(Providence, Rhode Island) - The much talked-about debut of the Al Jazeera America (AJAM) news network happened this past week. Out of curiosity, I watched it for a few hours and came away with a number of thoughts and impressions.
“Crank up the Coffee Pot” – Okay, let’s just say the presentation was sober. That’s probably putting it kindly. The anchors were serious and deliberate (yes, boring). Read the news, and move on. It reminded me of the BBC, which I have never warmed up to. Mind you, I don’t like the incessant happy talk that poisoned much of U.S. TV in the 70s and 80s, but it seems to me there can be a pleasant balance between merely disseminating information and the art of doing it with some semblance of personality.
“Warts and All” – I think there was a preconceived notion - based on Internet comments I read from the U.S. - that Al Jazeera was going to try to portray the Mideast and predominately Muslim world in a glowing light, and be anti-American, too. The first days did not give me that impression at all. Coverage of the unrest in Egypt and Syria was hardly flattering. They didn’t try to ignore the "elephant in the room." It should be known that Al Jazeera is based in and is funded by Qatar, a Mideast country on relatively good terms with the U.S. I would not imagine that Iranian-based television would seemingly try to be as balanced.
“Did They Really Show That on TV?” – I have to say that I was simultaneously mortified and impressed that Al Jazeera chose to air a video that purported to show the victims of a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government. It was horrifying. The video was some of the most graphic I have ever seen. The spectacle of both children and adults poisoned and dying was quite disturbing. Al Jazeera America made the proper and wise move of saying it had not verified the authenticity of the video. But if it was real – and it surely looked so – then it was a horrifying portrayal of what is going on there. I did not see any similar video on U.S. networks. American television generally avoids showing such graphic footage, which I think can be a mistake.
“Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” - The photo backgrounds behind the anchors were huge, and the anchors looked like part of the picture. It was oddly reminiscent of the old Beatles' album cover from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” From a production standpoint, they ought to put the anchor out front, closer to the camera, so he or she does not blend in as an incidental part of the background. In a way, I get it; the anchor is just a presenter – not a part of the story, unlike U.S. television. But, let’s face it; the target audience of this network is the U.S., so maybe it should adhere to local customs and norms. Yes, it would be a cross-cultural gamble.
“America the Beautiful” - It was AJAM's first week, so I will give some of the "hiccups" a pass. But the shows need more American voices, commentators, analysts and opinions – positive or negative. The target audience is in Kansas City, not Beirut. The network needs more “live” presence in the field. Pre-taped reports – whether on CNN, Fox, ABC, or AJAM -often sound stale. Give me live reports and take me to the scene!
“Yawn!” - The big American live guest on one of the days I watched was Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon papers fame. He was there to talk about the sentencing of Private Bradley Manning for releasing classified U.S. intelligence information. Ellsberg – who spent much of his airtime on a tirade against former President George W. Bush – added little to the conversation. He could have offered much valuable perspective, but didn’t. That’s probably more the fault of the guest than the network, but a good anchor can redirect an interview when it goes off course.
“Tune In; Tune Out; or Turn Off” – I think the biggest challenge for Al Jazeera America does not involve journalism, but rather it involves math. The two most pressing questions are: 1) Is there enough viewer demand for another 24-hour news network in the United States; and 2) Are there enough advertising dollars to sustain the operation. I have my doubts, but since the owner (the government of Qatar) has deep pockets, it may all depend on how long it wants to operate at a loss in the U.S. Al Jazeera has multiple international news and sports networks, and overall is quite successful.
“The Numbers” – In the all-important May ratings, Fox News was #1 overall and had the thirteen top-rated shows. CNN finished second. Even CNN’s Headline News channel had 7 of the 30 top-rated shows. MSNBC was ranked last among the 24-hour cable news networks. When you add in the various C-SPAN channels, CNBC and Fox Business, and even BBC in the U.S., you have to wonder if there are enough viewers left for Al Jazeera America. I doubt it. On the other hand, people scoffed at the Fox News business model when it launched in 1996, and look where it is now. In today’s world, “broadcasting” is really a misnomer. “Narrowcasting” to a niche audience and its advertising dollars may be the television business model of the future. We’ll see!
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