News: Watching Cable Die

Now that Al Jazeera English‘s stream has been killed in the U.S., the only two streaming global news organizations available on computers and mobile devices are France24 and RT. They look like this:

In other words, like TV. Talking heads and reports from the field.

Also like PR.

I certainly get that from RT, the initials of Russia Today. Sez Wikipedia,

RT, previously known as Russia Today, is an international multilingual Russian-based television network. It is registered as an autonomous non-profit organization[2][3] funded by the federal budget of Russia through the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation.[4][5]

France24, sez Wikipedia,

… is an international newsand current affairs television channel based in Paris. Its stated mission is to “cover international current events from a French perspective and to convey French values throughout the world.”[1] It started broadcasting on 6 December 2006 under the presidency of Jacques Chirac and prime ministerial term of Dominique de Villepin.

Neither are as interesting to watch as Al Jazeera English was when we could still see it here in the U.S. Nor are they as large and substantive as Al Jazeera.

Yet @AlJazeera‘s apparent disinterest in talking about anything that might not promote its new Al Jazeera America (@AJAM) cable channel suggests the same kind of PR-based DNA. Far as I know (and feel free to correct me), @AlJazeera remains unwilling to talk out loud about why it chose to kill its live @AJEnglish stream in the U.S. — or to cover that move as the real news it was, and still is.

Whatever else it may be (and it’s a lot), Al Jazeera is also vanity project by the monarchy of Qatar. Ideally that would make it an example of what James Fallows calls a way for “this Gilded Age’s major beneficiaries (to) re-invest in the infrastructure of our public intelligence.”

Jim is talking there about Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post. In that same piece, he says, “Foreign reportage, serious investigative or government-accountability coverage — functions like these have always been, in economic terms, parasites that need to ride along on some profitable host body.” In the U.S. the profitable host body in cable news has been its presentation as entertainment, political axe-grinding, or both. One would hope Al Jazeera America takes the high road here, but the fact remains that going cable-only was a low-road move. Especially since the Al Jazeera abandoned the high road it was on — live presentation on computers and mobile devices — along with the infrastructure of public intelligence the company was helping to build there.

On Saturday’s Gillmor Gang, Robert Scoble said he thought Al Jazeera was playing a “long ball” game here. They certainly have the money. But they’re starting way behind. First, they fired — and pissed off — the loyal audience of early adopters they had on the Net. Second, they made the mistake of giving the Al Jazeera name to a wholly new operation in the U.S., where (sad to say) “Al (anything-Arabic)” is certain to be associated by many cable viewers with Al Qaeda, the only outright enemy of the U.S. with a name everybody knows. If they had called it “AJ” (in the manner of Russia Today’s RT) it might have had a better chance. Third, they either got dropped or not picked up by the largest cable companies, while those that do carry it (e.g. DirectTV and Dish Network) have exiled it to more expensive tiers than those CNN and Fox News enjoy. Those operators also run Al Jazeera America’s video in low-def SD instead of hi-def HD. So the new network could hardly be starting farther behind, or in a business with less chance of long-term success.

On that last topic, I have to wonder what the calculus of the “deal” to kill the live AJE stream was. That was not only an awful lot to pay for very little in return; but it isn’t even clear who it was paid to. Time Warner? AT&T? Neither carries @AJAM at all. And the others hardly seem to give a damn about the channel anyway. [Later: see my comment here.] I can imagine this dialog between Al Jazeera and the U.S. cable companies:

AJ: We killed our firstborn so it would not offend you. Will you carry our channel now?

SOME CABLE COMPANIES: No.

OTHER CABLE COMPANIES: Um, okay, maybe on one of our high-priced tiers, in lo-def.

AJ: Okay.

On top of all that, @AJAM and @AJEnglish are apparently different services, serving different audiences: cable viewers and computer/mobile device viewers. I suppose @AlJazeera thought its streaming audience would jump at the opportunity to go retro and watch something else from the company on cable. @AlJazeera might be right about that, but that looks to me like something between wishful thinking and outright delusion.

The cable industry’s disdain for Al Jazeera is one more example of why cable is a dead medium walking. As a big coercive silo that many viewers barely tolerate or actively hate — and stick with only because the shows they want to see are trapped inside the thing — its worst enemy is itself. Consistent with that, cable features some of the world’s worst exemplars of bad customer service.

Meanwhile other traditional sources of high-quality TV news have so adapted to life inside cable’s silo that their live streams are almost impossible to get. Dig this, for example:

What you see there is the futility of trying to watch ABC’s live stream online. Talk about a f’d “experience.” Either the app says it can’t determine one’s location (my experience in New York, the Bay Area and Southern California — wish I got a screen shot), or that it’s only available in those areas and three others where the viewer happens not to be. Then, for  those who want the Compleat Futility Experience, there’s that third page there, a non-responsive Web page squeezed to un-readability on a mobile screen.

Here’s the thing: TV hates the Net. Simple as that. It has hated the Net for as long as it’s known that the Net was a threat to its coercive system. That’s why the MSOs (a trade term for cable+satelite) call video distribution on the Net “over the top” or OTT. And also why it’s no surprise to find only one cable program source (Viacom) among Comscore’s top ten online video companies. The rest are Net-native, starting with Google. (See Tristan Louis Is Google Killing Cable? for more on where this goes.)

Most of what people watch on the Net isn’t news. Or, if it is news, it doesn’t look like what we see in those top images above. Nor should it — any more than cars in 1900 should have looked like railroad coaches.

Video on the Net is wild, crazy and exploding out of anybody’s control, including Google’s. Mostly it is coming from everybody. Not just from the usual suspects.

And it isn’t TV.

Let’s face it: TV is channels. (Never mind that what are now called “channels” and “networks” are neither, in the original senses of those words.) In the U.S. those channels are nothing more than a collection of branded program sources delivered by some of the least caring companies on Earth to an audience forced to watch through crappy gear with a horrible user interface. In the growing ocean of video from everywhere on the Net, TV has the buoyancy of a bowling ball.

It’s just a matter of time before it sinks.

It’s also a matter of cost. Cable is expensive, and not getting cheaper.

The biggest thing keeping it afloat is live sports. In the U.S., that’s ESPN. They’re the life jacket on cable’s bowling ball.

At some point ESPN goes direct OTT and the rest of TV will either die along with cable or moult out of cable’s dead husk. If Al Jazeera America is one of the casualties, we’ll be prepared, because we’re already getting practice at living without it. And it won’t be news at all.

[Later (29 August)...]

In response to a corrective comment by Fritz Mills below I’ve done a bit of research to see how cable and satellite companies are carrying Al Jazeera America. Finding out isn’t too easy, because most of these companies (at least on the cable side) only tell you what’s available at a given address. So I just checked with as many companies as I had the patience and time to visit, and got this:

  • AT&T U-Verse: Dropped, and sued by Al Jazeera for breach of contract
  • Cablevision: Dropped when Al Jazeera bought Current TV
  • Charter: Not there
  • Comcast: 254, in the top tier “Digital Preferred 160+” package, in low-def, and moved there (thanks, Dennis McDonald for that link) from the basic tier that @AJEnglish had been on
  • DirectTV: 215, in low-def, as part of  a higher tier
  • Dish Network: 358, in low-def, as part of the “America’s Top 200″ tier
  • Cox: Not there
  • RCN: 326. on its “signature” (second highest) tier, in low-def
  • Time Warner Cable: Dropped back in January, when Al Jazeera bought Current TV
  • Verizon FiOS: On PrimeHD, Extreme HD and Ultmiate HD — a total of six different channels, two apiece on each tier (one SD, one HD)

Meaning you can get it in HD on basic cable only on Verizon FiOS.

There are two fiber-based companies on the list: RCN and Verizon. Fiber is interesting because there is virtually unlimited bandwidth. Bandwidth is more scarce with cable and satellite, which is one reason they carry some channels only in higher tiers (to reduce demand) and in low-def SD instead of HD. They also compress the HD far more than fiber carriers need to, which is why HD channels on fiber tend to look better (provided they aren’t too compressed back upstream).

That’s why Verizon FiOS wins on that list above. RCN could also make AJAM HD, because they have the bandwidth. But instead they make it SD, and put a green $ in lieu of a √ in the checkbox, to make clear that it’s “available at a premium“. Which means it might as well not be there.

On the matter of Al Jazeera coming clean about the deal to kill the @AJEnglish stream in order to be carried by MSOs in the U.S., the closest thing I’ve found to an inside detail is an Email from Marwan Bishara to AJ executives, dated 10 July 2015, posted by Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, and featured in his 14 July story, Inside look at the internal strife over Al Jazeera America, subtitled “As the new US network is finally set to launch, serious concerns arise about its brand and intent: especially from within the organization.” One excerpt from the email:

Have we signed a deal where AJAM program/content must be substantially different from AJE? Really!!!! What does substantially mean? Who have we made the agreement with and why? I asked several executives and not a single person can give me a categorical answer about the issue, which by itself is mind-boggling!!! (I have issues with AJE’s formats, and at times perspectives, but we have so much to hold onto).

Does the fear of contractual obligations with carriers etc. mean it’s necessary for some to do whatever they want with Aljazeera, including banning AJE altogether from America and web livestream, just when they themselves try to make the case for a 21st century type television news!!!! . . . .

We still don’t know exactly what the deal was, even the effects are obvious.

I still haven’t seen @AJAM. And, like so many other dismissed viewers in the U.S., I miss @AJEnglish. So, a suggestion to @AlJazeera: make one or both available on a subscription basis. A lot of us might pay for that. Per-stream subscriptions where TV is going anyway, once cable falls apart. Get ahead of that curve.

24 comments

  1. jonathan peterson’s avatar

    Live sports is a big part of why cable IS expensive. ESPN’s estimated monthly cost if unbundled is $30/month.

    Turner is ALSO on the Comscore top 10, and just launched CNN and Headline news live online as well as TNT simulcast to cable subscribers including this year’s PGA Championship and some NASCAR events live.

  2. gregorylent’s avatar

    i despise television, and refuse to own one, because of one reason … advertising and it’s theft of my attention

  3. Tristan Louis’s avatar

    ESPN has a hold on football but other leagues are starting to go direct to consumer. Witness the efforts of the MLB, which is probably the most interesting play in online TV today.

  4. Tom Betz’s avatar

    @Jonathan Peterson: Abjuring sports as I do, I was pleased to sign up for Verizon FiOS’ Select TV service, which, though it includes all the HBO channels, is otherwise totally sports-free, and considerably less expensive than their other plans. Unfortunately, it also lacks Al Jazeera America.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    If enough people cut cords, or give clear economic signaling of a willingness to pay for á la carte programs and channels, ESPN will make the move. But if its corporate parents and sibs Disney, ABC, et. al.) will have to be ready as well. Today they are not. But you can bet ESPN has the whole scenario on back burner already.

  6. Dani Greene’s avatar

    My grown kids, along with most of thier friends, watch Netflix, Pirate Bay and other free internet download entertainment sites, as well as AJ English (Up until a week or so ago). Cable requires disposable monies and when there are alternatives, why throw it away? Some have switched VPN to outside USA to get AJ English, but that can be a hassle.

    Didn’t realize ESPN is driving the cable costs up, that is interesting.

  7. Glenn’s avatar

    Been watching the AJ cable/web scenario play out for months; never understood why they did not re-brand to AJTV or AJazTV. Going ‘cable only’ seems like an odd move; why would you exclude English language web viewers to capture a small percentage of the MSO audience. You point out that even ABC is moving (slowly) to simultaneous Live Streaming on the web. BTW the ABC app works great for me although it is a bit clunky and asks twice for verification of location-aware browsing before connecting. As for cable sinking … if you own the oceans, the currents, the beaches, and the waves; who cares about a few bowling balls?

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Glenn. Agreed. And it’s clear that the cable and phone companies think they do own the oceans. The strange irony is that we connect to the Net — something the carriers never would have invented because it came without billing sphincters — by grace of those same companies. Fighting that end-game is a worthy cause. Saving AJE’s bowling ball, at this point, isn’t.

  9. Bruce Fryer’s avatar

    Doc, The streaming services of OTR (including Aereo) check the IP address of your device to see your location. One solution is to set up a VPN server at home (in the legal areas). It has the added bonus that you can use the VPN from your iPhone, iPad, whatever, at the coffee shop and since it is encrypted, no eavesdroppers. You can build one for less than $100. http://raspberrypi-hacks.com/29/turn-your-raspberry-into-an-openvpn-vpn-server/

    However it will confuse the hell out of any mobile maps apps you’re using on wifi!

  10. Siobbahn’s avatar

    I too miss AJE streaming. My only thought is thank goodness for public television. Although France24 and RT don’t have the same on the ground coverage they do offer a different perspective and definitely a lot more discussion/debate on world topics than US news channels. There are some interesting options for international news via public television channels. Especially recommend having a look at MHz networks  www.mhznetworks.org) They’re an independent, non-profit org that broadcasts int’l news shows online and also via Roku channel.

  11. Stephen’s avatar

    I dropped cable in 2005 when the local UPN kept preempting Star Trek Enterprise for sports. Ninety channels, and they couldn’t keep sports on some other channel? But worse, this serial program would get bumped to a random day and time, and the announcements about when it was bumped never led to watching the show.

    After dropping cable, it became clear that there was no way i could spend $30 (it might have bee $45) a month on movie rentals. I simply don’t have that much time. Even though i had much more time on my hands, since i wasn’t spending it channel surfing in vein.

    My Pentium II could do 1024×768 full screen video. Not sure why faster, more modern machines often can’t do even that. The computer industry could have had it made if they 1) standardized codecs, and 2) made sure that some minimum standard machine could always be used to view content.

  12. Dennis McDonald’s avatar

    Here in Alexandria VA along with everyone else we lost access to both the web and cable tv versions of Al Jazeera English when Al Jazeera America was started. Problem is, Al Jazeera America is on my Comcast “digital preferred” tier so I can’t watch it on the TVs we use for news that are equipped with a crappy “digital transport adapters” that only decrypt the “digital basic” channels (Al Jazeera English used to be on the Digital Basic tier). In other words, as the prices for cable TV steadily rise, Comcast cable TV is getting less useful. It’s especially galling that I’m paying for all these ESPN channels I don’t want and need. Cable TV can’t die fast enough as far as I’m concerned.

  13. Richard Sambrook’s avatar

    Hi Doc – Great post.
    When I was responsible for trying to get a foreign news channel carried in the US (BBC) – and failed – the cable companies wouldn’t allow live streaming of even parts of a channel they carried. Yet the economic upside of being on cable still outweighs opting to go web only (which I would have opted for 5 years ago). I agree, it’s only a matter of time.
    I think AJAm is desperate not to rock the boat in order to consolidate a tenuous position…

  14. Jon Davies’s avatar

    It is much the same in the UK. I would love to see German and French news but Sky managed to drop these channels when they moved from analogue to digital.

  15. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Jon, this just shows how TV is more of a sphincter than a portal. The open Net is a better system for both the first sources and the final customers or users. And this is why @AlJazeera’s move was so tragically retro.

  16. Fritz Mills’s avatar

    I don’t know why you say Comcast subscribers don’t get AJAM. I’m a Comcast subscriber, and I get it. They previously carried Al Gore’s channel (Current TV), and have continued to air the channel since Al Jazeera took it over. The only cable operator I’m aware of that dropped Current when Al Jazeera bought it was Time Warner, but they have a reputation for being difficult to deal with: they don’t even carry CBS.

  17. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Fritz. I was going by something I read, and can’t find it again, so I’ll make a correction above. I also just moved the rest of this comment into an addendum to the post, and added a bit more there.

  18. Dennis McDonald’s avatar

    Doc here is a description of what happened to access to AJAM here in Alexandria VA; access got bumped to a higher tier that AJE which resulted in older TVs connected to cable via digital-to-analog adapters being cut out: https://plus.google.com/101692079149381476698/posts/gHE4TDj2NWb .

  19. Al Beeman’s avatar

    AJAM has shot itself in the foot by cutting off all the American viewers who have been watching Al Jazeera for a long time. I suspect we are mostly tech savvy types and Cable “cord cutters” and people who have SMART TVs and SMART Phones (& tablets & PCs too).

    When I complained I was told where I could go to sign up for Cable!!!!

    Nothing like pissing off your loyal viewers with a good slap in the face, especially when they represent the future as cable prices itself out of existence and loses to the all consuming Internet…

    Really a shame to see a great news service make such a big blunder. Sheikh Hamad Al-Thani over in Doha could reverse the dumb decision and apologize… Nahhhh, he wouldn’t do that, would he????

    Al Beeman
    Hilo, HI USA

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