Perhaps the Middle Eastern media barons behind Al Jazeera America should have read more Marshall Mcluhan before spending billions to launch the news channel, scheduled to be shuttered come April. The late media theorist Mcluhan once compared reading a morning newspaper to "slipping into a warm bath."
We may think we seek out our media, but for the most part, our news gathering remains habitual. The fictional Tony Soprano began every morning, shuffling onto his driveway in his bathrobe to pick up his daily Star Ledger. In homes and nursing homes across American, viewers migrate from Wheel of Fortune to The O'Reilly Factor. Millions drink their first cup of coffee with NPR's Morning Edition. A friend of mine has a martini every Friday evening, when Shields and Brooks arrive on the PBS Newshour. Now that's a habitual viewer.
Al Jazeera America had the ambition, if not the nerve, to think they could ask viewers to start a new viewing routine, precisely at a time when millions of established viewers were abandoning television, and younger consumers were defining themselves as having never paid a cable bill.
The network's CEO Al Anstey alluded to this trend when he admitted that "Our business model is simply not sustainable in an increasingly digital world." Curiously, the Al Jazeera English website was navigating quite nicely in that digital world, and making inroads with American news consumers, at precisely the time Al Jazeera made its expensive foray into American cable.
Many had turned to Al Jazeera English to follow news of the Arab Spring and subsequent tumult in Egypt. Then-secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the in-depth coverage, calling it "real news," a direct slap at American cable news' emphasis on loud, emotional chatter.
When Al Jazeera America launched, the video streams began to dry up on the Al Jazeera web site. Consumers were instructed to tune into the cable channel. In the short time that Al Jazeera America has existed, the three big network news divisions have launched streaming services, available on Roku, Apple TV and other devices, to reach those without a cable subscription.
Al Jazeera America has been justly praised for its sober, long-form journalism. But the network's disappearance will not necessarily endanger such coverage. Again, while Al Jazeera hemorrhaged money trying to imitate the BBC and CNN, the "Serial" radio podcast and "Making A Murderer" on Netflix have demonstrated how digital, streamed content can fill a healthy appetite for sustained, complicated, non-fiction narratives.
In the end, Al Jazeera America will be as un-missed and unmourned as Current TV, the network it replaced on the cable dial. Just too few people fell into the habit of watching it. Who has time for a warm bath these days?
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