Al Jazeera America never had a chance. Having struggled in vain to attract an audience since it launched in 2013, the cable news channel announced Wednesday that it would shut down come April. “The decision is driven by the fact that our business model is simply not sustainable in an increasingly digital world, and because of the current global financial challenges,” CEO Al Anstey said in a staff memo, thereby glossing over all of the operation’s actual failures.
Maybe you liked Al Jazeera America’s news coverage. More likely, you never watched it. After spending $500 million to buy Al Gore’s Current TV and put itself in about 40 million homes, the channel reached a piddly 28,000 prime-time viewers in 2015. CNN, by comparison, reaches around 700,000. That is not the sort of gap you can simply ascribe to a secular decline in cable audiences as people spend more time online. Some of the trouble undoubtedly boiled down to its name. Many Americans were never going to watch a channel created by Al Jazeera, the media network owned by the Qatari government with a reputation (fair or not) for being a smidgen hostile to the U.S.
But if Al Jazeera America’s brand was a handicap, its philosophy was a death sentence. The channel was founded on the utterly ill-conceived idea that Americans were starving for sober, “unbiased” hard news coverage. In other words, it made the mistake of offering viewers the programming they claimed to want, instead of the programming that all available evidence suggests they actually enjoy. Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2013, the channel’s first CEO, Ehab Al Shihabi, said market research suggested that there were 40 million or 50 million Americans yearning for deep, old-school reportage. “If we do the kind of reporting that is considered ‘back to the future’—the hard-core journalistic reporting, not biased, not for entertainment, but fact-based—do we have a place? All the research indicates yes,” Al Shihabi later told the Nation.
The problem with this, as the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson later put it, is that “audiences are liars.” Handed a survey, they’ll profess to care deeply about international affairs, if only to make themselves feel a little more virtuous. Then they’ll be back to skimming Facebook for news about Kim and Kanye’s baby.
The upstart digital news operations that have succeeded during the past couple years, like BuzzFeed and Vox Media, have spent a lot of effort figuring out their audiences’ yearnings by obsessively tracking how and what they read, then catering to those wants. Sometimes that means serving up cat-GIF fluff. Sometimes that means framing and selling substantive reporting in ways that will draw in readers. It’s a bit harder for television to calibrate programs with equal precision, but networks aren’t dumb. They track their ratings. CNN knows it will rack up huge numbers when it turns into a three-ring info circus and devotes 24-hour coverage to a missing plane. Everybody realizes that nobody watches PBS. Audiences aren’t especially good at masking their appetites.
And yet, Al Jazeera America launched based on the assumption that America’s revealed preferences were not, in fact, its preferences. Is it any wonder it failed?
Was there any actual evidence, aside from surveys or focus group data, that suggested somebody might watch Al Jazeera America? During the height of the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera’s English-language website became a go-to source of coverage for many Americans. In 2013, Al Shihabi told Marketplace that 40 percent of Al Jazeera English’s streaming traffic came from the United States. Surely that was a sign that some of those online viewers would tune in to the network, right? Well, no. Web audiences aren’t the same as cable TV viewers. They’re younger. They often dislike TV, or dislike paying for it anyway. If anything, those streaming figures were a sign that Al Jazeera English had a bright future as a destination for U.S. Internet users. Which is why it makes sense that, as it is shuttering Al Jazeera America, Al Jazeera Media says its going to focus more effort online. That’s where its attention should have been all along.
Ultimately, Al Jazeera seems to have fallen for a very seductive fiction. Reporters would like to think that there’s a large, unsatisfied appetite for straight, fundamentally boring news, because a lot of us would like to spend more time on those projects without the pesky task of convincing viewers to read or watch. As a media entity trying to break into the U.S. market, Al Jazeera also probably wanted to believe focus groups who said they weren’t being given the coverage they yearned for. Now, it seems to have stopped paying attention to audiences’ mouths, and started watching their eyeballs.
*Correction, Jan. 13, 2016: Based on one month’s ratings, I originally misstated that CNN reaches nearly 1 million viewers in prime time. For 2015, though, it averaged 712,000.