Cable companies: Add Al Jazeera English *now* Jeff Jarvis commands, correctly, on his blog — and also in Huffpo, under the headine We Want Our Al Jazeera English Now. For me now was a few minutes ago, when I read both items on the family iPad, which has been our main news portal since the Boston Globe quit coming and I suspended my efforts to reach them by Web or phone. (The Globe also wants a bunch of ID crap when I go there on the iPad, so they’re silent that way too.) So I went to the App store, looked up Al Jazeera, saw something called Al Jazeera English Live was available for free, got it, and began watching live protest coverage from Cairo.
We don’t have cable here. We dumped it after network news turned to shit, and we found it was easier to watch movies on Netflix. We still like to watch sports, but cable for sports alone is too expensive, because it’s always bundled with junk we don’t want and not available à la carte. (You know, like stuff is on the Web.) When we want TV news, we go online or get local TV through an EyeTV gizmo plugged into an old Mac laptop. Works well, but it’s still TV.
And so is Al Jazeera on an iPad/iPhone, Samsung Wave or a Nokia phone. (See http://english.aljazeera.net/mobile/for details. No Android or Blackberry yet, appaerently.) The difference is that real news s happening in Egypt, and if you want live news coverage in video form, Al Jazeera is your best choice. As Jeff puts it, “Vital, world-changing news is occurring in the Middle East and no one — not the xenophobic or celebrity-obsessed or cut-to-the-bone American media — can bring the perspective, insight, and on-the-scene reporting Al Jazeera English can.”
And it’s very good. Writes Salon, “If you’re watching Al Jazeera, you’re seeing uninterrupted live video of the demonstrations, along with reporting from people actually on the scene, and not “analysis” from people in a studio. The cops were threatening to knock down the door of one of its reporters minutes ago. Fox has moved on to anchor babies. CNN reports that the ruling party building is on fire, but Al Jazeera is showing the fire live.”
In fact six Al Jazeera journalists are now being detained (I just learned). That kind of thing happens when your news organization is actually involved in a mess like this. CNN used to be that kind of organization, but has been in decline for years, along with other U.S. network news organizations. As Jeff says, “What the Gulf War was to CNN, the people’s revolutions of the Middle East are to Al Jazeera English. But in the U.S., in a sad vestige of the era of Freedom Fries, hardly anyone can watch the channel on cable TV.”
And that’s a Good Thing, because cable is a mostly shit in a pipe, sphinctered through a “set top box” that’s actually a computer crippled in ways that maximize control by the cable company and minimize choice for the user. Fifteen years ago, the promise of TV was “five hundred channels”. We have that now, but we also have billions of sources — not just “channels” — over the Net. Cream rises to the top, and right now that cream is Al Jazeera and the top is a hand-held device.
The message cable should be getting is not just “carry Al Jazeera,” but “normalize to the Internet.” Open the pipes. Give us à la carte choices. Let us get and pay for what we want, not just what gets force-fed in bundles. Let your market — your viewers — decide what’s worth watching, and how they want to watch it. And quit calling Internet video “over the top”. The Internet is the new bottom, and old-fashioned channel-based TV is a limping legacy.
A few days ago, President Obama spoke about the country’s “Sputnik moment”. Well, that’s what Al Jazeera in Egypt is for cable TV. It’s a wake-up call from the future. In that future we’ll realize that TV is nothing more than a glowing rectangle with a boat-anchor business model. Time to cut that anchor and move on.
Here’s another message from the future, from one former cable TV viewer: I’d gladly pay for Al Jazeera. Even when I can also get it for free. All we need is the mechanism, and I’m glad to help with that.