From the start, people at the Al Jazeera America cable-news network knew they faced an uphill battle for ratings and acceptance.
It wasn’t just that they were taking on entrenched competitors such as CNN and Fox News with an unfamiliar, foreign brand name. Insiders knew that it would take ample distribution, lots of promotion, and audience goodwill to establish a foothold.
On Wednesday, Al Jazeera America’s owners acknowledged they had achieved none of those things. In an unexpected move that surprised even its journalists, the network’s Qatar-based parent said it would pull the plug on April 30, shutting down the channel less than three years after it started.
Although it won journalism awards, the network — known internally as AJAM — never caught on with viewers. According to the Nielsen rating service, the network attracted an average nightly audience of around 34,000 last year, and about 24,000 throughout the entire day.
Sometimes its audience was so small that Nielsen couldn’t offer an estimate. Advertisers ignored it. Al Jazeera America chief executive Al Anstey conceded the difficulties in a memo to employees, writing that the decision to close was “driven by the fact that our business model is simply not sustainable.”
Part of AJAM’s trouble may have been the difficulty of simply finding it on cable lineups stuffed with hundreds of options. Al Jazeera America’s late start meant that many cable providers could find room for it only on their digital program tiers, among the high channel numbers beyond the reach of people who subscribe to basic cable. The network wasn’t carried at all on about a third of cable systems, placing it at a huge disadvantage to the nearly universally distributed MSNBC, Fox News and CNN.
What’s more, AJAM’s contracts with cable providers prohibited it from “re-purposing” its news clips on its own Web site, thus cutting off a key circulation path in an age of social-media sharing. “It’s been a tremendous handicap,” said Ray Suarez, the former “PBS NewsHour” journalist who hosts AJAM’s “Inside Story.” “People have asked where they can see a show online or where they could get a clip in order to post a link. And we’ve had to say, ‘Those things are not available.’ ”
The network’s name and visual branding may have posed a marketing challenge, too. Internal surveys at its launch in August 2013 indicated that some viewers would not watch a channel with an Arabic name. An earlier version of AJAM, called Al Jazeera English, was largely rejected by American cable distributors starting in 2005 because of its association with the Arab-language Al Jazeera network, which had drawn criticism from members of the George W. Bush administration for its coverage of the U.S. military invasion of Iraq in 2003, and for airing Osama bin Laden’s secretly recorded video “communiques.”
By calling itself Al Jazeera America and using its parent’s distinctive Arabic script as its logo, the network “reminded people of the Arab voice,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN moderator who has appeared occasionally on AJAM as a guest and host. That’s not a bad thing, he said, because it could have set Al Jazeera America apart from its competition. But the channel, he noted, was really a traditional news network stocked with accomplished American reporters and hosts, such as Ali Velshi, Soledad O’Brien and Joie Chen from CNN and John Seigenthaler from NBC.
The combination put AJAM “in no-man’s land” with viewers, making it neither distinctly Arabic nor sufficiently different from other networks, he said. “If you want to bring diversity to the air, bring diversity to the air,” said Sesno, a professor at George Washington University. “They weren’t truly a distinct voice, or so indispensable [as a news source] that they could build an audience.”
The network won a number of awards, including a prestigious duPont Award from Columbia University in December for a six-part series about poverty in America called “Hard Earned.” “But do Americans want to learn about poverty in America from something called Al Jazeera?” asked Sesno. “I’m not sure they want to learn about it from” domestic networks.
The channel is part of a media empire owned primarily by the royal family of Qatar, a Persian Gulf state that is rich in oil and natural gas. It began after its parent company paid $500 million in early 2013 to buy Current TV, a struggling cable channel founded by former vice president Al Gore.
AJAM had hoped to be a straightforward, nonpartisan alternative to other news channels. But it ran into trouble even before it started. AT&T, a major cable-system owner, dropped it from its channel lineup because of a contract dispute, cutting off access to several million homes. Time Warner Cable also dropped its predecessor, citing low ratings, several months before Al Jazeera America hit the air.
It then spent months rebuilding its distribution. As of Wednesday, it was available in about 64 million households, or about a third less than its major rivals.
The news comes only nine months after Al Jazeera — “peninsula” in Arabic, reflecting Qatar’s landmass — said it was expanding its live programming. The channel added two hours of morning programming in March, anchoring its coverage from its New York headquarters and mixing in reports from its studios in London and Doha, Qatar.
It also comes a month after Al Jazeera America broadcast perhaps its best-known story — an undercover investigative report called “The Dark Side,” which alleged the use of performance-enhancing drugs by star pro athletes. Among others, it said the wife of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning received shipments of banned substances around the time in 2011 that Manning was recovering from a series of neck surgeries that threatened his playing career.
The documentary suggested, but did not say outright, that Manning, then with the Indianapolis Colts, was taking the drugs. Manning has denied using any banned substances.
Two of the athletes named in the story — Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard and Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman — have sued the network, reporter Deborah Davies and athlete Liam Collins, who conducted undercover interviews, alleging libel and invasion of privacy.
Al Jazeera continues to maintain an Arabic-language channel and the English-language forerunner of Al Jazeera America, Al Jazeera English. Both channels are distributed outside the United States.