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This is what doomed Al Jazeera America

- January 14, 2016

The announcement that the Al Jazeera Media Network was shutting down Al Jazeera America caught many off-guard, but it could not have been a complete surprise. Its struggles were well-publicized. Its ratings were horrifically low. Critics inside and out protested it was boring, tepid, old school, too objective, not objective enough, or way too Americanized to be interesting. Reports of low morale in the newsroom abound. It was also embroiled in numerous lawsuits, including damaging accusations of workplace bias and gender discrimination, and more recently, defaming professional athletes.

What really doomed Al Jazeera America from the beginning was its decision to offer straight, sober journalism via legacy cable and satellite TV carriers, distribution platforms on which such a product is fast becoming extinct. Al Jazeera America was also quasi-commercial at best, but the gatekeeping companies it had to appease are highly commercial.

Al Jazeera America had the unenviable task of marrying Al Jazeera’s self-described mission of subversive journalism that challenges power with being digestible enough to American TV viewers to attract a respectable number on a nightly basis. It would have to be domesticated, yet it was an outwardly foreign brand — one many Americans still unfairly associated with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, even after the channel’s Arab spring coverage was widely hailed.

These were impossible balances, but Al Jazeera America consistently expressed faith in the existence of a large unmet demand for straight news without opinion and sensationalism. That way it could be critical, consistent with its Al Jazeera identity and at the same time relevant to American news consumers.

This was a remarkably optimistic view of the American citizenry. It showed trust in the discerning intelligence of US TV audiences, a presumption other cable news channels appeared to abandon long ago.

The problem laid in how it would reach those viewers who wanted straight news. Al Jazeera America was constituted to reach Americans firstly through television. It was built upon the distribution footprint the network acquired through the estimated $500 million purchase of Current TV from former Vice-President Al Gore and entrepreneur Joel Hyatt in 2013.

Here’s why this was a problem. My colleague Babak Bahador and I conducted a survey in September, 2013, a month after Al Jazeera America launched. We found that one-third of respondents reported wanting to watch the channel. If that had actually come to pass, Al Jazeera America would be an industry leader.

But the people most interested in watching Al Jazeera America were not looking for it on television. People who expressed interested in watching primarily get their news via social media, newspapers, and news websites. People who got their news mainly from cable television were less interested in watching Al Jazeera America.

In other words, the news public that Al Jazeera America imagined does exist, but it was on-line. As an NPR correspondent noted when it launched, many in the channel called it a “Field of Dreams” plan: “if they build that channel, Americans will come.” They didn’t.

This reflects a larger structural challenge known to television programmers. Linear television distribution is on the way out. We are moving towards an a la carte, on-demand distribution of televisual services. Live channels with fixed schedules simply make no sense except for breaking news coverage perhaps, which is why CNN seems to be on a breaking story daily, filling the empty time between updates with opinion and speculation.

Al Jazeera America’s big bet was that it could be in this off-line universe, yet be relevant. A former Al Jazeera America producer I spoke with last May lamented that Al Jazeera “invested in a dinosaur.”

In fact, Al Jazeera America jumped behind the news media technology curve that Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera America’s internationally-oriented predecessor in the US, was actually leading. Al Jazeera English offered a free Internet livestream. Almost all its programs and news packages were available on-demand via YouTube. Its videos were available on mobile, tablet and Internet-linked TV applications.

The magnitude of Al Jazeera America’s error can be seen in the success of its independent digital-only spin-off AJ+, which operated on a tiny fraction of the budget but generates astronomical social media “ratings” and video views. Most of its short, punchy and anything-but-sober videos received more views than AJAM’s prime-time programs did in a week. The network’s announced expansion of its digital media presence in the US sounds like it admits AJ+’s digital-first approach to distribution was the correct model.

Why, then, did Al Jazeera America ever seek to be on cable and satellite TV? The best answer is prestige. The former producer said that internal critics of the cable-first strategy were told that “old white men watch cable news, we need to reach them.”

This indicated that the most influential public opinion in the US — for better or worse — would be more attuned to Al Jazeera America if it were available via television. Only then could it be seen as among CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. And Qatar is in the media game to boost its visibility and influence.

The long-time CNN Anchor Ali Velshi, one of Al Jazeera America’s first famous hires, admitted that Al Jazeera America would have to do what it had to in order “to survive” on cable and satellite channel lineups. This meant it would necessarily have to “cater” to Americans’ preferences. Over time, this meant becoming more like an “old CNN,” in Velshi’s words, slower and more in-depth, and less like the Al Jazeera that many in the US tuned into for bold international coverage as well as dissenting views towards US foreign policy.

In one of the more interesting lawsuits against Al Jazeera America, Gore and Hyatt, who had sold Al Jazeera their failing channel Current TV in 2013, made one very prescient point. They believed that “Al Jazeera’s presence in the United States would likely result in more influence by the United States on Al Jazeera as opposed to more influence by Al Jazeera on American viewers.” Gore and Hyatt knew how much pressure came with cable and satellite distribution. Contracts with these powerful companies entail stipulations on types of content. DirecTV’s made Current TV’s carriage conditional on the inclusion of light-fare, including a show called “Current Hottie.”

The high stakes path of cable and satellite television distribution made Al Jazeera America mold itself to be like US cable TV news. And rather than following Fox News and MSNBC by featuring partisan opinion or emulating CNN’s sensationalism and celebrity-driven news, Al Jazeera America tried to go back in time to when a hard news model was successful.

Where Al Jazeera America actually belonged was online, where media diversity and pluralism flourish. The primary negatives of Internet distribution, less revenues and niche as opposed to mass audiences, would have been not been problems for the network — especially compared with the still-born demise of Al Jazeera America.

William Lafi Youmans is an assistant professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. He is working on a book about Al Jazeera in the United States. He is on Twitter: @wyoumans.