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The web could save Al Jazeera America

The logo of Al Jazeera.
The logo of Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera America is not proving to be a hit with the American cable audience.

Figures released by the New York Post on Monday indicate Al Jazeera America lost 18,000 viewers since it took over Current TV’s slot on cable and satellite platforms in the U.S.

The paper said Al Jazeera America has around 13,000 viewers daily. By comparison, Current TV was averaging 31,000 viewers this time last year, meaning Al Jazeera America’s year-over-year loss is 18,000 viewers or more than half its audience.

Al Jazeera America’s failure to attract an audience may not have to do with its branding or content — instead, the channel likely faces two less-obvious issues.

The first is how Al Jazeera’s audience in the U.S. consumed the channel’s content before it launched Al Jazeera America. For years, Al Jazeera’s English-language international channel was available on cable systems in three cities: New York, Washington, D.C. and in rural Ohio.

Many Al Jazeera news consumers watched online. That stopped being an option in August when Al Jazeera announced it was blocking U.S.-based internet users from accessing its international stream on its website, YouTube and mobile apps.

The move was meant to encourage U.S. viewers to tune Al Jazeera English out and Al Jazeera America in. That became a problem for some who subscribe to cable services that dropped Current TV when the channel’s sale to Al Jazeera was announced earlier this year.

Another problem is Al Jazeera’s location on cable and satellite platforms. For years, Current TV was grouped with other niche documentary and special interest channels on digital cable and satellite lineups. When Al Jazeera took over in August, many cable companies left the channel in the same spot instead of grouping it with other news channels like CNN and FOX.

Comcast, which still lists the channel as Current on some TV guides, carries Al Jazeera America on 107 in some cities and 125 in others. This location puts the channel near government access channels and children’s programming, but not news stations.

Dish Network carries Al Jazeera America on 215 between the Weather Channel and ION Television, while DirecTV carries it on 347 between NASA television and the C-SPAN channels.

With the exception of Comcast, there’s not much Al Jazeera America can do about its channel placement on cable. But Al Jazeera can — and should — take steps in getting viewers better acquainted with its American channel if it wants to survive.

It can start by winning back the viewers it lost when it blocked Al Jazeera English for U.S. internet users. Al Jazeera’s carriage agreements with cable companies likely prevents it from live streaming any amount of its American channel online, but Al Jazeera America can make full episodes of its news programs, like “The Stream,” available on YouTube and via podcast after they air on the channel.

This approach has already proven to work in the entertainment industry. “Game of Thrones” director David Petrarca claimed online piracy helped push new customers toward HBO, while Netflix has been credited with helping AMC find a new audience for its blockbuster shows “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men.”

Some in the international news industry are using the same strategy to find a new audience in the America. Britain-based Sky News recently made its international news stream available to American internet users online, on its apps, on Roku and on Apple TV, completely bypassing cable and satellite arrangements altogether.

Cable companies have already made it clear: They could take or leave Al Jazeera America. When presented with the choice, they’d much rather leave. Knowing that, the channel should drop its elitist “cable only” attitude and turn to the web for an audience — like Al Jazeera English did in 2011.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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