“One on-air personality said management’s view was ‘if we build it, they will come.’ They didn’t.”
As we routinely tell our clients, the days of “if you build it, they will come” ended after Field of Dreams.
The notable and relatively new entrant to the American news mediascape, Al Jazeera America, is scheduled to shut down by April 30, 2016. While there are heaping reasons for this abrupt termination, the vast majority involve marketing failures. From a doomed name and laughable Al Gore connection to a poor understanding of the market and public management failures – all roads pointed to a disastrous conclusion.
Al Gore became a joke after surrendering the 2000 U.S. Presidential election to George W. Bush. His one-note-Johnny routine about climate change while owning a massive energy-swallowing home, sexual harassment of a masseuse, and separating from his wife, led to a steep decline of his stature in politics and environmentalism. He also was a partial owner of Current TV, a low-level cable television network in the United States. It was the sale of this network that not only allowed the foothold for Al Jazeera America, but helped to further erode Al Gore’s reputation. He was harshly criticized for selling an American media company to terrorists.
Strangely, no one cared about Current TV before it’s sale to Al Jazeera – with one notable moment of exception. Two of its journalists were arrested after crossing the North Korean border in 2009. Their investigative reporting skills did not include map reading. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton (the former boss of their current boss) secured their release. Thus ended the newsworthiness of Current TV until it was sold. At it’s height, the network reached a paltry 31,000 viewers per day. Total. To Gore’s credit, he was able to sell the network with almost no audience to the Qatari government for $500,000,000. (That’s $16,129 per viewer!)
Within the first two months of Al Jazeera America, it shed nearly two-thirds of that audience and reached a pathetic 13,000 people per day. Total.
Even MSNBC was over 120,000 per day.
For reasons that continue to elude employees, observers, and the American public, Al Jazeera’s management never seemed to fully understand the poison pill presented by their name. Given the public hesitation to anything Arab or Muslim after September 11th, it should have been easy to grasp the need for a more acceptable brand name. Presenting an Arab news network with an Arab name and a terrible reputation in the United States seemed puzzling. Unfairly, most Americans only associated Al Jazeera with their occasional broadcasts of propaganda from Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. But perception was reality and perception began on day one.
This brand crisis was only magnified by their Arabic logo. America is a melting pot and has learned to listen to foreign names all the time. There are Arab construction companies, racing teams, and many other Arab-named entities in the U.S. But to actually use a logo written in Arabic was a visual reminder that Al Jazeera America had nothing to do with America. It is difficult to convince anyone you’re American if everything about you is not.
Their brand was an American disaster visually and audibly.
The conundrum of bad branding was strangely mitigated by a limited audience. It is hard to make a terrible first impression if you aren’t allowed to make the first impression. Just days before Al Jazeera America was set to go on air, AT&T U-verse dropped the channel. This followed prior decisions by Comcast and Time Warner Cable not to air the station at all. Their possible audience size now dropped precipitously below 100 million homes.
Technology and regulation also posed a problem. The still-successful Al Jazeera English is the English language version of Al Jazeera. It is popular on a global scale, especially it’s internet stream. But Al Jazeera was trying to build a TV network, not a stream. So they prohibited streaming to the US. That narrow-minded decision again limited their exposure and opportunities to drive traffic to their fledgling American network. The CEO, Al Anstey, admitted as much with this line from the email announcing the station’s closure: “The decision is driven by the fact that our business model is simply not sustainable in an increasingly digital world, and because of the current global financial challenges.”
Al Jazeera never succeeded but it was not due to a poorly produced product. They won every major journalism and media award possible including the Emmy, Peabody, and the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University awards. The hired top talent away from other TV news networks and other journalism media. Although occasionally accused of having a “Middle East bias” in their coverage, they were routinely recognized for being objective and presenting a unique voice in American media.
But no one will give you a chance to be objective in their home if they think it comes from the mouth of a terrorist.
Al Jazeera Management Failures
Every single one of the problems listed above could be fixed by a stable and competent management team. Al Jazeera America never found that team. They were in a constant state of management “desperation” as they made frequent changes and suffered internal drama. Every department saw departures as Al Jazeera headquarters in Qatar applied constant pressure for success. Few were ever managing long enough to make a difference.
In some instances, these personnel shifts and a substantial wrongful termination lawsuit, once again brought forth the idea of an anti-American bias with preference given to Middle Eastern employees. Certainly not the desired picture when trying to appeal to an American audience.
The media landscape in America is extremely competitive. Ask MSNBC. To find success, even with a unique voice, is a challenge. But when your marketing -from your name to your HR policies- build and support a notion that you are the opposite of what you claim, you will ultimately fail. Competitors will relish in your misery and make sure your customers know. Partners will feel as though they are part of a lopsided relationship. And customers will choose an alternative.
All of this dooms what was otherwise a well-made product.