Here’s why nobody is watching Al Jazeera America

The logo of Al Jazeera.

The logo of Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera stunned the media world in early 2012 when it purchased Al Gore’s Current TV in order to launch a domestic offshoot of its successful international English-language service. Thousands of journalists familiar with the global brand sent in their resumes for hundreds of positions before the network launched, and media columnists were eager to see just how well a channel with a mission of delivering news from a neutral tone would survive in America’s politically-charged cable news landscape.

That eagerness fizzled shortly after the channel launched. Armchair quarterbacks cited the channel’s low ratings — in some cases, lower than its predecessor Current TV — as proof that Americans hadn’t gotten over the brand’s perception of being anti-American, achieved in part due to its Arabic sister channel’s coverage of the U.S.-led war in Iraq a decade ago.

Or, maybe, American cable viewers aren’t interested in a channel devoid of sensationalism, hotheads and political bantering — in other words, a news channel that aired, well, real news. After all, as Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer pointed out on Thursday, Al Jazeera America only averages about 15,000 viewers during prime time, even though the channel is available in “about 55 million of the country’s 100 million pay-TV households.”

Except saying the channel is available to millions of viewers is deceptive — while pay TV companies say the channel is available to millions of viewers, that doesn’t mean the channel is accessible to customers — and that is a big reason why people aren’t tuning in.

Take, for instance, Time Warner Cable, which notoriously dropped Current TV shortly after the sale to Al Jazeera was announced. Two months after Al Jazeera America launched, the cable company agreed to carry the channel on its systems — making it available to its 12 million pay TV customers.

But what Time Warner Cable didn’t tell the public is that the channel would be accessible only to customers who pay for their highest package of channels. Currently, Time Warner Cable offers three packages of TV channels: Starter (basically, local channels and a few cable networks), Select (basic cable with a handful of popular digital channels) and Preferred (nearly every channel offered). Al Jazeera America is offered to “Preferred” subscribers, which goes for $75 a month (or $50 for 12 months, if you’re a new customer), not including set-top box fees, internet service, phone service or premium movie and sports channels. Compare that to CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, FOX News and Time Warner Cable’s regional news channels like NY1, all of which are offered on lower, more-affordable cable tiers.

Time Warner Cable is not alone in placing Al Jazeera America on a higher tier than its competitors. Both Comcast and Dish Network offers the channel on their mid-range digital tiers (“America’s Top 200” for Dish, “Digital Preferred” for Comcast) while offering CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and FOX News on as part of more budget-friendly packages. Dish also offers the channel by itself for an extra $5.00 a month.

None of the big national pay TV companies make it known which of their millions of customers subscribe to which TV package — only that millions of customers pay for some kind of TV service. And of the big pay TV companies, only AT&T and DirecTV (update: and Verizon Fios, ave some readers have pointed out) offer Al Jazeera America in low-tier packages alongside their more-established competitors.

It’s not unreasonable to assume many people who subscribe to Time Warner, Dish, Comcast and others can’t access the channel. Some subscribe to the most basic pay TV package simply to get a better deal on bundled Internet and phone service, while others only have basic cable or satellite in order to watch local news (in areas where an antenna doesn’t cut it), league sports or premium channels like HBO or Showtime. With the ever-increasing cost of cable and satellite television, why would someone with a modest interest in news pay extra for one channel when CNN or FOX gets the job done?

Comparing Al Jazeera’s ratings to that of CNN, MSNBC or FOX News as proof of the channel’s success or failure isn’t accurate considering the number of customers who can truly access the channel (never mind that CNN, FOX and MSNBC don’t even pull in one percent of viewers from the nearly 100 million cable customers to whom the channels are available). Instead, a better comparison would be to the fledgling FOX Business Network, which finds itself accessible only to customers who shell out more money for a higher tier of programming.

FOX Business Network pulls in around 15,000 viewers daily — the same as Al Jazeera America — according to averages based on Nielsen ratings published by Zap2It. Unlike Al Jazeera America, which has been around for less than a year, FOX Business Network has been on the air for seven years — and nobody’s calling it a failure, or suggesting that the reason FOX Business network has comparatively low ratings is because people prefer to watch their market bantering on CNBC or Bloomberg.

While Al Jazeera America’s low ratings can be explained in large part by its actual availability on pay TV platforms, it is also true that the network has done an extremely poor job in making its brand known in the United States. More TV viewers likely know about the PBS NewsHour than they do about Al Jazeera America, and the channel has made very little visible effort to lure that demographic — the kind of TV news consumer that expects in-depth reporting and investigative journalism — over to Al Jazeera America.

Al Jazeera America has also failed to offer a suitable digital platform after making their English-language global news channel unavailable to web users in the United States. Last year, the network geoblocked its web broadcast of Al Jazeera English in an attempt to drive viewers to Al Jazeera America.

For cord cutters in the U.S., Al Jazeera might as well have disappeared altogether. You won’t find a live stream of the U.S. channel on Al Jazeera America’s website. You also won’t find complete, on-demand version of the shows that air on Al Jazeera America — instead, show producers upload a few dozen video clips daily, none of which are embeddable for distribution on websites like the Huffington Post and Mediaite, two news aggregates that could drive thousands, if not millions of viewers to Al Jazeera America’s content.

Al Jazeera America does not have a content problem or a brand problem. Al Jazeera America has a distribution problem. Before it launched, it underestimated just how accessible its channel would be available on pay TV platforms; after it launched, it crafted a digital strategy that isn’t anywhere near what general news consumers have come to expect. Al Jazeera America needs to change its approach to both if it wants to thrive in the big league of cable news networks.

  • JSharon

    Great piece.
    Let’s not diminish the power of branding, though. The overwhelming percentage of people who watch cable news get indigestion at mentioning the name Al-Jazeera. Like it or not, that brand is still associated with being pro-Middle East and anti-America (I don’t actually agree with that sentiment, but it does exist).
    Meanwhile, I still believe there is a market for an American news network that covers the stories they cover in the way they cover them, and Al-Jazeera has done a great job of marketing its particular kind of journalism (investigative, credible and unafraid). As the ideological networks (MSNBC and Fox) continue to lose their audiences for various reasons (mostly aging but also audiences are just getting tired of their blowhardiness), Al-Jazeera’s content stands to gain ground. But in the era of short attention spans and even shorter tempers, it’s the brand that’s hurting them the most.
    Of course, it would also be nice if they jumped on board with Sling TV. Just sayin’.

  • Randall Pinkston

    Matthew Keys – would be curious to see an update on your assessment of Al Jazeera America – September 2015.

  • Michael Craig

    AJA’s main problem is certainly distribution. Longtime fans of Al Jazeera’s first English language network Al Jazeera English remember its digital platform: programs were available for users to watch on its website. Live streaming of the channel was also available, along with podcasts.These incredible features are still available to the rest of the world, but are now blocked for Americans. Al Jazeera America does not offer such accessibility. The advent of Al Jazeera America has cut off Americans from the the great content of Al Jazeera English, yet did not fill the void left by this cutoff.
    American fans of the original Al Jazeera English, myself among them, remember its innovative programs, unique focus on the developing world, and neutral tone when discussing both world and American events. We were incredibly excited to see a similar type of network come to the USA. The reason for this excitement was two-fold: (1) Here in the US, we do not have a widely available network focusing on international news (not to mention a great one like Al Jazeera English), and (2) Al Jazeera English’s high quality documentaries and investigative reporting, when applied to the American scene, was sure to be an improvement from the lackluster, partisan, and sensationalist networks available in the US.
    The problem arose in that Al Jazeera America, in backtracking from its promise to air 40% of Al Jazeera English-produced content, does not highlight international news. And, while some of its America-focused programming is of high quality, it simply does not reach Americans (many of whom Al Jazeera won over originally via Al Jazeera English) because it’s only offered on pay cable services. Essentially, American fans of Al Jazeera were hurt by the advent of Al Jazeera America, not helped. We lost our access to Al Jazeera English’s free live stream and accessible digital platform and got nothing in return. Al Jazeera America’s accessibility and digital offerings are almost nonexistent in comparison. The rest of the world gets Al Jazeera English for free (online and via free-to-air satellite), but Americans do not.
    Two additional notes: (1) As of the summer of 2015, Al Jazeera Arabic has also cut off its live stream in the United States, in addition to its podcast service. Its live stream viewers in the USA are now directed to Sling TV, which charges fees to view the stream. Podcasts of Al Jazeera Arabic’s popular programs, which used to regularly uploaded by Al Jazeera, are now removed the Apple Store. (2) To international readers: This is not the first instance of Americans getting disadvantaged by news networks. For example, CNN hosts a wonderful international news network called CNN International. CNN offers this network for free around the world via free-to-air sattelite. Non-Americans would assume that this network is available in the USA. In fact, most Americans have never heard of the network. While CNN gives it to the whole world for free, it is only offered to Americans on very high-fee packages.

  • khakiberrie

    I’m a Baptist in Virginia and i just found this channel 2 weeks ago. I love it. Finally, I get to see what’s going on around the world…instead of seeing something over and over on other cable news…only focusing on the US…political bickering and nonsense issues….I’ve told everybody….and my friends are checking it out.

  • Indigo Prajna

    One thing I want to mention:

    I have DISH Network I am in California. I can watch Al Jazeera America if I type in 216 with my remote. However, I wouldn’t be able to stumble upon the channel by pressing the channel up or down buttons. Al Jazeera America is channel 216 which I had to search for on the Internet because Al Jazeera America DOES NOT show up on the DISH Guide. Something smells fishy… Btw, I do not see it as antiamerican at this time. I see it merely as international news, it covers stories and regions of the world that, frankly, the other 24 hour news channels in comparison, do not.

    • Indigo Prajna

      Ok 2 things I want to mention

  • michael c hughes


  • Elysium10

    Al Jazeera has an excellent line-up of news and programs. They do not sensualized the news, its informative and there is a sense of real journalism yet, it appears Al Jazeera is being push out. Verizon is dropping it from its line up in April 2016, so much was freedom of the press. The cable carriers have made it impossible for the public to watch AJ by placing it in the higher tier that cost consumers more, leaving out most viewers who don’t know it exist. True the problem is the lack of public access and distribution. I do hope they figure it out because I like Al Jazeera.