January 7, 2013

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Two years ago I called Al Jazeera’s live coverage of the revolution in Egypt a “Sputnik moment” for cable in the U.S. Turns out it wasn’t. Not since Al Jazeera agreed to pay half a $billion, plus their live internet stream, to sit at U.S. cable’s table. Losing Al Jazeera English reduces to a single source — France24 — the number of live streams available on the Net from major video news channels. It also terminates years Al Jazeera English’s history on the Net at 5.25 years.

It’s a huge victory for cable and an equally huge loss for the open Net. I dearly hope Al Jazeera feels that loss too. Because what Al Jazeera screws here is a very loyal audience. Just, apparently, not a lucrative one.

In Al Jazeera Embraces Cable TV, Loses Web, The Wall Street Journal explains,

…to keep cable operators happy, Al Jazeera may have to make a difficult bargain: Giving up on the Web.

The Qatar government-backed television news operation, which acquired Current TV for a few hundred million dollars from investors including Al Gore, said Thursday that it will at least temporarily stop streaming online Al Jazeera English, its global English-language news service, in about 90 days. That’s when it plans to replace Current TV’s programming with Al Jazeera English.

Al Jazeera plans later to launch an entirely new channel, Al Jazeera America, that will combine programming from the existing English-language service with new material. The new channel likely won’t be streamed online either, a spokesman said.

And it is unclear whether the original English service will reappear online: the spokesman said Thursday a decision about that was dependent on negotiations with cable operators.

The network’s decision to pull its service off the Web is at the behest of cable and satellite operators. It reflects a broader conflict between pay television and online streaming that other TV channels face. Because cable and satellite operators pay networks to carry their programming, the operators don’t want the programming appearing for free online. Aside from older series available through services like Netflix, most cable programming is available online only to people who subscribe to cable TV.

You won’t find better proof that television is a captive marketplace. You can only watch it in ways The Industry allows, and on devices it provides or approves. (While it’s possible watch TV on computers, smartphones and tablets, you can only do that if you’re already a cable or satellite subscriber. You can’t get it direct. You can’t buy it à la carte, as would be the case if the marketplace were fully open.)

For what it’s worth, I would gladly pay for Al Jazeera English. So would a lot of other people, I’m sure. But the means for that are not in place, except through cable bundles, which everybody other than the cable industry hates.

In the cable industry they call the Net “OTT,” for “over the top.” That’s where Al Jazeera English thrived. But now, for non-cable subscribers, Al Jazeera English is dead and buried UTB — under the bottom.

Adverto in pacem, AJE. For loyal online viewers you were the future. Soon you’ll be the past.

Bonus links: