Wednesday, August 21, 2013

AJA: One Day, Finding Their Way

Al Jazeera America is on the air, and it is a reasonable base from which to find its way.

The major issue they seem to confront from the start is how to capture the intellectual directness, immediacy, intense and high-quality connection to the issue of the moment along with the broad, nuanced intellectual continuity of Al Jazeera English--a persistent high-bar creation of detailed coverage and examination of focal issues, and breadth of intellectual exploration of international ones--in the context of US News:

What are the focal issues and intense questions, such that a continuity of high-bar coverage can be created?

This is also a work-in-progress given the attempts to thread this with what appears to be a belief that they need to bring sufficient comfort and familiarity to US viewers to allow them to transition from known channels.

Some of this work is integrated, well-conceptualized, and effective--the introduction of news anchors and reporters who both expand the traditional, stereotypical American notions of "diversity", and are clearly rooted and based in America.

Some of it, understandably, will need to grow into a more vital, connected version of its current self.

One of the main issues is, in a nation of considerable breadth of issues, and without either replicating the lockstep focus of existing channels is: Where to aim, in order to create a consistent vision?

This is apparent across the initial efforts, but it is entirely understandable. There is a need to find the complement of issues that will constitute the vital and compelling present, as it is lifted from the repetitive voice of current news into a more detailed, intellectual, focal, vital form, as that can exist for an American audience

"Consider This", an effort thoroughly rooted in the AJE tradition of attempting to shake and increase the malleability of current mindsets, like many of the original efforts, seems to lack this clear sense of where to aim from the start.  Day one, yes. But it lacks a certain sharpness of topic and discussion that is characteristic of AJE efforts, that seems likely to carry for a time until and unless it finds itself.

There must be a willingness to risk full engagement with the issue as it stands, and drop the habitual, ingrained American eagerness to please.

"Inside Story", the AJA version of a AJE hallmark, hosted by Libby Casey, is closer to the mark from the start. Casey, trained in the C-SPAN tradition, is far more comfortable staying simply with the facts, and the questions that emerge from them, and allowing the intellectual quality of the guests to fully emerge.

Understandably, AJA is hoping to draw viewers with the familiar faces, and introduce and comfort them in this way to the full channel content.  This does create another close-call dilemma, however.
The star power of the perfectly likable Ali Velshi, for example, is limited, and is both not terribly representative nor nearly as compelling as the far more gripping, intellectually challenging content of, say "Inside Story".

I understand that the plan is one of gradual transitioning from the familiar smiling voice of the for-so-long contrived American news persona, to the more authentic, intellectually complex, genuinely challenging voice of AJE, but the reverse may also occur--the unintended consequence that viewers may come to expect more of the same--news shaped to limit and please--and this may not fully blend with, or allow viewers to create with the channel the persistent image of a new, frank, uncontrived news, authentically unafraid to address focal issues of the day from multiple perspectives, and without the always deadening, flattening regression and repression to the mean--the limitation of fear of being too smart, too central, too on point, the fear of alienating advertisers or donors that has shaped and limited our view of the world, and which AJA has the opportunity to genuinely change.

Now, that being said: A full start from 0 to 120 might leave viewers bewildered.  This is clearly a well-thought out, and considered approach.  Though not without its risks, such as those described above, it is reasonable planning and risk management--the type of long-term thinking which, as I mentioned yesterday, is a remarkable hallmark of the AJ approach.

But--they will need to move it forward, and trust the audience to grab intellect, to make it begin to stick. Audiences are hungry for it. Do not underestimate. Give it to them.