It’s safe to say this didn’t appear on too many year-end innovation forecasts for 2013: Al-Jazeera reshapes the cable TV news landscape with a splashy new acquisition. Yet, thanks to its recent $500 million acquisition of Al Gore’s Current TV, Al-Jazeera will expand into roughly 40 million U.S. households almost overnight, giving it a bigger media footprint in the U.S. But the deal illustrates another Inconvenient Truth: at a time when many Americans are cutting their cable TV cord, foreign media outlets seem to have figured out the right mix of social media, live streaming and citizen journalism to keep visitors coming back again and again.
What’s interesting are the actual terms of the Al-Jazeera-Current deal: Al-Jazeera plans to overhaul Current TV and change the name to potentially Al-Jazeera America. The $500 million price tag is not for Current TV’s content — it’s for the access to a broader American audience. It is, as Henry Blodget of Business Insider suggests , similar to buying an “airline for its airport landing rights rather than its brand or customers or current business.”
By virtue of being locked out of the U.S. cable TV market for so long (mostly at the behest of the George W. Bush administration), Al-Jazeera learned to embrace the Internet in ways that have transformed it into one of the most modern, progressive video news organizations in the world. Take Al-Jazeera’s The Stream, for example. When it launched in 2011, Fast Company lauded it as ”the most aggressive integration of social media into a live news program to date.” In just the first few days of 2013, The Stream has fostered discussions around the gang rape tragedy in New Delhi and political developments in Egypt and Syria. Far from being a mouthpiece of Arab radicalism, as was originally feared when it first expanded to the U.S., Al-Jazeera English has emerged as a supporter of the democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring. Along the way, it has been picking up journalism awards for its investigative reporting as well as compliments from influential U.S. news organizations.
This is not to say that U.S. news organizations have completely dropped the ball when it comes to online video innovation and their embrace of the Internet. One example that stands out is Cory Booker’s #waywire. The platform is a Current TV-like offering for the younger generation. It mixes in crowdsourced news accounts with social media to give a youth-inflected take on the news. At the same time, Reuters TV has earned kudos for the build-out of its YouTube news channel and it’s packaging of bite-size news content. (And, by the way, The Washington Post, too, just announced a new online video initiative for political programming)
However, it’s safe to say that innovators from geographic regions that we once ignored will play an ever-greater role in shaping and defining not just how we consume the news, but also in what news we consume. Keep in mind that China’s media giants are already taking up residence in places such as New York's Times Square. For now, this new competitive threat from abroad could be a good thing, if it forces U.S. cable TV news operators to re-think how to create, distribute and package their video content for the YouTube generation. As a result, here’s one more item to place on your OUT/IN List for 2013. OUT: cable TV talking heads sitting behind desks. IN: intrepid investigative journalists bringing you the world.
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