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 funded by the federal budget of Russia through the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation.
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.” 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.
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.
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