A couple of days’ spent watching the channel last week bears this out, to some degree, but also highlights some of what might hold them back. The daytime schedule offers what appears to be a fairly standard lineup of news and talk shows, with US-produced shows anchored by US network and cable news veterans Tony Harris, John Seigenthaler, and Joie Chen. It takes a while to realize this is an American production, especially given that shows are sandwiched between Al Jazeera’s main English-language, international show, broadcast from Doha several times a day. The talk shows offer sober fare and steer clear of opinionated rants—Ray Suarez’s Inside Story hosted a discussion on teacher tenure in California; Antonio Mora’s Consider This had experts talking about Gaza, Ukraine, and the like. The Stream, a social-media driven show, tiptoed toward edgy with a segment on homophobia in the NFL, but the discussion, featuring Chris Kluwe, the former punter who just settled a discrimination suit against the Vikings, was substantive and interesting. This week, as if to make up for it, The Stream is taking on poultry inspection.
Still, producing “serious” programming is harder to pull off than rants, and even the best shows didn’t differ too much from something one would see on the PBS News Hour. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there’s nothing especially original either. And while screaming TV fights are obnoxious, three people sitting around agreeing with each other about climate change;—as they did on the Inside Story talk show on Thursday—is emphatically bland.
The qualitative difference is more apparent in primetime, most obviously with Fault Lines, an investigative half-hour that, when I watched, showed a compelling segment on the bail bonds industry. While the piece broke little new ground, it was riveting TV and was a welcome addition to coverage of the troubled criminal-justice system, which is usually ignored.
The fact that AJAM fields a full-time investigative unit helped the network distinguish itself last week—Fault Lines had already aired a piece about the militarization of local police departments when the Ferguson story exploded from Missouri. Reporter Sebastian Walker’s segment, which focused on a bloody SWAT-type raid gone wrong in LA County, was well done and all-too-relevant.
Ferguson dominated the news the day I watched the most, Thursday (the day Obama spoke about it and the state police were brought in), but even here AJAM’s effort was notable. Its crew was in the thick of things to the point that Ash-har Quraishi, a Chicago-based reporter (the network boasts a dozen US bureaus), and his colleagues were teargassed. Joie Chen flew in from Washington to anchor the network’s flagship program, America Tonight, from Ferguson. But what was most notable was that the network stayed with the story, hour after hour, with standups well past 11pm, while competitors returned to regularly scheduled programming. That said, there was little new to report each hour.
Current and former employees say resources are stretched thin and the latest layoffs didn’t help. One senses that the goal of maintaining a qualitative edge—one that is readily visible to a casual viewer—requires even more resources than are currently available. It’s expensive.
But the biggest threats to the station’s viability are clearly on the business side, with the distribution issues a particular sore point. Al Jazeera Media Network’s decision to enter the US cable market, via the $500 million deal for Al Gore’s Current TV network, saddled AJAM with severe limitations: the network is still only available in about 60 percent of American homes (competitors like CNN are in virtually all of them), often only in premium packages and at unadvantageous positions on the dial (e.g., channels 114 and 614 in Princeton, NJ). Philip Seib, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California and author of The Al Jazeera Effect, says he can’t watch AJAM because Charter Communications, his local cable operator in Pasadena, doesn’t offer it.
Indeed, the Current deal continued to haunt the network last week when Gore himself sued AJAM’s parent for allegedly withholding “tens of millions of dollars” held in escrow.
The network is not widely available in high definition, giving the programming a murky, unpolished veneer compared to competitors (an AJAM spokeswoman says that’s not unusual with cable launches and the problem is being fixed). And just as crucially, its deals with cable operators include onerous restrictions on the amount of free video it can offer online, making impossible the kind of livestreaming that allowed its predecessor, Al Jazeera English, to established a beachhead in the US, particularly among younger viewers. The AJE live stream is no longer available in the US.