If you’re unfamiliar with the current, disappointing state of cable TV news, it might seem like a joke: a news channel aiming for success by addressing a niche viewer underserved by America’s cable landscape.
That niche? People who want actual news reporting on their cable news channels.
But even as Al Jazeera America officially takes over the Current TV channel today, promising to attract viewers with hard news reporting that avoids celebrities, pundits and sensationalism, most viewers may not have a chance to participate in this bold experiment.
That’s because Time Warner Cable decided to drop Current TV not long after its sale to Al Jazeera was announced.
A spokesman for Al Jazeera said Time Warner’s decision came after months of dissatisfaction with Current’s ratings and that negotiations for carriage are ongoing.
"I was not interested in doing one-minute (bits) on the same story everybody else was doing," said Joie Chen, a former anchor and correspondent for CBS and CNN who left the news business in 2008. "At Al Jazeera America, the focus has been on great, longform storytelling, like stories I contributed to CBS Sunday Morning. But you’re trying to do it every night."
Chen was hired to anchor "America Tonight," Al Jazeera America’s flagship newscast. She joins a long, ethnically and culturally diverse list of expatriates who once worked at rival news channels: Soledad O’Brien, Ali Velshi and Sarah Hoye from CNN; John Seigenthaler and David Shuster from MSNBC; and Antonio Mora from ABC News. The channel’s new president, Kate O’Brian, was a 30-year veteran of ABC News.
Their stories, fleshed out in practice broadcasts last week, are built around a hard news approach developed in Al Jazeera’s Arabic- and English-language channels.
Their hope is U.S. audiences drowning in cable TV news partisan food fights might respond to a more, um, fair and balanced approach.
"Every person I talk to in the general public has the same complaint. TV news has become right and left, this back-and-forth, "Crossfire" kind of thing," Chen said. "There’s an audience of people interested in probing deeply into issues."
Ironically, though the channel bears Al Jazeera’s name, not many of the American channel’s anchors are from cultures or ethnicities descended from the Middle East. That’s likely by design, said Mohammed el-Nawawy, co-author of a 2002 book on the rise of Al Jazeera, which began in the mid ‘90s as an independent, all-Arab television news network funded by the government of Qatar.
"They want to make sure they are not too foreign," said el-Nawawy, a professor at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. "They want to emphasize both the America and the Al Jazeera in the channel."
Criticized years ago for airing videos supplied by Osama bin Laden, Al Jazeera has since earned journalism awards in America and respect for the substantive reporting on its English channel.
Leveraging an estimated $500 million to buy Current from former Vice President Al Gore and opening 12 bureaus across America, Al Jazeera America debuts to 48 million TV households. Its success depends on the notion that old-school journalism can still draw an audience and that U.S. resistance to a news channel with an Arabic name has receded.
"If we take the resources given us and recreated the same thing you could see anywhere on cable news, we would have failed our mission," said Chen, noting there has been no talk of ratings targets or viewership expectation. "I’ve been around newsrooms a long time, and I can tell you: I’ve never seen this much excitement."