Range from "plodding" to "takes your breath away"
Al Jazeera America made its debut on Tuesday, and the reviewers who watched it say: it ain't flashy.
Television critics weighed in on the debut and whether or not AJAM delivered the unbiased, straightforward and substantial news it promised. Many thought it did, though they also wondered if Americans really prefer this over their standard flashy, pundit-filled cable coverage.
Others found AJAM's presentation of quality journalism to be slow and — perhaps worst of all — late.
Also read: 5 Reasons Why Al Jazeera America Could Fail
Here's a sampling of first impressions of the new net:
While AJAM's debut was competent and relatively glitch-free, the pace was slow, the production values were plodding and predictable, and the presentation relied heavily on yakking, and more yakking, straight to camera (with the notable exception of the "Faultlines" takedown of Walmart and Gap). Yet in an age of media belt tightening, when once-imposing journalistic institutions are being shuttered or sold for a fraction of their historic value, it is heartening that a Gulf-state emir, of all people, is willing to spend hundreds of millions, and probably billions, of dollars to field a serious news organization in the United States. For that reason alone, I am rooting for Al Jazeera America and its 850-odd staffers led by veteran ABC News executive Kate O'Brian, and hope they find a way to reach an audience, attract advertisers, and land on a growing number of cable systems.
Indeed, the opening hours of Al Jazeera America had, for all its high ambitions and expensive expansion, a muted color scheme, unexciting camera work and sophomoric graphics. This may be part and parcel of a more "old-fashioned" approach – let the news be the news – and certainly there can be an over-reliance on bright and shiny graphic elements at the expense of content.
But this is television, and even those of us genuinely interested in the topics don't want to spend half an hour staring at three people quoting studies.
Also read: Al Jazeera America Dropped By AT&T U-Verse
There will be debates about the bias of Al Jazeera's coverage – Glenn Beck has already called it "the voice of the enemy" – but what's remarkable about it is, in fact, the use of the medium and not the necessarily the message. I would be talking about bias right now if I could, but chiefly, the programs presented information that was new to me. I wasn't thinking about the motivations of the network as a whole so much as I was, "Huh, didn't know that." This is an area of journalism other networks might consider exploring.
There was little flash. The lead story – “team coverage” of the Egypt crisis – consisted solely of talking-head reports from White House correspondent Mike Viqueira and Cairo reporter David Jackson, with Harris hopping in for some cross talk.
The other stories also were presented without gimmickry. If anything, AJA was behind the curve.
The newscast feels more like the BBC than any of the major American networks or cable channels — and I mean that in a good way. Only, the visuals are a lot better on Al Jazeera. Some of the camera work almost takes your breath away.
Perhaps the best comparison would be to the PBS NewsHour. But whereas the NewsHour does very little original reporting and has some of the longest, dullest interviews with a very narrow range of what it considers experts, the 8 p.m. news anchored deftly by John Seigenthaler hardly ever stopped popping with vivid on-the ground reports and analysis from Al Jazeera America correspondents.
While the title of the channel stresses America, and there was some fine U.S. reporting Tuesday, the real treat for this viewer was the opening report on Egypt. I learned more about the political upheaval in Egypt in one report on Al Jazeera America Tuesday than I have in the last two weeks of watching network news. I mean that.
The push to contextualize was apparent in every segment: one anchor offered a breakdown of the history of the Muslim Brotherhood that was unprecedented in its straightforwardness and clarity. The coverage is calm, comprehensive, and far-reaching. But somehow, the overall effect is not quite as different from the rest of cable news as Al Jazeera imagines it.
Unlike their American cable news rivals, AJA unveiled a set that looked like it was imported from the future.
Free of ugly and distracting chyron clutter, AJA's look made watching their debut a visually pleasing experience.
CNN dedicated 50% less programming time to the day's violence in Egypt than AJA did during the network's first 8 hours on-the-air.
And despite Glenn Beck‘s warnings that AJA would be “the voice of the enemy,” there were no dispatches from Al Qaeda during the debut. They probably got bumped for this interview with former All Star baseball player, Gary Sheffield.