As the throng gathered shoulder to shoulder in Tahrir Square on Cairo Thursday night, shouting for the resignation of Egypt's President, a country teetered on the edge of political upheaval.
Millions tuned into the story by watching Al Jazeera, the channel that has emerged as the most crucial - and influential - voice in the region. But it is not simply the flagship Arabic channel that has attracted attention. For sister station Al Jazeera English, which aims to speak to the Western world, the seismic events unfolding in Egypt have become a key opportunity to capture new viewers.
Now, four out of the five Canadian cable and satellite companies that offer the channel have seized upon the moment to promote Al Jazeera English by offering free previews to their subscribers. Rogers Communications Inc. and Cogeco Cable Inc. have committed to showing the channel for free until the end of February; BCE Inc. and Shaw Communications Inc. will do so until early March (March 4 and March 8, respectively).
While some of the TV carriers had done free previews when the channel launched last spring and summer (including Quebecor Inc.'s Vidéotron unit, which is not offering it for free now), Rogers and Bell did not take that usual step when they began to carry it.
"I think it's their collective feeling that there's a lot of pent-up Canadian interest in the channel," said Tony Burman, chief strategic adviser for the Americas for Al Jazeera. "We were quite frankly impatient to have [free previews]happen as soon as possible. What the Egyptian story did is convince everyone in the Canadian cable and satellite industry that there truly was a genuine interest."
In part, the demand for the channel has been expressed online. On Jan. 15, when Tunisa's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali stepped down as president, the Al Jazeera English website - where a video feed of the channel is streamed live - saw a 60-per-cent spike in traffic compared to its usual numbers.
Throughout the protests in Egypt, online traffic has been closer to 1,000-per-cent higher than normal. Since January 25, the site's live stream has logged more than 12 million views and visitors have watched roughly 112-million minutes of coverage. More than half of that traffic came from North America. (Canada ranked second in Web visits, behind the U.S. but ahead of the U.K.)
It has amounted to a huge marketing boon for the channel.
"We'd heard from a lot of customers that they were looking for different ways to get coverage of the story that was happening in Egypt. They wanted more choice," said Rogers spokesperson Kathy Murphy, adding that subscriber response has been "very positive."
The effort has also spread to the U.S., where Al Jazeera English has had a much tougher fight convincing cablecos to offer it to their customers. Currently, the channel is available on TV only in the Washington, D.C., area; Burlington, Vt.; and Toledo, Ohio.
In recent weeks, American bloggers have decried the lack of availability. The channel set up a "Demand Al Jazeera" tool on the home page of its website, and so far they have received more than 20,000 e-mails of support.
"They've seen the product on the website, and it speaks for itself," said Mohamed Nanabhay, head of online for Al Jazeera English, speaking from the network's headquarters in Doha, Qatar. After protests in Egypt heated up, their Internet service provider told him its bandwidth had been pushed to the limit and they had to scramble to add computers to handle all the traffic.
According to Mr. Burman, Al Jazeera is now booking meetings with large cable and satellite companies in the U.S. to push them to carry the service.
Here in Canada, where the channel is offered mostly as a stand-alone, additional product (it costs $2.95 per month for Shaw customers for example, and $2.79 per month for Rogers) or on extra packages, Mr. Burman is hoping to convince companies to make it part of their main news channel packages. "This is the time to make it available," he said. "In the year ahead, this will be the Al Jazeera moment, where it breaks through."
Al Jazeera's top five online markets
One of Al Jazeera's most crucial tools in marketing the channel to cable and satellite companies, has been the overwhelming traffic to the video feed on its website in recent weeks.
Usually, the second-largest amount of traffic to english.aljazeera.net comes from the U.K.; but since the unrest in Egypt began, Canada has taken up the spot, just behind the U.S. Here are the top five markets for Al Jazeera's online traffic from Canada: