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Al Jazeera America: Time for a New Cable Model?

01/29/2013 11:31 am ET | Updated Mar 31, 2013

In a witheringly condescending article, Guardian columnist Michael Wolff recently mocked the launching of Al Jazeera America, a new cable network that will compete with the likes of Fox, CNN and MSNBC. Hardly mincing words, Wolff writes that Al Jazeera's programming is "dreary as all get out." "The network is so boring," Wolff continues, "that there is no real reason to be hostile to it." Not stopping there, Wolff adds "if Al Jazeera were more passionate, more gutsy, more jaw-dropping to Muslim-fearing Americans, that would be something to defend, with joy in the cause. And even, perhaps, an audience to follow. But who is really going over the barricades for some super-rich Qataris and their roster of sanctimonious and boring news shows?"

Rallying to Al Jazeera's defense, Guardian readers took Wolff to task in the paper's online comments section. "I don't really see why an international news agency should be entertaining. It is my understanding that news agencies should be informative," notes one reader. Another writes, "Al Jazeera is definitely interesting, unless you don't care at all for global news and just prefer to read about celebrity divorces." "Frankly, I don't think Michael Wolff and Co. actually know what interesting is," adds yet another reader, "beyond the latest junk topics that all the U.S. networks keep recycling." Other readers argue that Al Jazeera has outclassed its competitors when it comes to international news coverage and point out that the network has won many journalistic awards.

It's one thing to trounce a network, yet Wolff never spells out what he is actually for. Reading between the lines, however, it would seem that the Guardian columnist prefers slick entertainment to hard news. "Al Jazeera clearly does not place much of a premium on wit or style," he laments, and "often relies on old-time, marginal or unhappy mainstream broadcasters in an effort to gain some legitimacy and recognition." Presumably, Wolff prefers the chipper, offbeat and occasionally wacky commentators who inhabit the liberal lineup of MSNBC. At one point, the Guardian man remarks that liberal pundit Keith Olbermann, despite his "cantankerous" nature, represents a bright "moment in the sun."

Complementing Al Jazeera English

Ridiculous aspersions on "unhappy" commentators aside, the future trajectory of Al Jazeera America is very much open to question. Just how does the new network hope to appeal to the U.S. audience? The stakes are high as Doha HQ, home to the original Al Jazeera Arabic network, reportedly paid a whopping $500 million for Al Gore's Current TV. Al Jazeera America will shortly replace the ailing Current and thereby secure coveted access to the U.S. cable market. With Current TV in the fold, Al Jazeera's reach into the American market will increase exponentially to more than 60 million homes.

Such a development is sorely welcomed back in Doha, which has been trying to crack American cable for years. Indeed, executives at sister station Al Jazeera English (AJE) have been perpetually frustrated by uncooperative U.S. cable companies and to this day few operators actually carry the network. Under an unusual "sublet" deal with another network, AJE is available on Time Warner cable, though only part time and just in New York. Facing such uphill structural problems, AJE has scarcely managed to reach 5 million U.S. homes out of a grand total of 100 million.

The new network, Al Jazeera America, will focus on U.S. news but will re-broadcast about 40 percent of its content from sister station AJE which covers international news [the two outlets will beam from separate channels, however]. The rest of Al Jazeera America's programming, some 60 percent of overall content, will be entirely original.

It all sounds promising enough, yet the new network faces a number of daunting challenges. Indeed, Americans don't always take to foreign news outlets and both Russian-English news network RT as well as BBC America have struggled in the ratings department, to say nothing of China's CCTV and France 24. In a political sense, Al Jazeera may carry additional baggage: to this day some recall how the network aired an Osama bin Laden video in which the deceased Saudi terrorist referred to the World Trade Center attacks as "commendable."

Reprehensible Time Warner

Even if Al Jazeera manages to overcome American stereotypes, there are other logistical hurdles in store. Hours after Al Jazeera purchased Current, reprehensible Time Warner Cable announced that it would no longer carry the network. Such a development needs to be taken seriously, since Time Warner is the second largest TV operator in the U.S. and plays an important role in the New York metropolitan market. If the company follows through on its threats, Al Jazeera's viewership could be cut from a high of 60 million homes down to 48 million.

Though Time Warner recently stated that it still had an "open mind" about carrying Al Jazeera America, some suspect the cable provider may be motivated by political considerations. In justifying its original decision, Time Warner remarked that it "did not consent" to the Al Jazeera sale, prompting the Atlantic magazine to remark that the underlying rationale may have been "about more than business."

The Huffington Post went even further, remarking that Time Warner's decision smacked of outright censorship. According to the website, Time Warner has become "a government-regulated near monopoly," and behaved in an anti-American manner when it moved to block Al Jazeera. "A few executives at cable providers... actually have too much unfettered censorship power," notes The Huffington Post, "and it threatens our freedom of choice and access to news."

What does the wider U.S. public think about Time Warner's leverage over news content? Rather disturbingly, most people don't seem to be bothered. According to a poll carried out by The Huffington Post, Americans approved of Time Warner's decision to drop Al Jazeera America by a whopping margin of almost two to one. According to the poll, Republicans were the most supportive of Time Warner, with 65 percent approving of the media company's decision. However, even independents and Democrats were disappointing, with 42 percent and 26 percent, respectively, backing Time Warner. Al Jazeera ran into particular problems with older Americans, who were more likely to support the dropping of the network than younger folk.

Learning Hard Lessons From Current's Debacle

While it's still unclear what kind of "model" Al Jazeera America wants to pursue, it should be pretty obvious at this point what to avoid. Under the leadership of Al Gore, Current became a kind of lackluster version of hyper partisan MSNBC, only with poorer production values. Even liberal readers of the London Guardian conceded that Current had failed to connect, with one remarking "I found it to be painfully dull and weird. I felt at times like I was the only person watching this station. It was a bit like watching a college TV news show on public access television."

The odyssey of Current TV highlights some of the perils and pitfalls of cable news programming. Hoping to overcome mediocre ratings, Al Gore hired Keith Olbermann back in 2011. A pundit with "star power," Olbermann employed the same familiar packaging which had made him a household name on MSNBC. Stylistically, Olbermann combined a mix of jocularity, combativeness and ruthless sarcasm. Even with the new MSNBC pundit on board, however, Current continued to founder and its viewership remained puny.

During the Bush years, Olbermann's shoot from the hip style provided a much needed alternative voice to Fox News. However, the veteran pundit became slightly gimmicky over time and made little effort to innovate during his tenure at Current [a Jon Stewart impersonation on the The Daily Show successfully skewered Olbermann's hackneyed approach]. Far from undertaking a much needed overhaul at Current, Al Gore hired Democratic hacks Jennifer Granholm and Eliot Spitzer. In their new incarnation as media hosts, both sought to stylistically emulate MSNBC pundits. Ultimately, however, Gore's shakeup strategy proved futile and Current failed to gain any traction.

The MSNBC Template

Though Olbermann later fell out with Current and left the network, the pundit's packaging style lives on at MSNBC. To a greater or lesser degree, many commentators on the network pursue Olbermann's penchant for sarcasm and combativeness. Take, for example, Rachel Maddow, an engaging host who also employs smugness toward the GOP and a kind of "wink, wink" attitude towards her viewers, as if to say "aren't we superior to the right?" Unlike Fox, Maddow employs rigorous fact-checking and is much sharper than her conservative media counterparts. However, Maddow can also go too far at times with her entertaining style careening out of control into sheer wackiness.

Maddow, however, is more independent politically than other MSNBC hosts who can seem relentlessly partisan. Take, for example, Reverend Al Sharpton, who serves up a nightly dose of GOP abuses and misdeeds. Other commentators, too, seem more intent on throwing red meat to their liberal audience than actually raising the intellectual bar. Take for instance Lawrence O'Donnell, a commentator espousing radical politics who nevertheless seems to stick to the fairly tame and liberal MSNBC script. Like Olbermann, O'Donnell has developed a political fixation on Rush Limbaugh and runs countless segments refuting the right wing talk show host.

Parochial America

Yet another grave shortcoming of cable news programming in the U.S. is the networks' tendency to focus on domestic news to the detriment of international coverage. Indeed, it might be said that MSNBC is just as insular and parochial as Fox, with the liberal network rarely alerting its viewers to issues of vital international concern. MSNBC's failure in this regard is somewhat surprising in light of the network's ties to The Nation magazine, an outlet which historically did much to elevate the tenor of political and intellectual debate in the U.S.

In recent years, however, The Nation seems to have made a calculated decision to emphasize narrow-minded inside baseball in Washington as evidenced by the front page of the magazine's web site [when The Nation publishes a rare piece on Latin America, for that matter, it is cause for celebration]. In an effort to gain more visibility, the magazine has exported several of its columnists to MSNBC. Once ensconced at the network, The Nation crowd promptly conforms to the MSNBC template and tends to emphasize domestic issues while passing over international news.

With fewer and fewer cable options, the American public has been forced to turn elsewhere for international fare. To be sure, the U.S. viewing audience may tune into the decidedly middling CNN International. On the parent network, however, CNN has largely eschewed international coverage, let alone any kind of serious investigative journalism, in favor of inane political banter. Perhaps sensing the true mediocrity of its own programming, CNN seeks to distract the viewer with silly graphics and even holograms. Lacking a sense of direction, CNN has turned to new CEO Jeff Zucker in the hope of shifting the network's fortunes. A former NBC Executive, Zucker wants to transform CNN into a glorified entertainment vehicle modeled after the Today Show.

Expectations of the American Public

Surveying the lamentable state of cable news, it's easy to see what's wrong with the media milieu though it's far from clear what kind of new model al-Jazeera might want to pursue. Part of the problem lies in assessing the overall mood of the U.S. public and setting a bar for the viewing audience. On the left, some have argued that if the American public simply had more facts and international journalistic excellence at its disposal then society would be galvanized and the media would finally succeed at prompting meaningful political change.

Such arguments, however, can seem overly idealistic or even obtuse in light of the lackluster capabilities of many Americans. Indeed, if Al Jazeera America wants to compete it may have to wrestle with issues of style as well as content. Stan Collender, a spokesman for al-Jazeera America, recently remarked to the Washington Post that the new channel would not be an opinion network or deal with celebrity news. "It's not going to be people screaming at each other," Collender said. Such declarations are music to the ears of cable consultant Cathy Rasenberg, who told the New York Times "there's a major hole right now that Al Jazeera can fill. And that is providing an alternative viewpoint to domestic news, which is very parochial."

Rasenberg, who has also worked with Al Jazeera on distribution issues in the past, also added however that "there is a limited amount of interest in international news in the United States." Al Jazeera itself admits that the new network is going to be something of a work in progress. Speaking to NPR recently, Al Jazeera Executive Producer Bob Wheelock remarked "our challenge is going to be to come up with new programming that is more tailored to a domestic U.S. audience."

Distinguishing Between Independent and Partisan Media


Just how, then, can Al Jazeera hope to compete? Unfortunately for the network, there is no silver bullet model for success and few writers, let alone Michael Wolff at the Guardian, have offered a convincing or detailed road map. Perhaps, however, Al Jazeera's programming should follow from the network's underlying philosophy. In a statement, Al Gore declared that "Current Media was built based on a few key goals: To give voice to those who are not typically heard; to speak truth to power; to provide independent and diverse points of view; and to tell the stories that no one else is telling. Al Jazeera has the same goals and, like Current, believes that facts and truth lead to a better understanding of the world around us."

The key word in Gore's statement is independent, which must be distinguished from partisan. Fatigued by CNN's centrist mediocrity and predictable rancor between MSNBC and Fox, the U.S. public just might be ready for a more fearless cable voice. Perhaps, Al Jazeera America can succeed by rising above the fray and appealing to a more thoughtful constituency which is post-partisan in nature. Initially at least, Al Jazeera America will be competing with the likes of MSNBC and CNN, though in the long-term the new network might hope to appeal to a slim minority of disaffected Fox viewers [reportedly, Fox stars like Sean Hannity have become discredited and are literally "hemorrhaging" audience share since Obama's re-election].

With all of the political sniping back and forth, there's little time on cable for a reasoned discussion about the world's most pressing problems. Reportedly, Al Jazeera America will be headquartered in New York, raising the question of whether the network might address the legacy of Hurricane Sandy and, more importantly, the urgent question of how to create new green jobs in an era of global climate change. If it is shrewd, Al Jazeera America might frame such debates in a manner that is inherently radical but not overtly politicized. In the event that network programming avoids shrill theatrics while incorporating decent production values, then Al Jazeera America just might gain traction.

Beset with logistical as well as political hurdles, Al Jazeera America will undoubtedly confront a rocky road ahead. Assuming the network can successfully navigate such obstacles, the station will have to figure out and define nothing less than its future identity. If Al Jazeera America decides to raise the bar and provide truly innovative programming, then the network will surely gain some respect. The wider question, however, is whether the American public as a whole is ready for more thoughtful fare on the cable dial. Time will tell.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left, and frequently writes for al-Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter here.