Al Jazeera in Egypt is cable’s ‘Sputnik moment’

Al Jazeera story

Cable companies: Add Al Jazeera English *now* Jeff Jarvis commands, correctly, on his blog — and also in , under the headine . For me now was a few minutes ago, when I read both items on the family iPad, which has been our main news portal since the quit coming and I suspended my efforts to reach them by Web or phone. (The Globe also wants a bunch of ID crap when I go there on the iPad, so they’re silent that way too.) So I went to the App store, looked up , saw something called Al Jazeera English Live was available for free, got it, and began watching live protest coverage from Cairo.

We don’t have cable here. We dumped it after network news turned to shit, and we found it was easier to watch movies on Netflix. We still like to watch sports, but cable for sports alone is too expensive, because it’s always bundled with junk we don’t want and not available à la carte. (You know, like stuff is on the Web.) When we want TV news, we go online or get local TV through an gizmo plugged into an old Mac laptop. Works well, but it’s still TV.

And so is Al Jazeera on an iPad/iPhone, Samsung Wave or a Nokia phone. (See details. No Android or Blackberry yet, appaerently.) The difference is that real news s happening in Egypt, and if you want live news coverage in video form, Al Jazeera is your best choice. As Jeff puts it, “Vital, world-changing news is occurring in the Middle East and no one — not the xenophobic or celebrity-obsessed or cut-to-the-bone American media — can bring the perspective, insight, and on-the-scene reporting Al Jazeera English can.”

And it’s very good. , “If you’re watching Al Jazeera, you’re seeing uninterrupted live video of the demonstrations, along with reporting from people actually on the scene, and not “analysis” from people in a studio. The cops were threatening to knock down the door of one of its reporters minutes ago. Fox has moved on to anchor babies. CNN reports that the ruling party building is on fire, but Al Jazeera is showing the fire live.”

In fact six Al Jazeera journalists are now being detained (I just learned). That kind of thing happens when your news organization is actually involved in a mess like this. CNN used to be that kind of organization, but has been in decline for years, along with other U.S. network news organizations. As Jeff says, “What the Gulf War was to CNN, the people’s revolutions of the Middle East are to Al Jazeera English. But in the U.S., in a sad vestige of the era of Freedom Fries, hardly anyone can watch the channel on cable TV.”

And that’s a Good Thing, because cable is a mostly shit in a pipe, sphinctered through a “set top box” that’s actually a computer crippled in ways that maximize control by the cable company and minimize choice for the user. Fifteen years ago, the promise of TV was “five hundred channels”. We have that now, but we also have billions of sources — not just “channels” — over the Net. Cream rises to the top, and right now that cream is Al Jazeera and the top is a hand-held device.

The message cable should be getting is not just “carry Al Jazeera,” but “normalize to the Internet.” Open the pipes. Give us à la carte choices. Let us get and pay for what we want, not just what gets force-fed in bundles. Let your market — your viewers — decide what’s worth watching, and how they want to watch it. And quit calling Internet video “over the top”. The Internet is the new bottom, and old-fashioned channel-based TV is a limping legacy.

A few days ago, President Obama spoke about the country’s “Sputnik moment”. Well, that’s what Al Jazeera in Egypt is for cable TV. It’s a wake-up call from the future. In that future we’ll realize that TV is nothing more than a glowing rectangle with a boat-anchor business model. Time to cut that anchor and move on.

Here’s another message from the future, from one former cable TV viewer: I’d gladly pay for Al Jazeera. Even when I can also get it for free. All we need is the mechanism, and I’m glad to help with that.

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  1. Randy’s avatar

    There’s another avenue that could be used for Al Jazeera – digital sub-channels of broadcast television stations.

    All hi-def broadcasters can, in addition to their main broadcast channel, offer “sub-channels” in standard def. Some use them in my area to carry alternate programming – a channel consisting only of old movies or tv shows, or Spanish language programming, or even 24-hour hour a day infomercials.

    Just about all PBS affiliated stations always carry subchannels with kids programming and other options.

  2. Da Scritch’s avatar

    I’m a happy costumer from French ISP Free, most important TVoIP service in subscribers worldwide.

    And I have more than 25 news channels, including BBC World News, Euronews, France 24 (3 languages declinaisons), Fox News (yes, we need to laugh too), TeleSur (The Fox News by Hugo Chavez) and AJE programs. Lot of them viewable on VLC (just choose in the library “Internet : Freebox TV”)

    We also have tunisian, egyptian official TV. During Tunisian events, French news channels were doing a good job, but late : when Ben Ali left Tunis, they didn’t said “President” anymore but “Ex-dictator”. This semantic change was very commented on the web.

    Since the beginning of the Egypt events, AJE is THE network everyone here in France are commenting and watching (when subscribed). AJE is not exactly neutral (and sometimes I don’t agree with their point of vue), but the reporters are making an incredible work. They have lots of local bureaus but refused to “temperate” their reports.

    Even French journalists follow them and comment them on Twitter with admiration.
    More to say : The two Al Jazeera channels release their reports about actual events in Creative commons. That says that any media can inform, and doing publicity to AJ.

    If your cable operator refuse to give you choice, it’s also because it is in monopoly. And we can’t have a good democracy by this way. High-speed ISP market was a monopoly here in France, until “Free” came with a revolutionary idea : giving TV with internet, with enough room to have more than 500 channels and per channel subscribing. All cable tv here in France suffered from those ideas and they had to mutate.

  3. Taras’s avatar

    We’re lucky in the UK to have Al Jazeera as one of the standard channels on Freeview (the national free-to-air digital TV network). It does offer a different and refreshing perspective on world news, and I’ve found myself watching it over BBC News more and more lately.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    You folks in Europe and elsewhere have an everyday awareness that there are other countries, cultures, languages — and media — surrounding you. Here in the U.S. we’re flanked by two oceans and two countries we mostly ignore. Sad state.

  5. Jesse Harris’s avatar

    You’re mostly there. Raging against the cable companies for not allowing a la carte channels is missing a big part of the problem: the programmers. For example, Disney uses ESPN as a hostage to force programmers to buy all sorts of other channels they (and by extension, you) don’t want or need. They figure that the need for ESPN is so high that they can leverage it to force unpopular channels down our throats instead of trying to market those channels and convince us that we need them.

    Cable is complicit in this because every time there’s a carriage battle, they put on a good show about “controlling consumer costs” and “standing up for our customers”, but they always cave and pay whatever the programmer demands. And why shouldn’t they? They’ll just pass on the cost to us and while we all grumble, the number of us that actually cancel service are few and far between. Cable still tells themselves that their first-ever quarterly drop in subs is because of the economy, not because they’re pricing themselves out of the market.

    Given how slow the cable companies have been to realize that they need to fight for their customers, my money is on programmers realizing it first and selling their content directly. Right now, they’re all waiting for someone else to do it first and incur cable’s wrath.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Amen to all of that, Jesse. And when they agree on selling content directly, cable won’t be cable any more. Nor will TV. Which is fine. In the long run it’s all files and streams, some of which we pay for and some of which we don’t.

    One big reason they’re still somewhat clueless is that cable is a one-way clue prevention system. I remember a few years back when we had a meeting in Santa Barbara with Cox, our cable company, and the need for more upstream speed was discussed. “We don’t see the demand,” they said. To which we replied, “You don’t allow the demand! Of course you can’t see it!”

    Which is why something like Al Jazeera in Egypt is such a why-opener for them. Or should be.

    Whether they get that clue or not, nature will take its course.

  7. Jeff Allen’s avatar

    I live in Switzerland (I’m an immigrant here). I have Aljazeera English as part of basic cable. I also have TV Montenegro, and a dozen others I can’t figure out because I don’t speak the language, and/or can’t even recognize the character set.

    When you live in independent, prosperous country that’s not in debt, it’s not afraid of anything. When you are not afraid, your people have freedom. Freedom of information, above all. The freedom to learn what you need to know to keep your country independent and prosperous.


  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Well put, Jeff. Thanks.

  9. Marie Ysais’s avatar

    I have a brother that works for the networks that “fluff” the news. He prepares the videos that go on air in the morning. He has now been penalized twice for showing an actual needle on the air and showing a body under a sheet. The video rules are more stringent in the mornings than in the evenings.

  10. Scott Herbert’s avatar

    There are a number of Android app’s out for Al-Jazeera including my un-official version (shameless plug ) all are in the early stages so it may be too soon to say one is better than the others (my version includes a news reader as well as the live broadcast, as far as I can tell the other just have the broadcast, but I may be wrong on that).

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