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.