Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Why Did the Web Miss Out on Al Jazeera?

blank monitorCongratulations, cable guys! You’re in a business that’s so valuable that even a failed network with partial distribution and no audience is worth some $500 million.

Meanwhile, a question for the Web video guys: Are you bummed out about Al Jazeera’s Current TV deal? Maybe you should be.

Because this is a deal you could have had for yourself.

The Internet isn’t going to get its hands on TV’s most valuable properties, like big-time sports, anytime soon. But Al Jazeera would have been a perfect candidate to bypass cable and go digital-only.

Consider:

You’ve already got the infrastructure: A few years ago, the Web’s capacity to handle lots of streaming video was an open question. But now we’ve seen — courtesy of the Olympics and Felix Baumgartner’s space jump – that this isn’t a problem, at least not for a cable-sized crowd.

You’ve already got the eyeballs: No need to reiterate the size of YouTube’s audience (but it’s around 800 million people worldwide, in case you’ve forgotten). The more important part is that Al Jazeera’s prospective U.S. audience — news junkies, Muslim Americans, Muslims living in America, etc. — are quite certainly already getting most of their information from the Web. They do that now because they have no choice, but my hunch is that even when Al Jazeera shows up on cable, they’ll keep consuming most of their news on the Web. Because that’s where they like to consume it.

You’ve got the flexibility: Right now, anyone in America can stream Al Jazeera whenever they want, for free, without paying for cable. But that’s not the case with Current TV or nearly any other cable network, because the cable providers who pay for cable programming don’t want it going out on the Web for free. They want to package Web access (along with phones, tablets, connected TV, etc.) as a “TV Everywhere” bonus for pay-TV subscribers. Maybe Al Jazeera wants that, too. But moving from Web-only to cable means it will have much less choice in the matter, regardless.

So why not spend much less than a half-billion dollars and make Al Jazeera the Web’s first “real” TV news operation?

If you’re a Web video guy who wants to make yourself feel better, you can tell yourself that its owners have misjudged TV’s value. Maybe they’re like all those guys who bought newspapers at the end of the ’90s. Or maybe they’re like Japanese trophy hunters buying Pebble Beach and Rockefeller Center at the end of the ’80s.

But if you’re waiting around for an ambitious, deep-pocketed player with global appeal to make a big bet on Web video as a real TV alternative, you just missed a huge opportunity. May be a while before you get another one.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock/Altay Kaya)


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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald