When Al Jazeera America launched in 2013, it set out to prove that a hard-news cable network with an Arabic name and financial backing from the rulers of a tiny, corrupt Middle Eastern state could connect with American viewers. It failed miserably.
By the time executives told staff on Wednesday that the network would be shuttered, primetime viewership was hovering around 30,000. So the end of Al Jazeera America isn’t news. It was already a television zombie.
Al Jazeera America became the broadcasting dead in large part through self-inflicted injury. Many viewers were never going to give the network a chance, with its Arabic name and ties to the royal family of Qatar — a country ruled by sharia law where an estimated 1,200 workers have died building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup.
Americans with open minds likely had them shut by allegations of sexism and anti-Semitism at the network. Last month, Al Jazeera America made its first headlines in a long time for a special report on the use of human growth hormone in sports that implicated Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning — and was accused by many of failing to meet U.S. journalism standards.
But even if Al Jazeera had launched as the All-American Super-Patriot News Network and immediately started cranking out TV’s finest journalism, it faced long odds. While Al Jazeera America was trying to establish itself as a hard-news alternative to right-leaning Fox News and left-leaning MSNBC, CNN was busy declaring defeat on the same front — having figured out that reality stars such as Mike Rowe and Anthony Bourdain would make more popular primetime programming than, say, Soledad O’Brien.
That CNN at 9 p.m. now looks essentially like a Scripps Network circa 2005 is one indicator of where TV news is headed. Another is CBSN, the 24-hour digital news network quietly launched by CBS last year. Speaking at the Television Critics Association winter press tour on Tuesday, CBS News president David Rhodes touted that CBSN had reached 5 million live streams the weekend following the November Paris attacks.
Comparing Nielsen-counted television viewership to live web streams tallied by the company that owns said streams is like comparing an apple to an impressionist painting of an orange.
But Rhodes’ claims that CBSN is reaching a median-age viewer of 40 and is experiencing 20 percent growth month over month are significant. Though Rhodes conceded that growth is “off of a low basis,” it’s hard to imagine it being lower than Al Jazeera’s 30,000 primetime viewers.
Regardless of whether CBSN develops into a success, it’s a smarter gamble than the one Al Jazeera made. In 2013, the same year the company bought Al Gore’s Current TV and converted it into a U.S. beachhead, Pew Research Center reported that nearly half of all 18- to 29-year-olds were already watching online news videos.
Even then it was obvious then that America didn’t need another 24-hour cable news network, no matter the name.