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Al-Jazeera America logs first anniversary

NEW YORK--Al-Jazeera America marks its first anniversary on the air next week, and if you haven't watched much, you're not alone.

The news network has recorded some startlingly low ratings and recently shown signs of retrenchment with layoffs and by cutting some live newscasts. Al-Jazeera America has also won awards for its work, seen some recent audience growth and its chief executive insists a steady growth plan is on target.

After several unsuccessful years trying to get its English-language network carried widely in the United States, the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera bought and closed Al Gore's Current TV network last year and set up the U.S.-focused AJAM to replace Al-Jazeera English in the U.S. It is now available in nearly 60 million cable and satellite homes, just over half the U.S. market.

“The quality of the channel is very much what was promised,” said Dave Marash, a former reporter for ABC's “Nightline” and Al-Jazeera English. “It is serious of purpose, by far the best news channel available to American viewers.”

Al-Jazeera America won Peabody Awards for documentaries on cholera in Haiti and a deadly factory fire in Bangladesh. The network had six first-place finishes in the National Headliner Awards, which honors notable journalism. Two weeks ago, the National Association of Black Journalists honored AJAM for “creative, compelling, character-driven storytelling.”

Aside from award judges, not many people have seen those stories.

So far this year, Al-Jazeera America has averaged 17,000 viewers in prime time, ticking up to 23,000 during the first week of fighting in Gaza. CNN has averaged 453,000 and Fox News Channel 1.87 million in the same period, the Nielsen company said.

Ehab Al Shihabi, AJAM's chief executive, considers that comparison unfair. The other news networks have been operating much longer, and are available in more homes. Their audiences were small at the start, if they even allowed Nielsen to measure them, he said.

AJAM's first year should instead be judged on the quality of its journalism and growth in distribution, he said.

“Americans are not yet aware of Al-Jazeera America,” Al Shihabi said. “We are, on a gradual basis, continuing our advertising, continuing our outreach. Awareness and perception will take time.”

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gives the network a chance to showcase strength in international reporting, Al Shihabi said it also covers stories in the U.S. that its rivals don't. The prime-time newsmagazine “America Tonight” recently traveled to all 50 states for stories — reporting on gang violence in Alaska, a slow-moving project to sculpt the image of Crazy Horse on a South Dakota mountain and a woman in Detroit who makes coats for homeless people. Next month, director Alex Gibney delivers a new documentary on high school students' lives.

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