Can al Jazeera America Make It?

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This AP piece looks at the struggles of al Jazeera America, which is celebrating its first anniversary on the air. The upshot is: very, very few people are watching it. So why is that? Let’s start by noting that it’s extremely difficult to break into the US cable news market, which is already pretty saturated or at least seems to be. AJA also faces at least some challenge simply because of the name. But in conversations I had with a few highly placed people in AJA prior to and post-launch I came away with what I think may be a big, big part of the problem.

Let me start by saying al Jazeera International is amazingly good. I watched it intensively on the web for the first year or so of the Arab Spring. And it was a much better version of what I remember CNN being 20 years ago – something like what the BBC can sometimes be. Basically very up to date news and then a steady diet of experts coming on and being interviewed by a knowledgable host to plumb the depths of their knowledge of the subject at hand. Some debates. But mercifully little right, left or this side, that side fisticuffs.

But based on these conversations I quickly got the sense that AJZ was approaching the American market through a prism of its experience of explosive growth in other parts of the world – as if breaking into the US were a bigger version of breaking into some Central Asian media market or Egypt. The idea seemed to be: come into country with either government-owned or government-subservient news channels, supply something dramatically different – in short, real news of a high quality and just wait for the viewers to arrive. That after all is basically how it worked in big chunks of the MENA region.

This may overstate what the executives in Qatar expected. But the sense I got was, not by much. Certainly, the US journalists and media executives hired to helm the operation had a sense that it might not be quite that simple. But the basic outlook did seem to be shaping the overall effort and expectations about growth.

Now, we can debate whether and how government friendly the US mainstream media is. It certainly is in some ways, isn’t in other ways. News you see in the US certainly differs from what you see outside the US. Corporate ownership plays some role, as does unwillingness to offend certain domestic political constituencies. But let’s be real. If viewers of Fox and MSNBC were crying out for Democracy Now or Truthout, they’d have much bigger audiences. And that’s not a criticism of either of them. For that matter, if this were an accurate appraisal of the US news market, PBS would be crushing it with its own NewsHoury 24-7 cable news channel. But of course that’s not happening.

Indeed, much of the the seemingly endless decline of CNN is tied to the fact that its one-time commitment to what we might call ‘news’ simply cannot compete with Fox and MSNBC, except when there’s a major, breaking news story, which by definition is not a common occurrence.

I never cease to be surprised at how people who can pay for the best advice and control vast amounts of money can nevertheless embark on a very costly venture with a totally mistaken strategy or appraisal of what they’re trying to accomplish. But I’ve seen numerous cases of it.

It does seem to me that there definitely is a market for a 24-7 news channel that actually focused on news. But I doubt it’s a mass market.