Al Jazeera America draws such a teensy audience — 15,000 on average during prime time, according to Nielsen — that if you dropped all of the fledgling cable news channel’s viewers into a modern NBA arena you’d leave a couple of thousand vacant seats. To place Al Jazeera America’s audience in perspective, it’s less than half of that once attracted by Al Gore’s Current TV, the channel it replaced last August. Ratings leader Fox News Channel pulls in an evening average of about 1.6 million.
Such miserable ratings would be understandable if Al Jazeera America produced its shows on a shoestring, as did Current TV, or if it marginalized itself by broadcasting bonkers propaganda like RT (formerly Russia Today), or if most cable households couldn’t receive it.
But none of those excuses apply. Al Jazeera America’s executives have claimed that the company was spending “hundreds of millions” to establish 12 U.S. bureaus, not to mention the $500 million it gave Current TV’s owners to go away. Unlike the bombastic RT, Al Jazeera America has to date avoided peddling any country’s political line, even though it’s owned by the wealthy Kingdom of Qatar, a hereditary monarchy. (If prizes are a measure of journalistic worth, Al Jazeera has already established its legitimacy by winning two Peabody Awards.) And while not available everywhere, Al Jazeera America can be viewed in about 55 million of the country’s 100 million pay-TV households.
America hasn’t exactly snubbed Al Jazeera America. The rebuke has been more akin to a shrug. Go ahead and spend your millions, the nation seems to be saying to the channel. Hire all the network retreads you want, people like John Seigenthaler, David Shuster, Antonio Mora, Ray Suarez and Joie Chen, so that if by a long shot viewers stumble upon your channel, they’ll recognize some familiar faces. The country will still shrug.
Stock your newsroom with all the experienced journalists your billions can buy, flood the zone with your reporters, and build modern broadcast studios. Still more shrugs. Madison Avenue is shrugging, too. Commercials for “major brands are still a rarity on the network,” Advertising Age reported.