbers in the Arab world are not reliable.
He said however that the news market has been growing since the Arab Spring, with more Arabic news channels launching.
“While proper ratings are hard to come by, consumers will be eager to consume news that is breaking and locally relevant, in their own language and covered by commentators who can bring in multiple perspectives.”
Kuruvilla added that local news was becoming more important – but said it was debatable whether this comes at the expense of pan-Arab channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.
“There seems to be an emergence of hyper-local news networks that feed into the larger channels via syndication, or reach out to audiences on their own,” Kuruvilla said. “This meets the challenge of news aggregation by being able to get more on-the-ground news from a wide geography… But whether they will gain credence at a larger pan-Arab level is questionable.”
Amid the fierce competition for viewers in the Middle East, with more TV-news channels launching, some regional networks are looking further afield.
Al Jazeera is currently preparing to launch a US channel, following its $500 million acquisition of the US network Current TV, which was cofounded by former American vice-president Al Gore.
When that deal was agreed, the Qatari network said 60 percent of Al Jazeera America’s programming would be from the US, with the remaining content pulled from its existing English-language station, which has a strong focus on the Arab world and international stories.
But according to a report in the New York Times, that plan has been scrapped, and Al Jazeera’s new station now plans to be “American through and through”, with almost all of its programming coming from the US.
The news prompted Tony Burman, the former head of Al Jazeera English, to write in the Toronto Star that the launch of the US channel has “the odour of potential disaster”.
“In order to win over America’s media and political elites, Al Jazeera’s senior management in Doha is placing its ‘brand’ of fearless, provocative international journalism at considerable risk,” Burman wrote.
Burman referenced a controversy in which Al Jazeera removed from its website an essay about Zionism and anti-Semitism by Columbia University’s Joseph Massad.
The decision to remove the essay, which was seen by some as “anti-Jewish”, was allegedly led by the network’s ambitions in the United States. Al Jazeera declined to comment on that accusation, and the network later republished the article.
Other commentators say that Al Jazeera’s move to make its US channel “American through and through” is driven by a desire to boost ratings, rather than focus on quality international news.
Matt Duffy, who teaches journalism at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where he is also a fellow at the Center of International Media Education, told Al Arabiya that the Qatari network will face stiff competition from existing stations.
“The Al Jazeera America decision is interesting because it indicates a desire to actually focus on ratings rather than on quality news with an international focus. The US is already served by three America-focused news networks – it's hard to understand why it would need a fourth,” said Duffy.
“However, some observers complain that CNN, MSNBC and Fox News are all too focused on sensationalism and aren't true to fundamentals of journalism. So, perhaps Al Jazeera will be able to exploit this void and surprise everyone.”
Yet Al Jazeera also faces a battle with public perceptions in the US before it gains acceptance there, argued Duffy.
“It will also have to combat long-held stereotypes about the name ‘Al Jazeera’ which many Americans still associate with the airing of Osama bin Laden videos,” he said.
“I think the intention to hire more Americans and focus more on American news is an attempt to appear as ‘homegrown’. Hiring a large majority of American anchors and reporters could help the station be perceived as more authentic – not some foreign interloper bent on propaganda.”