Barnhart to Cable: Grow Spine; Carry Al Jazeera English

Just ahead of the Fourth of July, Kansas City Star television critic Aaron Barnhart spanked cable providers for their reluctance to carry Al Jazeera English.  "Rejected by every major cable company in America, Al Jazeera English is an ambitious attempt to redefine television news. There’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t be watching it," asserts Aaron.

Al Jazeera English launched last year to a flurry of press - especially after the organization recruited Dave Marash, the respected Nightline veteran.  Then, the channel disappeared from public awareness.

The fact that Al Jazeera English is missing from our air is rarely discussed although Multichannel’s Linda Moss covered the controversy at length last May. This week Aaron’s point was crystal: cable industry intransigence deprives tens of millions of viewers of an important global perspective at a time when Americans need more, not less, information - especially now that American broadcast nets have dramatically reduced staff and coverage around the world.

It’s a problem I addressed last summer from Television Critics Association when Ted Koppel slammed broadcast nets for cutting budgets and shuttering news bureaus. "It’s a travesty," said Koppel at the time, "and it’s something that we’re going to be paying for, for years to come."

Aaron’s indictment echoes the concerns raised by Koppel.

"[Al Jazeera English] was offered for free to cable companies across America.  Exactly one took up the offer — a tiny carrier in Vermont serving less than 2,000 households," says Aaron, "Even at no charge, it seemed, adding Al Jazeera English wasn’t worth the potential backlash from customers who consider Al Jazeera to be the official network of Osama bin Laden and every nut job with a jihad to declare against the West."

Aaron did his homework. He monitored the channel for several months over the Internet before concluding, "that charge is baseless….I am convinced [Al Jazeera English] is the most important English-language cable channel to come along since Fox News….It’s everything our cable news isn’t: global, meaty, consequential and compelling in the best sense of the word.  And I’m not the only one who thinks so."

Aaron calls opposition to Al Jazeera English "miniscule." 

He boldly finishes with a flourish: "Until everyday Americans can sit down, turn on their TV sets and watch Al Jazeera English, most of them will have no clue that one channel can make a world of difference."

Cable providers have also turned their noses up at another worthy alternative, the non-profit Link TV. Founded in 1999, the channel offers global perspectives on news, events and culture.  It’s based here in the Bay Area and available on Direct TV and Dish but not Comcast.  (The FCC mandates that satellite carriers reserve slots for non-commercial networks.  Unfortunately, similar FCC requirements do not exist for cable.)  On Comcast, Link’s programming is buried on a local PBS station which broadcasts the content from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.

However, according to Aaron’s article, some viewers have figured out how to circumvent the cable provider gatekeepers.  For instance, they’re watching Al Jazeera English on YouTube at a rate of over 70,000 clips per week.  Subscriptions are available via for $5.95/month.  In other words, users are end-running cable providers. 

When does turning up the nose become cutting off your nose to spite your face?  Cable’s failure to take the lead and provide a range of pioneering channels is a dangerous game that could very well backfire.  As evidenced by the response to my "Comcast: The Fleecing of a Subscriber" post (140,000 hits and counting), increasing numbers of disaffected viewers have discovered they can live without it.  Cable obstinance is helping to disperse customers far and wide onto the Internet, iTunes, Netflix, YouTube and other alternatives.  At some point, there is no going back.

Again, here’s a link to Aaron Barnhart’s blog where you can read his Al Jazeera English story in detail.