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Can Al Jazeera America Save Cable News? | The Nation

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Can Al Jazeera America Save Cable News?

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Ehab Al Shihabi

Ehab Al Shihabi, second from right, interim CEO for Al-Jazeera America, gestures as he chats with newsroom staff, August 20, 2013 in New York (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

But if this is a revolution that will be televised, it won’t amount to much if no one watches. And so far, almost nobody is tuning in. During the channel’s first few months, its ratings, which capture the number of people watching at any one point in time, reportedly averaged just over 10,000 viewers a day. Compare that with the 394,000, 413,000 and 1.76 million daily viewers who watched MSNBC, CNN and Fox News last year, respectively. The network declined to release more recent ratings and has asked Nielsen to embargo those numbers from the media as well. (This is not unusual; Nielsen did not publicly release ratings for Fox News until six months after its launch.)

“Our ratings are clearly not where we want them to be and where we expect them to be,” acknowledges O’Brian, who came to the network after three decades at ABC News. But, she adds, “I don’t spend a ton of time worrying about that right now, because we are so young.” It’s hard for an outsider to appreciate the gravitational pull that ratings have inside the world of TV news. Fletcher, who was an award-winning investigative reporter at ABC News’s Nightline before coming to The Stream, says she dismissed the idea that ratings wouldn’t have any effect on editorial decisions: “The background I come from, nobody would ever say that, and if they did, they would be drunk or joking.”

How many people watch is obviously a function of how many people can watch. Currently, MSNBC, CNN and Fox News are available in an estimated 100 million homes, most often as part of the basic cable package. After closing a deal with Time Warner Cable last December, AJAM now claims it reaches almost 55 million households. But this is a best-case figure, as providers like Dish Network and DirectTV offer AJAM only as part of their pricier, less popular premium tiers. 

Although current ratings don’t tell you much about AJAM’s prospects, that doesn’t mean network staff and executives are ignoring them. Spend some time at the New York and Washington studios and you’ll hear numerous oblique references to the overnight trends in ratings: Were they up? Were they down? Part of this curiosity is understandable: What is the point of producing hard-hitting, influential journalism if not to have it seen? And yet part of this is the result of old news habits dying hard.

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, notes the same phenomenon among viewers. “TV viewing habits change glacially,” he says. And today’s news landscape is even more fragmented and cutthroat than the one Fox News and MSNBC faced in 1996. Some recent evidence suggests that the pay-TV industry has peaked and is heading into a state of slow but inevitable contraction amid the rise of streaming media. Of note: monthly cumulative viewership for all cable news channels was down again in 2012, the third significant drop in four years, more than 20 percent lower than its 2008 peak. In this increasingly competitive landscape, where more channels compete for fewer eyeballs, even the best journalism will struggle to get noticed.   

But besides the structural obstacles, AJAM faces another significant—and unique—challenge, Jurkowitz notes. “They have a whole perception issue that they are going to have to overcome, aside from everything else,” he points out. For many Americans, Al Jazeera’s notoriety is rooted in the post-9/11 years, when it became best known in the United States for broadcasting Osama bin Laden’s videos. During the Iraq War, the Bush administration showed little interest in treating it as a legitimate news organization. According to a top-secret document leaked to the British press, a frustrated President Bush reportedly considered an airstrike on Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar in 2004 to combat the network’s alleged anti-US propaganda—not exactly the best foundation from which a new cable network backed by a government in the Middle East builds trust with the public. 

Though Al Jazeera has become quite popular overseas—in 2005, a global marketing agency ranked it the fifth-most-influential brand worldwide—the “terror TV” caricature continues to haunt the name in the United States. The day AJAM launched, for example, right-wing TV and radio host Glenn Beck labeled the network “the voice of the enemy.” One source for an AJAM story last fall wouldn’t agree to talk until the network’s Seattle field producer provided a copy of her passport to prove she was a US citizen. And when Ali announced on Twitter that he was joining The Stream, he got this response within minutes: “Your agenda is controlled by islamists in Arabia [sic].” 

Across the network, this sort of background noise is met with both resignation and a kind of plucky determination. Shortly after the “islamists” tweet, Ali, who is Muslim, hung a printout of the exchange on a bulletin board near his desk, where it remains. “It would be foolish for us to bury our head in the sand and pretend that that bias doesn’t exist,” he says. “I tackle it with a dose of humor, which, I think, is the most healthy and, I think also, an intelligent way of confronting it head-on.”

Just how entrenched is this bias? In 2011, William Lafi Youmans, assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, co-authored a study on the US audience perception of Al Jazeera English (AJAM’s sister channel, which preceded it into the English-language market), and its conclusions weren’t encouraging. American viewers, the study found, would avoid watching an Al Jazeera–branded channel, and even if they happened upon it, they would not watch it with an open mind. This deeply held prejudice, doubly rooted in ideology and ethnocentrism, presents a serious challenge to a network striving for mainstream status. 

There was a silver lining, however. Lafi Youmans also found that credible news sources could overcome negative bias over time through multiple exposures. He sees AJAM embracing this strategy. “They really believe that they can rehabilitate the brand if people just watch, which leads then to one concern: What if they are trying a little bit too hard to make themselves palatable to the American audience?”

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