Thursday, April 14, 2016
Death is sad. For somebody of my vintage I’ve lost a number of family and friends over the years. When a peer goes it’s particularly unsettling because we are facing our own mortality. Death is part of life. Moving from the morbid to the sublime: the end is a necessary part of life and for our growth as people and as a society. And then there are things that cease that represent the stopping point of an era or an experiment. We are all experiencing such a loss now.
Al Jazeera America shut down on Tuesday, April 12, 2016. It lived for just under 3 years, having gone live on August 20, 2013. It leaves a big gaping hole in quality the media environment. Well, the hole might not be as big as I’d like it to have been.
The channel attracted some 10,000 viewers per hour at its low point and a high of less than 100,000 while Fox, CNN, MSNBC draw in the millions and the major networks the tens of millions. Carriage issues (having the channel on a cable provider) were part of that lower viewrship, amongst other issues as to why the channel shut down. CNN Money reported on the problems that were threefold: it was a risky proposition to launch an all news channel from scratch; they bet on a cable model that excluded an online//streaming which would have driven viewership of the content. Most importantly, though, they bled money.
Qatar bought Current TV for $500 million and Al Gore reportedly made $100 million. Qatar then poured in hundreds of millions more. The launch of the network was impressive – building an entire infrastructure for a network in 7 months and hiring hundreds of people. The oil rich nation said ratings were not their priority and put a break-even goal in their business plan for 2023 or 2024.
The price of oil plummeted from $110 a barrel to under $40 a barrel. That’s a nearly 2/3rd drop in what generated all of the money for the venture, so bye-bye cash flow for the emerging network. As quickly as it started up it was shut down in a matter of months. Mothballed. Not even sold for parts. On my cable system it’s literally disappeared. Channel 107 is no more.
I enjoyed AJAM – the quality of the news was top notch. Several times I’d watch the flagship AJAM newscast and then watch a CNN newscast or another one – and only a handful of stories would replicate. It was real coverage of real issues that was done really well and was balanced. The finance program by Ali Velshi was a harbinger of CNN’s heyday. The hyperventilating style of Wolf Blitzer and the rest of the cable anchors who bloviate between commercials was nowhere to be found. It made it boring sometimes sure, but never bad.
It was a strategic mistake to spend that kind of money and agree not to ‘compete’ by streaming their product. Cable providers demand that out of fear that they’re losing customers. Others are able to stream and broadcast, AJAM should have too. With such a small base viewership it sunk the network. Too many times I’d watch a fascinating story or bit that I wanted to share with others who might not have immediate access to the network via a television.
I think their other mistake was keeping the Al Jazeera name. I understand branding. I know that they have spent huge sums of money building that global brand and it has value from a news gathering perspective inside of the overall company as well as to the business itself. What they never understood was that the brand value in the U.S. was not just unknown – it actually carried negative weight. Al Qaeda and Al Jazeera just sound too much alike. We can joke about the stupidity of the viewing public --- but with so many other choices, why tie yourself down from the get go? Few Americans know that a woman was running the network or that some of the finest journalists working today were hired there. The network won a slew of awards including two Peabody Awards and 16 National Headliner awards amongst many others.
I often bemoan the state of media in this blog. AJAM was a stunning example of what could be done right most of the time. They will be missed. Rest in Peace.