Notes on the AJE World

My dissertation is on Al Jazeera English. These are my notes. No affiliation with or endorsement by AJE.
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AJE will be available in an estimated 25 million Indian households.

P. Diddy and Ryan Seacrest are launching new cable channels soon. It’s hard to imagine we don’t have room for one more. If the U. S.  can’t be open to channels that show other perspectives of the world, what does that say about us?

Speaking at the CIPR’s Maggie Nally Memorial Lecture, which was held at the UK Houses of Parliament, Richard Gizbert shared his views on how the negative association of Al Jazeera and Al Qaeda impacted AJE’s efforts. Gizbert is the presenter of AJE’s The Listening Post, a show about the media.  

He shared some interesting insights, from the Bush administration’s antagonism, to difficulty securing facilities in London, to being carried in Israel while unpopular in Canada and the United States.

Here are some of his gems:

"One would have thought that there would be an appetite for a new perspective," said Gizbert, "but we were facing a mass of operational challenges because the leader of the free world, George W. Bush, was calling Al Jazeera, ‘Bin Laden TV’, and saying we were working with terrorists.

"Domald Rumsfield, for example, famously said our (Arabic Speaking) coverage of Fallujah was ‘lies, over and over and over again.’

"It was very difficult environment to start a news channel in, even getting cable access in the United States was a huge problem, and remains one today."

"Even finding property in London in which to establish a bureau was very difficult. We got down to serious negotiations with four different landlords only for mysterious problems to occur just before we signed leases, like other tenants were worried about security."

"The thing I could not figure out about that, even if we were ‘Bin Laden TV’ and they were worried about London being bombed, wouldn’t they be safer with us in the building?"

"The English speaking world," said Gizbert, "were being told by its leaders that we were the bad guys, not through anything we had done - we had not even been on air at that point - but we were suffering from the reputation that had been earned by Al Jazeeera Arabic - which up to 9/11 they US thought was a good idea.

"And what I found funny about that was our relationship with Al-Qeada was not unlike the relationship the IRA had with the BBC. Al-Qeada was using Al Jazeera to get their message out to their target audience in the same way the IRA used the BBC to get its message to the British mainland. And nobody called the BBC ‘IRA TV’."

"Curiously, the main cable operators in Israel were taking Al Jazeera. So the Israelis were happily watching a channel which the Americans and Canadians were not showing in order to protect Israel."

"But the Israelis accepted Al Jazeera, they did not like us, but they never banned us. The countries that banned us at one time or other included Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain - but the Israelis put up with us."

Paul Janensch, a former newspaper editor and professor of journalism, wrote a column in a Florida newspaper about changing perceptions of Al Jazeera English in the United States.

Only a few U.S. cable systems carry Al-Jazeera English — none in Florida, as far as I can tell.

But it is available from satellite TV services. And you can see it on its website, aljazeera.com

Some American pundits and politicians have accused Al-Jazeera — which means “the peninsula” in Arabic — of being pro-Arab. Well, it is. Just as American news services are pro-American.

But it also is pro-democracy, which has made it an enemy to authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East.

In the United States, government officials and TV news operations are watching Al-Jazeera English for its coverage of the turmoil over there.

They think Al-Jazeera is doing a professional job. So did the judges for the DuPont-Columbia Awards.

Business Insider reports why Microsoft doesn’t want to carry programming that competes with cable. It’s expensive and risky.

It’s easy for existing TV providers like Comcast to renew their contracts with content owners — both sides understand and trust each other, and Comcast is counting those expenses. To replace cable, tech companies would have to take on big new expenses for a very uncertain return.

The Spy Report posted recently that:

On 23 December, Stratos Television, the country’s only nationwide independent non-commercial channel ceased broadcasting. It had modelled itself on SBS and broadcast a mix of English-language news programmes from the likes of Al Jazeera and the ABC, foreign language content aimed at ethnic minorities, and locally-produced public service content.

Stratos only carried AJE programs, so it was not a full-time feed.

The channel is still available via satellite and carried on several other terrestrial broadcast and cable services:

Mainland Broadcasting, Channel - 4,5,6 
ORCUS
Triangle Television, Channel - 41,42,52
TVHB, Channel - 51

Kim Andrew Elliott asks responding to Arnaud de Borchgrave’s piece proclaiming AJE ahead of the VOA and the BBC:

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).

Comparing AJE, AJ, BBC, CNN wesbites

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. 

The video was embedded online by Michigan Forward, a “non-profit organization specializing in creating progressive public policy initiatives for state and local governments.”

It is interesting to see how AJE’s videos are circulated, re-posted, in the US by advocacy groups. This is one way AJE is running an end around its lack of cable carriage, it appears. The question remains how many new viewers these sorts of occurrences reach. Is AJE still being discovered by American viewers, in other words, does incidental viewing still attract new fans? Or have all those who might be willing to view already found their way?

My hypothesis would be that there are large untapped audiences, and that cable remains the primary way of reaching them for the immediate future. However, gaining access to them may incur great expense and, like most globalizing enterprises, need a degree of adaptation and differentiation for the idiosyncrasies of American viewers.

AJE’s natural audience, which I suspect includes the wordly, the wonkish, the more progressive of the Economist crowd, the diasporic and the activist, is likely not large enough to bring about wide national cable and satellite distribution. The urban centers where such natural audience congregate are inevitable markets for AJE, however, and pursuing carriage there makes sense.

@Deggans poses this question after the network gets prestigious award.

The St. Petersburg Times TV critic wrote that AJE “was among 15 recipients announced for the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s Alfred I. DuPont Award, one of the most prestigious honors in broadcast journalism.” He called it a “major milestone.” The award was for a Fault Lines segment following up on the post-earthquake recovery in Haiti for six months after the country was devastated. This was notable because it reported what happened there long after Haiti fell from the world’s attention.

Eric Deggans asked why the channel is not more widely available in the United States. He suggested that it was:

Time for U.S. cable systems to stop bowing to pressure from those who don’t understand and include AJE in American channel lineups. AJE even has an online petition asking fans to send email letters to cable systems demanding their inclusion.
He contrasted the channel’s absence with America’s national identity and avowed values: “A nation which stands for freedom, diversity and open minds can do no less.”