Al Jazeera Abandons Cable’s Sinking Ship

Al Jazeera America (AJAM) has stepped away from its bid to develop a presence on American cable systems. The network’s retraction may be a good sign for the award-winning news channel. The story of AJAM’s withdrawal is more than another anecdote about Americans’ waning interest in news or the troubles for news in a new media environment. It is a sign that points to the future of media in a networked and global environment that mixes government and commercial aspirations.

AJAM sprang from a sense on the part of Qatari officials that AJ needed a presence on American cable (legacy broadcasting) to accomplish its goals. The goals, however, were not entirely clear. AJAM’s objectives appeared to be split between a public diplomacy mission and quasi-commercial aspirations. If nothing else, the public diplomacy mission was forced to funnel its efforts through the commercial jungle of US distribution industries and, thus, behaved as a commercial operation despite funding from Qatar.

Operating under such split motivations created an incoherent mission, further compounded by the logistics of channel operation in the United States. Imagine, for a moment, a government agency with national-interest motivations employing hundreds of professionals culled from commercial operations like CNN and MSNBC. Journalists, chief editors, media industry lobbyists, all more familiar with commercially motivated media operations, redirected the AJ media network toward profit-minded methods and operations.

Fast-forward to 2015, two years into the venture. AJAM’s directors, despite advice from Washington DC tech/law consultants (one of which I interviewed) had pushed cable carriage at great expense (cue purchase of Gore’s Current TV). Around 2011, AJ’s executives plotting their American entry strategy ignored future-minded advice that went something like this.

“Forget cable. It is a dying industry watched by an aging population. Invest in the best app technology and get that app on a variety of 21st century platforms: mobile tech like phones and tablets, the Xboxes, Playstations, etc. Buttress your website to cater to a new generation of opinion makers. In essence, position yourself for tomorrow rather than 1990.”
It was a gamble. Just like the investment in cable, the network could expect considerable losses in its first several years of operations. But, the thinking goes, being 20th in a younger new media world presented better prospects (both diplomatic and commercial) than 4th in broadcasting/cablecasting where total subscribers was shrinking almost every quarterly report.
Longterm survival as a media company wasn’t guaranteed by a new media strategy. Online news is a diffused and less centralized world than the diplomacy-minded faction of AJ’s network developers would like, but it was a forward-thinking strategy. We can see this strategy in James Murdoch’s push for News Corp to invest in Vice News. A younger, male demographic courted by Vice’s hardboiled and aggressive image was appealing to any company interested in attracting future advertising revenue.
I might add another risk attached to this “good” advice. Circumventing US cable companies is also a risk. Corporate distributors like Comcast and Time-Warner Cable are notorious for stifling new means of distribution. Going the cable route locked AJ into legacy business relationships, relationships that would limit online business strategies. It is not coincidence that cable carriage deals forced AJ to cease offering Al Jazeera English’s content to American Youtube users.
Still, AJ’s directors split their efforts, creating online presences as well as going for the cable gambit. AJ+ and fairly robust news offerings online showed a dual strategy, however limited by the restriction imposed on AJ’s content distribution foisted by major US cable players.
AJ’s retraction from cable is also likely a reinvestment in the new media environment. AJ may have understood the cost of pushing for traditional distribution, but this move signals how the channel is reassessing its initial strategy and the near irrational sense of legacy media’s power in the modern American media mediascape. Add to the total cost a couple of lawsuits filed by Goreaggrieved employees and the American affluent they cover . . . certainly the cost of doing business in America began to outstrip Qatar’s subsidy to the channel, all while Qatar’s natural gas prices plummet.
We are left to wonder how many millions may have been saved by heeding the advice of new media advocates in the 2010s. $500 million for a tanking cable channel could have made one slick app and positioned Al Jazeera at the top of app offerings across platforms.
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