Better to measure the “number of bureaus and correspondents” of all of the BBG entities, not just VOA. Al Jazeera probably still has the advantage. And by what measure has Al Jazeera English “overtaken” the BBC? I’m sure that BBC World News still has a larger audience, and that CNN International (at no cost to US taxpayers) has the largest audience of the “big three” global English news channels.
As for the news-gathering side, it seems clear that AJE has the advantage, or at least the momentum. Not only are the numbers there, but what correspondents told me is that they pretty strong autonomy to develop their own stories without having to think of a certain national angle (i.e. the American, British or Western angle that so often colors international news by the incumbents). This is a major qualitative advantage in the work of journalists.
As for audience figures, the closest we get are the well-cited availability figures, the number of households in which AJE can be seen. AJE just announced it was carried via traditional TV distribution means in 250 million homes, in 130 countries.
By contrast, BBC World broadcasts in over 200 countries, with BBC newsgathering operations in more than 70 locations (roughly the same then as AJE’s). In 2008, BBC World released its number of availability in 282 million households (2008), 160 million of which were full-time households. as for audience, it reported, 78 million viewers (up 2 million from 2007).
More recently, it combined all its distribution platforms and reported in 2010 that it had an “overall weekly multimedia audience of 180 million across television, radio, online and mobiles, which was a decrease of 8 million from the previous year.
Audience size, how many people actually watch, is very costly to measure in most countries. It is also a sensitive issue for obvious reasons. There are no reliable, public estimates for this globally for AJE — it would be very nice for AJE to release some statistics on this if they have them.
As an aside, this sort of mandated transparency is one thing that sets the political economy of the BBC apart from AJE. I see this as linked to differential “rule of law” mandates and public financing structures, even if both are given relative editorial independence on most issues and areas they cover.
As for CNN International’s audience estimates, I am (lazily) trying to find global estimates. Outside of the well-studied markets where audiences are veritable lab rats, the numbers are rarely reliable. CNN strategically releases some results, such as estimates of the Asia Pacific, which shows CNN far ahead of the BBC and AJE. Other studies, independently released, show it ahead in the Middle East, and I read somewhere it’s strong in Europe. Elliott is probably right about this but I’d like to find better estimates.
One could look at website rankings to get an impression of relative comparability, but generalizing from the web to TV audience is not valid.
What this graph, derived from Google Trends estimates, shows is that BBC’s core website attracts far more daily unique users than does CNN and CNN International’s, as well as Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera English’s (roughly 250 to 400k visitors per day).
I should note that only recently did aljazeera.com replace english.aljazeera.net. Even so, the graph with the old url doesn’t look much different because of the scaling.
A separate analysis shows a closer competition between VOA and AJE, with the later only really attracting more website visits during the main Arab uprising months of early 2011.
If this could somehow be taken as an indication of audience sizes, this would show large discrepancies. Of course, we cannot do that since this is only web-based. But even as web comparisons, there are a few qualifications.
First, BBC and CNN have very large domestic constituencies; AJE does not. Al Jazeera is largely a regional network and is limited by the number of online Arabic language users. So these skew the comparison if we’re really interested in global audiences. Google also shows country by country visualizations. In the United States, BBC attracts much higher numbers than either of the Al Jazeera websites (and naturally, far fewer than CNN).
Second, the websites also include various language services (VOA as well), which I think are included in this visit counts. My basis for still using them is that these patterns show in majority English-speaking countries — although AJE is getting more web visits than VOA in the UK.
Third, it does not capture other elements of their web presence, such as social media and YouTube channels (AJE is one of the most popular news channels).
More can be asked about Google’s methodology. I’m assuming that flaws in its measures are not producing bias for or against any of the sites.
At the end of the day, these side-by-side comparisons may not be so vital, anyways. On one hand, they each offer different constellations of languages and services. Comparability in just the English language TV news function of each could be useful for a race horse analysis but does it really say much about the health of each organization and the larger issues of news and information flows in the world?
Putting aside the fact that AJE is much newer than BBC World (as are many countries in the world), the VOA and CNN, these kinds of estimates about audience size ignore what could be more important qualitative questions: what are these channels about, what are they doing for news and journalism, and how does their framing circulate and impact their audiences as well as other media?
Audience estimates also obscure the fact that these networks have very different missions, incentives and market strategies. CNN International has undertaken an audience-maximizing strategy of differentiating itself for different markets, something AJE is not interested in doing. BBC has a public service vision, on the other hand, and sees itself as an official representative of Great Britain. It carries this out through a commitment to objectivity in reporting, despite the inherent incongruence in these aims.
Audience size, however, is ultimately about being watched, which they all aim for. Importantly, audience means sustainability. It is the key metric for advertisers, distributors and sponsors. Budgets rise on fall on such measures. CNN as a private enterprise faces this most concretely. The VOA and BBC’s budgets may fall for larger reasons tied to domestic politics and economic well-being, though their performances are measured and analyzed as well.
The question is, will AJE’s? So far, it seems to have been given a generous incubation time. Changes in its political economy, such as a move towards privatization, could change how it is funded, but this is not certain. If it’s funding is guaranteed for the long haul, it may eventually get to where de Borchgrave prematurely estimates it is already. That is, if its viewership reflects its investment and advantage in its news-gathering operations.
This boosts American access to international news — or more specifically Comcast Xfinity subscribers in limited markets. This is an estimated increase of availability in 15 million households.
The Wrap reports:
BBC World News is currently available in about 6 million households, but this pact will extend it to nearly 15 million homes through Comcast’s Xfinity TV Service by the end of 2012. While the BBC was already available in markets like New York and Washington D.C., most Comcast customers in metropolitan areas from Philadelphia to Chicago to Minneapolis will now receive it as well.
Also being added are Indianapolis, Portland, Boston, Northern California, Michigan and Western New England.
“This deal represents huge progress for BBC World News in the most competitive television marketplace in the world,” Peter Horrocks, the BBC’s Director of Global News, said in a statement. “We know that US viewers increasingly value the smart and impartial international journalism provided by the BBC.”
While 15 million homes is a paltry figure compared to major U.S. news networks, this represents a major extension of the BBC much like the one Al-Jazeera English has been attempting in the United States.
The Qatar-based network has gradually extended into markets like New York and Chicago, but despite a notable year of reporting on the Arab Spring it has not entirely shed its negative stimga in the U.S.
Will it help or hurt AJE’s efforts?
Most of my analysis suggests it hurts. BBC World News uses quite the same rhetoric of AJE officials who claim Americans have an unfulfilled interest in international news.
“The BBC is renowned for its journalistic integrity and audiences are increasingly hungry for an impartial view on global affairs,” Sandy Ashendorf, EVP of Network Distribution for BBC Worldwide America, said in a statement.
Al Anstey, AJE’s managing director, told Time, “So often one hears that Americans aren’t interested in what’s going on around the world, and I think we’ve successfully challenged that.”
Also, if BBC World does not succeed in attracting viewers, this will be used by operators against AJE, unless of course AJE can outperform BBC in markets they will both be in — New York city, Washington, DC and other smaller cities.
If BBC World is a resounding success, showing the market was larger than presumed, this could benefit AJE’s case. The demand would have to be so great that it is not seen as being hurt by AJE’s availability. Adding AJE to a lineup with BBC World must not risk decreasing the audience for each channel below what the next best alternative channel would offer.
Either way, AJE will have to consider shifting its line about American interest in international news since BBC is now in a stronger position to advance on that front. AJE will need to show how it is different and how it resonates with particular audiences in ways the BBC does not. And cable operators will need to be convinced that these audiences are large enough to justify carriage.
Robert Andrews noted that “BBC Worldwide (the BBC’s commercial and overseas wing) has been building up its content and ad sales operation for BBC.com/news over the last couple of years, but had still been seeking significant TV traction beside its own BBC America channel.” Also, he added that AJE’s seen much more growth in terms of online distribution:
It is available in a handful of U.S. city cable networks in New York; Washington DC; Burlington, VT; Toledo, OH; and Bristol, RI. But, as online head Mohamed Nanabhay told paidContent in 2009, most of the new carriage is coming from new online platforms like Boxee, Roku, Livestation, Al Jazeera, YouTube (NSDQ: GOOG) and Pulse, as well as through Creative Commons re-use.
The latest are Google TV and the Chrome browser. While the app for the former offers text stories, on-demand video and a notification ticker, with live streams coming later, the browser extension includes the live channel as well as a Chrome-esque on-demand video carousel.
While large-scale cable traction continues to be elusive, the coming connected TV boom could mean an even bigger opportunity for Al Jazeera to get to U.S. televisions.
Nanabhay (via Broadband TV News): “We are constantly looking for new ways to deliver our content and interact with our audiences. Our online philosophy has always been to make our world-class content available to audiences on the platforms they choose.”
The measures we look for - more than audience size - are reputation and trust. I’m more concerned about being the most-trusted broadcaster than being the most-watched broadcaster.
Q: So obviously, the advent of Al Jazeera hasn’t dented the audience for BBC World News [satellite TV] channel.
Q: There’s obviously room for a lot of natural growth.
Porter: Absolutely. It’s partly because there is space in the market for more than one organisation to do what we do. Al Jazeera is not the same as the BBC. I have a lot of respect for them and a lot of my former colleagues work there and they produce high-quality services. But they’re doing a different job from us.They say, themselves, that they’re bringing the voice of the south to the north… We aim to bring a global perspective. We don’t represent any national interest or any commercial interest - and I think we bring all those years of learning and experience that enable us to do the job as well as we do do it.