Al Jazeera America Could Push CNN's Revamp in New Directions (Analysis)

Al Jazeera Logo - P 2011

Al Jazeera Logo - P 2011

For many Americans, the first time they had ever heard of Barack Obama was when he gave the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

The speech was electrifying and vaulted Obama onto the national stage – where pretty much everybody thought, “That poor bastard won’t win any election with that name.”

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Yes, Barack Hussein Obama did seem like a problematic name, especially when so many people mispronounced his last name – sometimes on purpose – as Osama. Ah, fear and ignorance – they can lead minds astray. Now here we are in his second term as President of the United States.

The country got past his name, his ethnicity and whatever else. Certainly it will get over this newfound fear of Al Jazeera, too, right?

When the Qatar-owned 24-hour news channel bought Current for a reported $500 million, it was an attempt to get into the U.S. market, where it had barely penetrated and is seen mostly through its website and some streaming sites. Time Warner Cable first announced it wouldn't carry the channel but now seems more on the fence about that decision. Other systems could also put up resistance.

That’s Al Jazeera America’s first hurdle – and it may ultimately come down to money (lower license fees). But the biggest hurdle by far is overcoming the misperception Americans have about the channel.

It’s not a “terrorist” channel, it’s not run by al-Qaeda, it’s not trying to convert Christians into Muslims – pick whatever instilled bias you’d like. Americans can find out all they want by simply watching the newscasts and reports – you can go online and do that. Or they could research a bit and have their worries erased (though they are unlikely to).

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The hope here is that Al Jazeera America does break through into our market because international news coverage is the weakest link in this country’s televised news landscape. CNN is far and away the best provider of that coverage, but one look at either BBC News or Al Jazeera will tell you that they cover the rest of the world with a vigor not seen through your screen if all you watch is CNN, Fox News or MSNBC. Beyond that, foreign coverage of this country gives a vastly different perspective of what’s going on. That kind of variety would be mighty useful – and potentially very popular.

Perhaps the most interesting element to the Al Jazeera purchase of Current is how CNN, under fresh new leader Jeff Zucker, will respond to it.

If CNN dismisses Al Jazeera America as a minor player, it does so at its own peril. That’s because Al Jazeera America covers the world better than CNN and if it wins on that front it will seize more viewers – primarily from CNN. If not immediately, then faster than CNN can probably imagine, or adjust.

There’s also the possibility that a vibrant international news provider would allow the bean counters at Turner and Time Warner another opportunity to see how much CNN is spending internationally and perhaps slash some budgets. Why battle to control that aspect of the overall coverage when it’s cheaper to have talking heads in studio or, at the very least, cover anything in this country.

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That kind of thinking, which Zucker would certainly be privy to, might nudge his inclination to make CNN more “entertaining.” You know, into becoming less damned serious about Syria.

A “lighter” and less boring or at least less hard-news focused CNN is what some skeptics think Zucker is after anyway (and that in guiding the channel in that direction, ratings will rise).

That’s why the Al Jazeera America idea is so intriguing. It could really push CNN in one of two directions – both diametrically opposed. Take on the newcomer toe-to-toe or shift the camera to something a lot lighter and more popular.

No doubt Zucker’s decision on how to fix CNN, how to remake it somehow – a difficult idea to start with – just got more complicated.


Twitter: @BastardMachine