Sunday, May 6, 2012

Jeering at Comcast

So, I'm still playing catch-up, and it was all the way back in February that a reporter for the International Business Times, Oliver Tree, interviewed me about the Comcast cable network's decision not to carry Al Jazeera English, the Arab world's English language news network.  His article, with the provocative title of, Why Does America Hate Al Jazeera?, was published on February 23, but the controversy lives on.

So let's look in on how Oliver Tree introduces the subject:

Last year's Arab Spring uprisings enthralled viewers around the globe with their ferocity and pace. As regimes fell like ninepins, footage of people who had long been choked by the sclerotic hand of aging dictators was beamed around the world as they rose up and overthrew decades of repression in a matter of months.

But, were it not for the efforts of one particular news-gathering service, the Arab Spring might have passed many viewers by.

Qatar-based news channel Al-Jazeera, and its sister site Al Jazeera English, burst onto the scene with incisive and daring reports as first Tunisia, then Egypt and finally Libya succumbed to revolution and bloodshed. The coverage was so good that the channel even gained an endorsement from U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who, standing before a Senate Foreign Relations committee in May, said the network was "changing peoples' minds and attitudes... like it or hate it, it is really effective." 

 We certainly have heard a great deal about the role of new media and social media in the Arab Spring and similar protest movements, but television remains the most powerful medium of all in shaping public opinion, and the goal of much activity organized via social media is simply to use the new media to reach the old media, influence their agenda and attract their coverage.  Anyway, back to what Hilary was saying...

"Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news," she added.

"You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and arguments between talking heads."

A not-so-veiled reference to Fox News, I think it's safe to say, but of course MSNBC also fits the bill as Fox's opposite number, and CNN also favors the dramatic confrontation more and more in the material it uses as filler in between advertisements.  So, at this point, Oliver backs up Hilary's assessment with several factual statements:

The network has since gone on to win a clutch of awards.

On Thursday it was named as News Channel of the Year at the Royal Television Society Awards of Britain--the industry's Oscars--and has won numerous accolades for its coverage of the "forgotten" uprising in Bahrain, including a prestigious George Polk Award for the documentary "Shouting In The Dark".

The network's coverage from Cairo's Tahrir Square during the Egyptian uprising was also widely lauded as the best by any network and they even scooped every global news service as the first to report the death of Col. Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

 Of course, it only makes sense that an Arab news network would offer the most in-depth coverage of Arab affairs, especially one that is not beholden to any authoritarian regime.  So, anyway, it's time to get to the crux of the issue, wouldn't you say, Mr. Tree?

But despite all the awards and plaudits, the channel is practically nonexistent in the U.S.

Even though Al-Jazeera English has been broadcasting from downtown Washington, D.C., since 2006, it is only readily available in a handful of cities including Toledo, Ohio; Burlington Vt.; Bristol, R.I., Washington and New York - a glaring omission in a country that holds dear the right to choose.

 Interesting set of sites, don't you think?  DC makes perfect sense, of course, given their interest in foreign affairs, and New York is a global city, after all.  Vermont is pretty radical, sure, but Toledo?  Bristol, Rhode Island? Perhaps it has something to do with local demographics. In any event, here's where I come in:

"When you get conservative-oriented folks such as Comcast, and companies that have a Christian orientation, that combination leaves them uncomfortable with an Islamic-oriented network," said Lance Strate, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y.

"Generally the reason given is 9/11, which gives cable networks the perception that their customers would see the inclusion of an Arabic network as a bad thing. This coupled, with the support for Israel among many Christian groups, is a powerful combination." 

I think this is pretty obvious, after all. Liberals tend to favor giving broad interpretation to First Amendment freedoms, free expression of opinion, and pluralism in general. Social conservatives, and that includes the Christian right, have sought to impose restrictions on speech in a variety of ways. And I'm not saying they're entirely wrong about imposing limits, I agree that there should be some, but more often than not, my sympathies are with the left on these issues.

But the root of the problem is not so much in the conservative outlook as it is in the commercial imperative.  I have previously posted my criticisms of the ways in which cable companies exert close to monopoly control over television programming, in what they allow or don't allow, and in what channels they force us to take.  For example, see my previous posts, All Foxed Up, or Time(Warn'er) for Cable Neutrality, Tell Old Pharaoh to Let My Channels Go!, Ordering TV À La Carte, ABC You Later, Cablevision!, and FCC It Now.  So here we go again:

According to Strate, cable companies also have an "arrogance" when it comes to deciding what to include in their packages and "are not even listening to their consumers on non-controversial issues, so when it comes to controversial issues they are certainly not obligated."

But the main point is that, in their drive for profits, cable companies don't want to risk losing profits by offending any part of their audience.  Edith Efron called television the "timid giant" back in the early 60s, and cable companies are not much different than their broadcasting cousins, certainly not in the courage department:

But more than that they are, in Strate's words, "timid giants."

"They are always afraid of offending someone," he added.

 But now, back to the political angle, and the conservative distaste for the network:

Of course, Al Jazeera has gained high-profile enemies in the U.S. as well. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously labeled the channel's coverage of civilian deaths during the Iraq war as, "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable." In an interview with the channel last year, Rumsfeld famously descended into a shouting match with presenter Abderrahim Foukara, calling him "pejorative" and "disrespectful." 

In spite of the political obstacles, one of the founders of Rethink Press, Xi Wang, was confident the Comcast petition would have an impact.

"The most important part of our action is to provide access," she said.

"Influencing public opinion will evolve in an organic way. Once you start watching something, it is a lot easier to dispel any fears you may have."

"If it were to be shown, a lot of Americans might realize just how partial U.S. news networks are."

 But now, to draw the important distinction between making a channel available, and getting the audience to actually watch it.

The question remains, however, is mainstream America ready for the type of straight reporting Al Jazeera contains? If the networks caved in and channel went national, would it gather a wide enough audience to change news broadcasting in the U.S.?

 "I really doubt that it would have any impact at all," Strate mused.

"It would get a self-selected audience in much the same way conservatives watch Fox and liberals watch MSNBC. Which is really an argument for allowing it in a way, as it really wouldn't have that much of an impact."

 And you've got to know that this is true.  We get dozens of foreign stations on our cable system, and I doubt they get much of an audience at all, apart from foreign nationals and immigrants.  As I told Oliver Tree, who happens to be English, even the vaunted BBC America does not get much of the cable audience (except perhaps when Monty Python reruns are on, or Doctor Who).  Heck, even the audience for Fox News is relatively small.  Anyway, back to Oliver for an interesting note:

But according to Wang, Al Jazeera may have found a more surreptitious method of winning American hearts and minds.

"When we were handing in the petition at Comcast, I met American soldiers who were based in Iraq," she said.

"One of the soldiers said he didn't know what Al Jazeera was until he got there and that a lot of soldiers got their news from it. They found it amazing how different the news was presented there to how it is in the U.S."

This may be the case, but I have to wonder how much influence this has on the viewing audience at large, or even whether those soldiers would still be as interested in news about the Arab world after returning home from Iraq?  In any event, it still all comes down to the bottom line:

Ultimately, however, it may not even be a question of politics or numbers, but irrational fear.

"It is not the commercial aspect which is the problem, but a concern among the cable providers of how many customers they may lose by offering it," Strate concluded.

"You don't want to offend your audience, for fear of losing them." 

 And maybe the cable companies are underestimating their audiences. I can't say for sure, but I do believe they are overestimating the impact the addition of Al Jazeera would have on them, and overestimating the negative response they would get.

Ultimately, what we need is television that's more like the internet, where anyone can get access to anything they want to view, pay for what they get and only what they choose to get, and carriers are just that, not gatekeepers.  And you know, it's coming.  Sooner, or later, it's coming.

1 comment:

aaronbannasch said...

I hope that the gatekeeper models of the past take the shape of the more open medium of the Internet. However, I'm worried that the media companies who have control over our access to information are working in the opposite direction to make the Internet more like TV. The kind of self-selection of content that used to be done by changing the channel at least required some active input from the consumer. The algorithmic delivery of content from social media and search engines based on user behavior is more subtle and passive and I think that can be far more dangerous. That said, I'm glad my personalized Google search includes content created by people in my social networks otherwise I might have missed reading this post :)