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AlJazeera's plans for India

July 23, 2007 17:23 IST

Phil Lawrie, AlJazeera Network's global distribution head, cherishes his Indian connection. His grandmother was an Indian married to a Scotsman and his mother was born near Delhi.

However, the 36-year-old AlJazeera director sheepishly admits that he's visiting the country for the first time. Lawrie is here to negotiate distribution deals with cable operators and direct-to-home platforms to carry AlJazeera's English news channel, once it gets landing rights in India.

The Arab media network had applied to the information and broadcasting ministry about six months ago to allow its English channel into the country. The channel is still waiting for government approvals.

Emphasising the importance of India in AlJazeera's scheme of things, Lawrie, who joined the broadcasting network 20 days ago, says: "There are two strategic markets that we need to develop: India and the US. That this is my first business trip since I joined AlJazeera underscores the importance of the Indian market for the network."

India is key because it is an economy of one billion people and is on its way to becoming an economic force to reckon with in the world economy. "Besides AlJazeera is the flag-bearer of free speech. And it makes sense for it to be present in the world's largest democracy," says Lawrie.

If Lawrie is losing sleep over delayed permissions for landing rights in India, he's clearly not showing it. However, he admits that changing people's perception about AlJazeera being an Al Qaeda mouthpiece is a huge challenge.

"AlJazeera English already reaches 100 million homes worldwide. It covers the developing world in great depth and counter-balances the Western perspective. It is a fantastic product to sell," says Lawrie, who's worked with CNN for six years.

Prior to joining Aljazeera and relocating to Doha (Qatar), Lawrie was advising Discovery. However, media was not his first love as he'd worked in the financial services sector for the first six years of his career.

But the self-professed "news junkie" didn't think twice before moving to Turner Broadcasting System in the UK when CNN offered him a job. He managed the channel's distribution for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

If Lawrie's to be believed, the company's pitch to channel distributors in India has evoked an overwhelming response, especially in Kerala and Kolkata.

"Not only are people asking when we'll go on air, many news channels have approached us requesting sharing of content," he says. Is a co-branding deal with a local player, a la CNN-IBN, also on the cards? "It is too early to talk about such partnerships but we have been getting queries," he smiles.

Funded by the Emir of Qatar, AlJazeera launched an Arabic news and current affairs channel in 1996 and later added a host of other channels such as sports, documentary and a children's channel to its bouquet.

The English language channel was launched in November 2006. Though the network makes money from subscriptions and advertising, it is still to turn profitable. "That's the way media businesses are. Profitablity is about five years away," says Lawrie.

However, once AlJazeera comes to India, Lawrie is planning to exploit new media for business as well. For instance, the opportunity that the 180 million mobile phones in India offer, excites him.

True, a majority of them would still not be multimedia ready, but as the population of sophisticated handsets grows, the medium could be exploited to generate revenue, he feels.

Shuchi Bansal in New Delhi
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