Seemingly out of nowhere: last Wednesday the executives at the award-winning cable news channel Al Jazeera America called an all-hands meeting and announced they would be closing down at the end of April. More than 700 people are expected to lose their jobs. AJAM first launched on 2013 and has struggled mightily to achieve a meaningful audience and generate advertising revenue.
Many of the preemptive post-mortems of AJAM assert that the problem with the channel was its journalism. Al Jazeera more broadly has a reputation for doing the style of reporting that curries no favor with the powerful, making for a fresh perspective in the U.S. cable news world. It also attracted a substantial roster of solid journalists from both commercial and public television.
The focus on AJAM’s content is misguided, for in many respects the network had the deck stacked against it before it ever took to the air. For this, you can primarily blame Team Cable: Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, Charter, et al., the de facto oligopoly which functions as a gatekeeper to the cable television platform itself.
AJAM came into being after its Qatar-based parent company bought Current TV, a progressive news/talk channel perhaps best known for one of its co-founders, former Vice President Al Gore. The $500 million deal should have secured AJAM a spot on cable TV systems nearly nationwide — but some of the cable companies, most notably Time Warner and AT&T, did not honor the purchase, electing to repurpose Current TV’s channel for sometheing else. They did so, they said, because AJAM and Current were wholly different channels and they were under no contractual obligation to carry the new owner’s content.
Secondly, when cable providers did elect to carry AJAM, many initially consigned the network to the standard-defintion ghetto. Since most viewers with HDTVs gravitate to the HD tier of channels available to them, that made AJAM all but invisible; the quality differential between HD and SD is noticeable enough that viewers’ first impression of AJAM would have been of a lower-quality production. Many pundits have harped repeatedly on AJAM’s small audience and inability to attract big-money advertisers, though in recent months these trends were turning — but to blame this on AJAM’s jouralism utterly fails to acknowledge the conditions under which its distribution was hobbled.
But most importantly, the contracts for carriage AJAM signed with cable providers contained several poison pills that fundamentally crippled the network’s growth while simultaneously keeping it a plaything of Team Cable. When I hosted a panel discussion with members of AJAM’s news team just three months ago, I learned that the cable companies included provisions to AJAM’s carriage contracts that prohibited it from repurposing its TV content online. This included banning AJAM from livestreaming its own content.
In a nutshell: in order to gain carriage on cable TV, AJAM had to forswear the Internet almost entirely. Of the variety of alleged mismanagement that AJAM has suffered in its short life, this decision was by far the most boneheaded.
Couple that with the plummeting price of petroleum commodities, and the subsidy-spigot from Qatar to AJAM came to an abrupt end. Qatar is a heavy exporter of crude oil and natural gas, both of which have seen their values cut in half over the last year.
Qatar is not alone in feeling this pinch, which is slamming national budgets throughout the region with massive deficits; Saudi Arabia is actively considering taking its state oil company public on the stock market to make up the shortfall.
It’s overly simplistic (and pretty elitist) to chalk up AJAM’s winding down as some sort of indictment that fact-based, comprehensive journalism on television is outside the intellectual realm of most American cable TV viewers, or that the network never found its “voice” which, in its three short years, has been (and continues to be) distinctive for its substance. Team Cable won’t countenance new voices in journalism on their legacy platform unless they’re willing to be sharecroppers confined to a stagnant sandbox. I hope Al Jazeera makes good on its commitment to reinvest in journalism online, and I wish the best for everyone facing a rough spring.