A number of people have been calling and emailing me to ask about Jihad Ballout's resignation, and specifically to know what I make of the rumour that he was upset about changes to al-Jazeera's programming and format. For the record, I don't know anything at all about why Jihad Ballout quit. But I'm happy to say something about the programming changes.
Impressionistically, just based on watching al-Jazeera most days when I'm in the office, I do think that there has been a change in programming over the last couple of months. It's most apparent in the expensive looking new sets, in the graphics, in the music - presentational issues. The anchors are more often shown standing up, or sitting in these funky chairs, which suits some of them more than others. I remember when these were announced, it was a big deal: the move into new studios, changing to keep their competitive edge and all that. I don't care for the new look very much, but I'm probably not the target audience either. It certainly is flashier, for better or worse.
Here are two screen captures that I found in my picture archive which give you a sense of what the studio looks like now (both, for reasons that I just can't fathom, are of Jumana al-Nimour):
By way of comparison, here's a Jumana screen cap from the old set:
That's style - what about substance? I more often see documentaries or travel shows on during prime time (travel shows! on al-Jazeera!) - in fact, there's a documentary on right now. I don't know if this is a change in content (in line with chief editor Ahmed al-Shaikh's promise to have more "human interest" programs - blech), a change in the programming schedule (i.e. they always showed this stuff but now it happens to be on during my office working hours), or what, but I've been pretty annoyed lately to turn the station on and see a travel show or a documentary instead of the news and talk shows that I want from al-Jazeera. Once again, I'm probably not the target audience, but that's how I feel.
Finally, the talk shows. The big shows all seem the same as ever, and Mohammed Hassanein Haykal's cadaverous face still appears regularly. But the signature new program is called Behind the News, and it only runs for a half hour - much shorter than the usual shows. It usually has three to four guests (rarely in the studio). It can be too short, and too fragmentary. But on the other hand it also has produced some fantastic and really well-focused shows - like the one on Zawahiri's tape, and some others that I've blogged here. It does a good job at assembling top notch panels of guests on very short notice, which lets it be topical. For example, right after the Sharm al-Shaykh bombings, Jumana hosted BN with Montasser al-Zayat (a leading Egyptian authority on Islamism), Yasir al-Za'atra (a Palestinian Islamist writer), and Abd al-Latif Jibrou (a Moroccan writer). It seems less focused on pitting guests against each other than do some of the more established talk shows, and more on eliciting information and analysis. And some of the very best hosts have been assigned to it, including Jumana al-Nimour and Faisal al-Qassem and Mohammed Krishan.
So that's my take on al-Jazeera's new look, for what it's worth. And once again, I have absolutely no idea if this had anything to do with Jihad Ballout's departure.