Will Americans Be Able to Watch Al Jazeera America?

Al Jazeera logo on an office wall, along with the company's code of ethics etched in stone.Al Jazeera logo on an office wall, along with the company’s code of ethics etched in stone. (Photo: Joi)Liberal cable channel Current TV was sold to Al Jazeera for a reported $500 million. The low-rated Current, owned by Al Gore, struggled to connect with viewers, but they did a decent job of getting national distribution. The latter is apparently what attracted Al Jazeera’s interest, which has failed to convince cable providers to even give them a chance at finding an American audience.

Al Jazeera’s plan is to create a new channel, Al Jazeera America, that will essentially replace what is now Current. So the price tag would seem to be the amount of money they’re willing to spend just to get on American television at all.

But will cable providers, who have been unwilling to give Al Jazeera English a chance, behave differently now? In New York City, Time Warner Cable promptly pulled the plug on Current. And it would seem that other providers could go that route too. As Paul Farhi reports in the Washington Post (1/4/13):

Al Jazeera’s plan to turn Current into a new channel called Al Jazeera America could run afoul of some of Current’s programming contracts with cable operators; the contracts prohibit cable networks from making major programming changes without the operators’ consent.

The cable industry likes to say it doesn’t carry Al Jazeera English by saying that there’s just no room for another channel. But Al Jazeera was regularly vilified by U.S. government officials during the Iraq War, and, as many of the new reports note, the news organization must fight the perception that it harbors some kind of “anti-Western” bias. As the New York Times’ Brian Stelter (1/2/13) put it:

Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab news giant, has long tried to convince Americans that it is a legitimate news organization, not a parrot of Middle Eastern propaganda or something more sinister.

The Washington Post story, for instance, quotes from Steven Stalinsky of the right-leaning group MEMRI, who “has documented ties between Al Jazeera’s management and journalists–including its former boss, Wadah Khanfar–and the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Arabic political movement.”

And this is a good time to raise some larger questions about cable TV. A Reuters article (1/4/13) focusing on the business aspects of the deal noted that cable news channels get money from subscribers:

SNL Kagan said Fox News averages 89 cents per subscriber per month, while CNN gets 57 cents and MSNBC collects 18 cents.

That’s per subscriber–as in, everyone who has cable television. So all of us cable subscribers pay for Fox News Channel. We pay quite a bit, as a matter of fact, whether we watch it or not.

Does it make sense to force viewers and non-viewers to subsidize programming they don’t watch? It’s hard to see the upside, especially in a journalistic sense–we pay for some of the cheapest, least informative reporting one can imagine. And there’s no way for viewers to say that they’d like to not pay for that–but that they’d be happy to pay for other programming, or to simply get a chance to watch it, whether that’s Free Speech TV or Al Jazeera English. A different system, like an a la carte model, would give viewers the opportunity to make these decisions themselves–and not keep paying for things they either don’t watch, find objectionable or both.

The current model is great for certain people: monopolistic cable companies and big media owners like Rupert Murdoch. It rewards TV hosts like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. And it makes it harder for competitors to get a chance to offer viewers something new.

The New York Times editorial (1/4/13) in support of Al Jazeera included a funny line:

Many American policy makers and cable companies have had doubts about the impartiality of Al Jazeera, which is owned and financed by the emir of Qatar.

Of course, cable companies happily carry Fox News, which is no one’s idea of impartial. The same could be said of liberal MSNBC (which is a lot cheaper to customers).

So the problem isn’t that American TV viewers might be subjected to news with a point of view. It’s news with what many elites might consider the wrong point of view that is the problem.