Forty to 50 million people -- more than the combined populations of New York State and Texas -- are desperate for in-depth and original television journalism, said Ehab Al Shihabi, executive director of international operations for Al Jazeera America. And that's why Al Jazeera America, the new channel he's launching, is going to be a hit in the United States, he claimed at the Aspen Ideas Festival Thursday afternoon.
The rest of the panel wasn't so confident. In fact, some were downright hostile to the idea that serious news has a big and untapped audience.
Lawrence O'Donnell, a primetime host on MSNBC, which has moved away from original reporting toward an op-ed-TV model, objected strongly to the idea that there was a 50-million-person audience for a serious news channel that didn't already exist.
"I think if you did a survey of the 300 million Americans, I think something like 50 million would tell you they want to read the complete works of William Shakespeare. They won't," he said, even if he personally placed the Bard's complete works on 50 million living room tables.
"[Serious television] is being offered to them every night on PBS," he added. "NewsHour is doing it every night. [Every discussion about serious television] always forgets that PBS exists. We're running the market test every single night."