Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, January 31, 2011

American cable providers have no excuse not to be carrying Al Jazeera English

Earlier today, The New York Times published a well-written article by reporter Brian Stelter about the availability (or, more accurately, the lack thereof) of Al Jazeera English, a news channel which White House officials have reportedly been relying on to stay abreast of developments in Egypt.

As most readers are aware, mass protests demanding an end to Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime have dominated international news for several days and become a popular topic of discussion around the world. Al Jazeera, the Arabic world's best-known television network, has provided some of the best coverage of the happenings in and around the Nile delta through its many channels, including Al Jazeera English. As the Times explains:
In recent days, the channel, an offshoot of the main Arabic-language Al Jazeera, has gained attention for its up-close, around-the-clock coverage of the protests in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities in Egypt.

While American television networks were scrambling to move reporters and producers into Cairo, the Al Jazeera channels were already there. The other networks have noticed: on the roundtable portion of ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Sam Donaldson looked at an Al Jazeera reporter and said, “Thank you for what you’re doing.”
Although Al Jazeera English began operations nearly half a decade ago, it hardly reaches any American households. That's because most U.S. cable and satellite providers refuse to carry it. We know this because Al Jazeera's executives have acknowledged publicly that they have repeatedly tried to convince the likes of Comcast, Time Warner, and DirecTV to pick it up, to no avail.

The telcos' corporate bureaucracies all seem to be responding to inquiries about the availability of Al Jazeera English with the same stupid, canned non-answer, which generally goes something like this: We get lots of carriage requests and we can't fulfill them all. Too bad, so sad.

The last time I checked, the cable line-up provided by Comcast consisted of several hundred channels, including a ridiculous number of subscription-only channels devoted to carrying hockey, baseball, football, and basketball games. Additionally, there is a large channel bloc that simulcasts selected terrestrial radio stations.

Since Comcast and many of its competitors now broadcast mostly digital channels (and not analog, which takes up bandwidth), they shouldn't have a problem adding Al Jazeera English to their lineups. They've got the capacity.

The question is, why are they holding back?

An even better question might be, why are so many Americans still paying for cable television? For the price that cable companies are currently charging, subscribers should be able to order channels a la carte, dress up the standard program guide with custom skins, and receive a subset of the many premium channels at no extra cost. But unfortunately, that's not possible.

The corporate bureaucrats at Comcast and its competitors are effectively unaccountable gatekeepers who have put themselves in charge of programming.

No wonder, then, that people are increasingly turning to the Internet for news and entertainment, and abandoning cable television. As long as net neutrality is in force, the Internet puts users in control, and that's a good thing.

The popularity of Al Jazeera English's live stream shows that there is in fact demand for the channel in the United States. Open-minded Americans want access to perspectives from abroad, and they should be able to get them without having to hook up their television sets to computers.


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