As Al Jazeera America continues to seek a U.S. audience for its brand of straightforward news coverage, documentaries are expected to play a key role.
In addition to deep dives into topics and investigative reports, the network is looking to burnish a brand as “a place where you get really great documentaries,” network president Kate O’Brian said.
The upcoming debut of original series Borderland marks the true launch of that effort, according to Shannon High-Bassalik, senior vice president of documentaries and programs. It debuts Sunday, April 6, at 9 p.m., which for now at least will be a steady time slot for docuseries.
A four-episode blend of documentary and reality formats, Borderland takes six Americans with differing perspectives on immigration, sends them to U.S.- Mexico border areas and guides them through the experiences of people who died trying to come into this country. They meet with ranchers and border patrol agents, and with families of those who died trying to make the clandestine crossing, and finally attempt to cross the desert themselves, having learned how dangerous that is.
“It really shows you immigration up-front, personal, real, from every angle,” High-Bassalik said. “There’s no left, there’s no right.”
Al Jazeera America wants to come to documentary series “from a storytelling, character-driven angle,” she said. “We want the viewer to be engaged. It’s very immersive, but you’re also learning and going on a journey with the characters. You don’t really see the [news-network] competition doing that.”
“I think when people think of documentaries they think boring, very staid, very traditional,” she said. “That’s not what we want to be. You want a program that’s engaging and gets people thinking.”
After Borderland — and a follow-up with the participants to discuss what they learned — comes eight-part series The System With Joe Berlinger, about various aspects of criminal justice, from the points of view of both victims and suspects.
In September comes Edge of Eighteen, in which documentarian Alex Gibney profi les 15 high-school seniors and gets viewers immersed in that experience. That starts in September, High-Bassalik said.
Al Jazeera America’s own journey has been well documented. After buying Current TV from an ownership group including former Vice President Al Gore for the hefty sum of $500 million, the network lost some important distributors, including Time Warner Cable and AT&T U-verse.
Since the launch last August, it’s won back TWC and Bright House Networks, and has climbed back to 50 million subscribers, down about 8 million from the Current days. Distribution gaps, other than U-verse, include Cablevision Systems, Cox Communications and Charter Communications.
Viewership, though, is minuscule, even compared with the low numbers Current racked up. On a totalday basis, the Nielsen average count for Al Jazeera America in February was 10,000, down from 20,000 a year ago. February 2014 averages for CNN (272,000), MSNBC (349,000) and Fox News Channel (924,000) are, of course, much higher.
Its coverage of the State of the Union Address on Jan. 28, between 9 and 10:30 p.m., was its highest-watched telecast to date, reaching a 0.1 rating with 90,000 viewers tuning in during the average minute, officials said. And they said the median viewer age during the SOTU telecast was 32.8 years old, versus other cable news networks that averaged more than 50 years of age. They also cite Nielsen audience research they said shows the audience is younger, more affluent and more educated than other major news channels.
“We are still young and still new,” O’Brian said. “What we have really been looking at is, what is our impact? That is really how we are measuring ourselves internally. To look at the kind of pieces we are doing and the reaction to those pieces. By not looking at ratings, of course, but really looking at the impact those pieces have on human beings and the press and other places. And by that measure, I think we have an incredibly strong foundation, and we’re just going to get better and better.”
Al Jazeera America hopes documentaries will help burnish its reputation as a home for straightforward, in-depth news.