Why Al Jazeera America Seemed Doomed From the Get-Go

Al Jazeera America is shutting down, marking the end of an experiment that belongs alongside New Coke in the annals of marketing miscalculations.

Cloaked over the skeleton of what was Current, a channel that itself was struggling, Al Jazeera seemed misguided from the get-go, on almost every level. That included the questionable assumption that there was pent-up demand for another news channel when existing ones were struggling, as well as a belief that U.S. viewers were clamoring for more serious and international coverage, beyond the admittedly paltry amount that’s available to them.

Finally, there was the little matter of the name. Fairly or not, to many in the U.S. Al Jazeera, backed by the government of Qatar, evoked images of a foreign news organization presenting points of view that are perceived as being hostile to America in general, and perhaps especially its policy pertaining to the Middle East. Never mind the merits of those beliefs, choosing to use that name almost surely put too much faith in viewers and created significant distribution and carriage hurdles – the life’s blood of any small cable channel.

Some of the longer-form reporting and investigative journalism that Al Jazeera championed – and for which the channel won awards – is certainly laudable. But there’s a reason “Frontline” exists within the relatively safe harbor of PBS, and that prestigious, issue-oriented documentaries have largely been confined to premium services like HBO and Netflix, even with CNN now making a concerted push into that arena.

Tellingly, the major network news organizations, ad-supported commercial enterprises that they are, see virtually no appetite for serious primetime news. Instead, their magazines are almost exclusively devoted to salacious crimes, hidden-camera stunts and the occasional big interview. As for basic cable, those channels have been awash in talk and opinion because it’s much cheaper to deliver than the investigative work that Al Jazeera touted.

There’s a chicken-and-egg question, of course, as to whether those news operations have helped drag news toward infotainment or are merely responding to viewer preferences. Yet the bottom line is that the gulf between serious TV news and commercially viable news – between what people might say they want, and what they actually watch – has seldom seemed wider. That left Al Jazeera America to claw for what amounted to a niche within a niche.

Whatever the mix of causes, the network’s fate — especially sad for those who have worked to establish it as a credible news source — deals another blow to those who insist there really is an under-served market out there for in-depth reporting. Because while it’s nice to think so and however noble the intentions, when it comes to proving that theory, Al Jazeera America didn’t even have a fighting chance.

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