Cable news channel Al Jazeera America is shutting down operations on April 30.
In a statement issued on the Al Jazeera America website, the entity’s CEO, Al Anstey, said the decision “is driven by the fact that our business model is simply not sustainable in light of the economic challenges in the U.S. media marketplace.”
The channel and website were a play by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera Media Co. to expand into the U.S. with a news and information service that would be an alternative to CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Al Jazeera, which is funded partly by the government of Qatar, purchased the cable outlet Current from former Vice President Al Gore and his partners for $500 million in 2013 and replaced it with Al Jazeera America in August of that year.
The channel never attracted much of an audience, despite having a number of anchors and reporters that U.S. viewers were familiar with through CNN, NBC and MSNBC. Al Jazeera America is available in 60 million cable and satellite homes and averages about 30,000 viewers. Fully distributed networks typically reach 90 million homes or more.
Al Jazeera America also emphasized a more serious approach to its journalism and did not depend on the confrontational talking heads that are a staple of American cable news. The network recently drew attention for a documentary that reported that Denver Broncos star quarterback Peyton Manning had acquired human growth hormone during his recovery from neck surgery.
While Al Jazeera did some award-winning work, there were obstacles in getting viewers to notice it, most notably its polarizing name and the logo, which spells it out in Arabic.
“I think they badly misread the American market,” said Betsy West, Fred W. Friendly Professor of Professional Practice of Media and Society at the Columbia University School of Journalism. “They misread the toxicity of the Al Jazeera name and that affected cable carriage. You couldn’t see Al Jazeera because cable companies didn’t pick them up.”
Al Jazeera America entered a cable news market that was saturated with three established players well known to the U.S. audience. While Al Jazeera’s journalism is highly respected overseas, U.S. viewers likely associated it with the dissemination of Osama bin Laden videos after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
West added that “the business model was the largess of the government of Qatar, and when oil prices fell, they had no backup plan.”
Al Jazeera will remain a presence in the U.S. market by making available the digital content it offers to worldwide audiences.
“This expansion will allow U.S. and non-U.S. consumers alike to access the Network’s journalism and content wherever and whenever they want,” the Al Jazeera Media Network said in a statement. “By expanding its digital content and distribution services to now include the U.S., the Network will be better positioned to innovate and compete in an overwhelmingly digital world to serve today’s 24-hour digitally focused audience.”