With its promise to counter-program the shallow infotainment-based American TV news landscape with in-depth, quality news, Al Jazeera America (AJAM), which launched yesterday, was supposed to answer the prayers of news-starved American audiences. Instead, when it went on air alongside sister networks Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English, it left some viewers in the dark.
The idea behind Al Jazeera America is that it will apply the brand’s hard-won reputation for high-quality international news, which has spread to the English-speaking world via sister network Al Jazeera English, to American stories. And before the network launched, that vision seemed to be on track. By acquiring Al Gore's Current TV network and bringing respected former CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien on board for its flagship program, America Tonight, AJAM was the subject of quite a lot of hype, especially among media critics.
But yesterday’s launch ran into one major hitch: Al Jazeera's devoted viewers in the U.S., who have for years relied on online streaming of the company’s Al Jazeera English channel for their international news, found themselves unable to watch Al Jazeera English on the day that AJAM became available in the U.S. As of yesterday, Al Jazeera English serves the entire English-speaking world except for the U.S.
What went wrong? Al Jazeera declined to comment on why they pulled Al Jazeera English off the digital airwaves, but speculation is that they were likely required to do so by the few cable companies willing to carry the network.
“It's certainly a loss for the viewers,” says Matt Wood, a lawyer and the policy director for Free Press, a leading national media reform organization that blends policy work with grassroots activism. “We here at Free Press and other consumer advocacy groups certainly think that viewers, whether they're on TV or online should be able to get information from as many sources as possible.”
The decision smacks of the anti-competitive American media environment that has plagued cable television in recent years. With the web becoming the primary vehicle for video content for more and more viewers, it's clear that traditional television providers will do anything to cling to the vestiges of their crumbling oligopoly.
“We want to have that kind of open marketplace where you have cable competing against online video rather than cable controlling online video as they want to do,” says Wood, who has himself worked on cable licensing agreements.
Cable companies know that the web is the future of their business, which is why many now offer their own exclusive streaming services that users gain access to when they subscribe to the cable network. By piggybacking their streaming product onto their existing cable subscription, these companies hope to keep lucrative subscription fees without losing users to online services that could offer better deals on smaller packages of content. But Wood says the practice may not be fair.
“Anti-trust has this concept of 'tying,' which means that when you have market power in one area you can't use that market power to create power in another area,” Wood explains. “That's the same theory that Microsoft got rung up on when anti-trust enforcers said they couldn’t use their operating system power to grow a monopoly in the browser market. That's the same behavior we see here when cable operators say you can only get online programming from them and only if you buy a traditional TV package from them.”
In other words, we need to allow free and open competition between the web and TV in order to remedy this situation, something that, given the behavior of cable companies, needs to be legally enforced. Given this situation, AJAM may be more a victim of current market conditions than anything else. Determined to get onto American television sets, pulling Al Jazeera English from the web was the devil's bargain they had to strike.
But given the choice between web-only or TV-only, it's baffling and even counterintuitive that the company would choose TV. Al Jazeera executives have explicitly stated that they hope to attract younger millennials and college-age viewers. By choosing to launch on TV instead of on the web, that’s exactly the audience they’re likely to alienate. Cord-cutters (people who have no cable TV subscription) are overwhelmingly young and educated, precisely AJAM's target audience.
Perhaps they assume that this same young, educated, tech-savvy audience will have no trouble setting up VPNs to route their web traffic through Europe to get their Al Jazeera English fix. Twitter is already abuzz with disgruntled viewers discussing the fastest VPNs that they can use to watch Al Jazeera English. But betting on users figuring out a workaround feels like a big gamble that could cost Al Jazeera the loyal U.S. viewer base it built online.
It's a remarkable about-face for Al Jazeera, which for years has been hailed as an innovative, digital-native news organization. The network has won several Webby Awards, including one this year, which they ironically used as an opportunity to hint at the cable-only launch of Al Jazeera America.
The decision to take a circa-1999, cable-first distribution strategy with AJAM feels all the more anachronistic in the wake of recent attempts to push web/TV convergence forward by tech companies. Devices like the Chromecast and the new line of TiVo set-top boxes, which aim to disrupt the traditional barrier between the two, would have been natural places to launch Al Jazeera America for a young, digital-savvy audience.
Al Jazeera may very well succeed at building a new audience in the U.S. or finding ways to reengage its shunned online support base. In the meantime, it feels a bit like they're shooting themselves in the foot by going cable-first. One can only hope that AJAM sorts out this problem, because the U.S. news landscape could certainly use more hard-hitting, investigative reporting.
I was told, for instance, that last night's premiere episode of Fault Lines on AJAM exposed Gap's and Old Navy's use of sweatshop labor in Bangladesh. I wouldn't know, though. I don’t get Al Jazeera America, and I haven't set up my European VPN yet.
[Image: Flickr user Jon Fife]