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Alternative News

An International Perspective

Three new channels entered the fray of international 24-hour English-language news in 2006. BBC World News, backed by the well-established British broadcaster, expanded from three hours to full-time in the United States. The other two, Al Jazeera and France 24, were new channels making their global launch in English, with the U.S. just one piece of that bigger story.

All three, with their disparate reputations and infrastructure, faced a host of challenges.

First, audience trends suggest that the number of cable subscribers for the existing channels may have reached its peak in the U.S. The most established TV broadcasters are working hard to lure back viewers, and the three U.S. cable news channels saw their combined audiences decline.

Second, all three new international channels have limited exposure in the U.S. For American audiences to see them, the new channels have to negotiate “carriage” with cable operators so they can be aired. And cable distributors, who have a limited capacity for the number of channels they can carry, may not be eager to give up valuable space for niche international news channels. For their part, the U.S. cable news channels are all backed by influential U.S. media conglomerates and are also combined in package deals with other, more lucrative, entertainment and/or sports programming. The new foreign imports have no such advantages. So the international news channels, with their niche appeal, have had to make do with a small start in the U.S. television landscape. BBC World and France 24 are accessible in only one market each, while Al-Jazeera, which faces political as well as economic concerns, can be viewed only online. According to Chris Daly, a professor at Boston University, “it seems highly unlikely that there would ever be a mass market in the United States for journalism that originates in Britain or anywhere else.”1

Survey research supports that view. According to the latest Pew Research Center biennial survey of U.S. news consumption, fewer people are following international news closely (dropping 13 percentage points, from 52% in 2004 to 39% in 2006). In a separate question, more than half the respondents (58%) said they follow international news only when something important is happening.2

International Cable News Channels
At a Glance

BBC World Al Jazeera English France 24
Launch Date
June 1, 2006 (U.S. Launch)
November 15, 2006
December 7, 2006
Owner
BBC Worldwide (public broadcaster)
Emir of Qatar (privately owned)
France TV & TFI Joint Venture (public-private)
Based in
London (U.K.)
Doha (Qatar) + 3 broadcast centers: Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), London, & Washington D.C.
Issy-les-Moulineaux (near Paris, France)
Infra-
structure
50 bureaus worldwide; 250 foreign correspondents
20 bureaus worldwide; 800 total employees; 500+ journalists
180 journalists
Budget
not available
$1 billion for launch
$100 million (80 million euros)
Reach – households
2 million in the U.S.; 281 million worldwide
80 million homes worldwide
80 million homes worldwide
Reach – geographic
200 countries worldwide
not available
100 countries worldwide
Where in the U.S. can you see it?
New York City (Cablevision)
Internet Stream (Jump TV & VDC) and Houston (GlobeCast TV)
Washington D.C. (Comcast); UN Headquarters
Website

Source: Multiple sources, please refer to section footnotes

BBC World

The BBC Worldwide division of the British Broadcasting Corporation made its first foray into the realm of U.S. 24-hour cable news networks in April, 2006.

It signed a deal with Cablevision to distribute a 24-hour news channel called BBC World on its digital stream in the New York area (the largest Nielsen television market). The agreement helps the British news channel reach 2 million Cablevision subscribers in the New York metropolitan area. Before the Cablevision deal, BBC news was available only through 30-minute segments aired on PBS stations or on BBC America, BBC’s channel for entertainment programming. BBC America (where the news airs in a three-hour block in the morning), which was launched in the U.S. in 1998, is distributed by Discovery Networks (see more in our 2006 Report.)

The 24-hours news channel went on the air in June 2006. A month later, it also began to air World News Today, a one-hour breakfast program (7 a.m. ET) aimed specifically at the American audience, though it is broadcast from BBC’s London headquarters. Anchored by George Alagiah, it competes directly with the American network morning news shows.3

While its American audience is minuscule compared with the number of households reached by its U.S. rivals (see Audience), BBC World News executives see it as a good start and hope to sign on more cable systems in 2007. As media critics report, they hope to attract educated, affluent American professionals and through them, coveted advertising dollars.4

In the promotion campaign of the launch, BBC World executives stressed their content as an alternative to Fox News and CNN. Targeting the hard-news consumer, their strategy hinged on BBC’s content and experience in telling “both sides of the story.” It hopes to convince American viewers that it will be unbiased, objective and a better alternative than the existing choices.

Globally, the BBC is probably the leading television and radio brand of all and is counting on that fame to overcome the obstacles it is facing in its entry into the U.S. television market.

In contrast, the two other international news channels, Al Jazeera and France 24, entered the international news scene for the first time. For them, the U.S. is just one of the many markets in which they have to compete and make a place for themselves.

Al-Jazeera English

After multiple delays, the English-language sibling of the controversial Arab Al-Jazeera Network (formerly known as Al-Jazeera International) launched on November 15, 2006. Unlike its sister network, which focuses only on the Middle East for an Arabic-speaking audience, Al-Jazeera English is aimed at the larger English-speaking audience around the world.

Unlike BBC World, Al-Jazeera is privately owned and comes with the strong financial backing of the oil-rich Emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. He is reported to have spent $1 billion on the channel launch already.

Not that it doesn’t come well equipped. The channel employs more than 500 journalists, including a number of veteran Europeans and Americans,5 working in about 20 bureaus across Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.6 In addition, the channel gets support from the Arabic Al-Jazeera network, with which it will share resources such as news crews and footage.7

Al-Jazeera English is the first English-language news channel to be based in the Middle East, in Doha, Qatar. Newscasts will come from four locations —  Doha; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; London, and Washington D.C.

The channel launched with 12 hours of programming, but expanded to 24 hours by early 2007. Apart from news updates from its four broadcast centers, it has business and sports programs as well as news analysis and talk-shows (for example, the Riz Khan Show).

It is carried on cable and satellite systems in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. For American viewers, however, the channel is barely accessible, even though Washington is one of its key broadcast centers.

Despite talks that went on for more than a year, no American cable distributor had agreed to sign a deal with the channel by the end of 2006. At launch, it could be accessed only on four little-known platforms – VDC and Jump TV (where the channel is streamed over the Internet), GlobeCast, a niche satellite network, and Fision, a new fiber-optic network based only in Houston that itself launched in December, 2006.8

The reluctance stems essentially from of the reputation the Arabic Al-Jazeera. Branded by the Bush Administration as anti-American, it is also one of the most aggressive news operations in the Middle East, and, at point or another, has been banned in many Middle Eastern states. It has even been accused of having ties to the Al-Qaeda (see PEJ’s Al-Jazeera Timeline and Interview in August 2006). Media watchdog organizations, such as the very conservative Accuracy in Media (AIM) and the more respected Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) are critical of its coverage and what they consider its dubious connections. They believe the same kind of reporting will carry through on the English Channel.

But that has not deterred the channel, or its executives. Nigel Parsons, managing director, says viewers of the English version should not expect to see the Al-Jazeera that the Arab world watches daily.9 Whether it will be able to convince U.S. television distributors (and advertisers) is another question.

France 24

The French, too, added their voice to the international media scene in 2006.

Their 24 hour news channel “France 24” went on air in December 2006. A joint venture between the public broadcaster France Televisions and TF1, France’s biggest commercial network, the channel airs simultaneously in French and English from its headquarters near Paris. In addition to its own 180 journalists, it will draw on TF1 and France Televisions’ correspondents.10

As with Al Jazeera English, the U.S. is just a small part of the channel’s reach. It is broadcast across the world on cable and satellite networks in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Washington area in the United States. At launch the channel came into about 80 million homes in about 100 countries.

Like BBC World and Al-Jazeera, though, France 24 finds most of those 80 million homes outside the U.S. So far, it can be seen only in the U.N. headquarters in New York and in the Washington area. In the capital, it airs on the Comcast cable system’s digital stream with the help of the MHz network, a D.C.-based television network that promotes international programming and helps it get cable, satellite and Internet exposure in the U.S.11 In addition, the “Best of France 24” was featured on its national program stream, which is carried on PBS stations, GlobeCast TV (which also carries Al-Jazeera) and DirecTV starting in January 2007.12

President Jacques Chirac is said to be the force behind making France 24 a reality. In 2003, a report by the French Parliament argued for the creation of the channel to counter and “balance (Anglo-American) Imperialism.”13 According to its mission statement, France 24 aims to “convey the values of France throughout the world.” As Alain de Pouzilhac, who heads the new channel, says, “this channel has to discover international news with French eyes, as CNN (does)… with American eyes.”14

While some critics question the channel’s credibility given its government support, which includes $112 million in subsidies, channel executives insist that it is editorially independent and nonpartisan. Pouzilhac says the channel will demonstrate that as it gears up to cover the French elections in April 2007. He also hopes to attract viewers by covering areas that are generally under-reported — developments in Africa, for example, where many countries are former French colonies.

Plans include a Web site and further expansion by 2009. According to media reports, channel executives say it will earn about $9 million in revenues by 2008, and expect advertising revenues of $4 million in 2007. However, as the same media reports indicate, this still leaves France 24 about $100 million in debt.15

All three channels, then, have ambitious plans to add their perspective to international news coverage. And all are optimistic that in time there will be enough viewers for what they have to offer in the U.S. as well.

Current TV

One channel that seems to have succeeded in capturing an American audience is Current TV. Launched on August 1, 2005 by the entrepreneur Joel Hyatt and the former vice president and Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, the channel has been making waves.16 Its viewership is growing, it is making a profit and it is expanding both online and internationally.

Boasting of the first national network programming created by, for and with 18 to 34 year olds,17 Current TV’s selling proposition is a participatory model that claims to give its “citizen journalists” the kind of power that used to be enjoyed only by the mainstream media.

The channel is also distinguished by its “short-form” programming. Programs consist of a series of short segments, each called a pod. They are 15 seconds to 5 minutes long and cover a range of issues aimed at young adults. Some are professionally produced, others are “viewer-created content” (VC2). Within three months of launch, VC2 made up 30% of all programming.18

While it is not strictly a news channel, one of its key regular pods is “Google Current,” which runs at the top and bottom of each hour. The pod displays the most popular Google news searches in the past hour. It is about three minutes long and has an anchor going through the top stories. In addition to this regular pod, many of the VC2 pods deal with events in the news and current affairs.

One of the mantras of the network is that there are no editors who decide what the “news” on those segments is. As the channel puts it, “news isn’t what the network thinks you should know, but what the world is searching to learn.”19

The channel is carried in most U.S. cities through agreements with Comcast, Time Warner Digital (where it can be seen on the digital tier), DirecTV and a host of cable companies. When it launched, it was available only in Los Angeles and New York, and those two markets gave it an initial audience of 20 million households.20 Projections for 2006 put the number at about 30 million. While that is considerable compared with other international news channels, it is still too small to be counted by Nielsen; the general threshold of success for aspiring cable or satellite channels is about 40 million homes.

Even with a limited number of on-air subscribers, and only about a year in existence, analysts estimate Current TV to be making a profit. In August 2006, the Kagan Research analyst Derek Baine predicted that the channel would turn a profit of $3 million on estimated revenue of $47 million in 2006.21

The success is also attracting advertisers. Baine estimated that Current TV earned advertising revenue of about $10 million in 2006, and that it would go up to $19 million in 2007. Indeed, advertising on the channel is also in “short-form.” Each pod is accompanied by one isolated “creative brand message” (i.e., an ad) up to 60 seconds in length. In addition, there’s a longer ad spot, up to three minutes long, every hour. The channel has even experimented with viewer-created advertising.22

Current expanded its online presence in September 2006 in a joint venture with Yahoo Inc. They launched four Web-based broadband channels (some content will be aired on the TV channel). Each channel, supported by advertising, deals with a specific subject area— “buzz” or popular Yahoo search subjects, “traveler,” “action” on action sports and “driver” dealing with automotive topics.

Current TV is even going international. In October 2006, the channel signed a deal with British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) to start a version of the viewer-created digital-video news format for the United Kingdom and Ireland.23

The buzz around the channel is largely connected to its potential rather than to its performance right now, especially given the changing media landscape and growing appetite for viewer-created content. According to the New York Times, it has lived up to its billing as a network that gives its audience a voice in the programming.24

And based on response from its competition, the concept has appeal. In November 2005, MTV announced it would start pursuing viewer-created content and purchased the Internet hub “iFilms.”25 More Recently, NBC has created a channel on YouTube to promote its programming, and CNN began CNN Exchange, a Web site dedicated to viewer-created content.

News as Comedy, or Comedy as News

For some years now, Americans have increasingly been getting daily news headlines and analysis from an unlikely source — Comedy Central. The network, owned by Viacom, currently has two of the most popular political news and satirical programs in America — the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report.

The Daily Show, launched in 1996, airs Monday to Thursday at 11 p.m. (ET). Its format is a mixture. The first half resembles a regular newscast with headlines and features (accompanied by satirical graphics and commentary), while the second half is more like a talk show, with a one-on-one guest interview.

The show launched with the former ESPN commentator Craig Kilborn as the host. In 1999, he resigned to start a late-night comedy-variety show on CBS and was replaced by Jon Stewart (who negotiated his name into the show’s title a year later). It is under Stewart’s tenure that the show has become a big success.

In 2006, the Daily Show averaged 1.6 million viewers (up 12% from 2005), Comedy Central reports.26 The year also saw ratings jump 12% — the show’s best performance in the last 10 years, according to the channel. Survey data collected by the Pew Research Center also indicates a surge in popularity. According to its biennial news consumption survey, viewership doubled from 2004 to 2006 (from 3% to 6% of respondents).27

The program also has a strong following online, where it is available in short video segments soon after the actual broadcast. According to Comedy Central executives, the Daily Show was the most popular section on the network’s Web site in 2006, drawing 2.8 million viewers a month.28

The show is not just attracting viewers, but impressing media critics as well. Since 1999, the show has won 5 Emmy awards and two Peabody awards; all credited to Stewart, former executive producer Ben Karlin and the head writer, David Javerbaum.29

Building on the show’s success, Comedy Central introduced a spin-off, the Colbert Report, in October 2005.30 It also runs four days a week for half an hour, at 11:30 p.m. ET — directly after the Daily Show (and promoted at the end of it every night).

Anchored by Stephen Colbert, previously one of the Daily Show’s popular correspondents, the Colbert Report is more a satire of the talk-show culture, particularly of the O’Reilly Factor, with Colbert playing a self-important know-it-all correspondent.31

Helped by a large lead-in audience, the Colbert Report has also proved a hit, and has helped Comedy Central stretch its audience later into the night. It generated 1.2 million total viewers in 2006.32 That was 60% more than the program that aired in that time slot in 2005, a talk show called Too Late with Adam Corrolla.

Online, the Colbert Report also ranked just behind the Daily Show with a total of 2.5 million viewers. According to Comedy Central, site views for the fourth quarter of 2006 grew 165% over the same quarter in 2005 (when the show launched).33

Even with such success, the Comedy Central shows still trail late-night programming on broadcast TV. As of December 2006, the late-night network shows had double or more the audience of the Daily Show. According to the trade magazine Media Life, NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno leads the pack of late-night network shows, with an average of 6.2 million viewers in December 2006. It is followed by CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman (4.2 million viewers) and then by ABC’s hard-news Nightline (3.2 million).34

But Doug Herzog, President of Comedy Central, believes that era is over. He was quoted in the Los Angeles Times in 2005 as saying of the network shows that “those traditional formats are growing tired, and younger viewers are growing tired of them.”35 There is some evidence that men 18 to 34 years old are moving from late-night broadcast shows to cable.36

Media and advertising executives have notices the channel’s success as well, attributing it to both effective counter-programming and to the shows’ ability to get away with more daring content (they are free from the FCC content restrictions) at that hour.37

Whether or not they can overtake network audiences, the success of both the Daily Show and the Colbert Report is undeniable. So much so, indeed, that Fox News is planning a satirical news show of its own. With one season confirmed in March, the show is planned to be a weekly, shown Sunday nights, with a “decidedly non-liberal bent,” unlike the Comedy Central shows.38