Al Jazeera America, which had its highly anticipated if limited debut yesterday afternoon, has an uphill battle to establish itself amongst America's cable news juggernauts. But its biggest hurdle isn't necessarily how American it is (or isn't), or that more than half of US homes don't have access to it. The biggest problem, in fact, may be that that critics are deeming it boring.
Though critics seem to be impressed by the cabler's mission, they say there's something sort of lacking in its delivery. Laura Bennett at The New Republic says the network "mostly delivered" on its promise to provide fair and balanced reporting, but its dedication to lingering on the issues led to a few overly long segments. As Bennett puts it:
On all shows the hosts are committed to letting people talk instead of interrupting them, which sometimes has the unintended effect of being boring. One scientist rambled for so long about Fukushima and radioactive isotopes and bluefin tuna that the anchor had to cut him off with “I think your answer is that it’s complicated."
Variety's Brian Lowry compares the network to the Public Broadcasting System, saying that AJA's approach "was about as close to PBS tonally as you’re apt to find in the commercial space, with nary a wacky human-interest or feel-good story to be found in either of [its two] central shows." The Washington Post's Paul Farhi notes "there was little flash" on Al Jazeera America, and that it needs something if it is going to compete successfully in the crowded cable news landscape. He writes:
“Inside Story,” a panel-discussion program that followed the inaugural one-hour newscast, featured three academic experts on climate change. They essentially agreed that ocean levels are rising and that major American cities are threatened — thereby producing none of the sparks that usually fly when such topics are discussed on cable TV.
Al Jazeera America’s slogan promises, “There’s more to it.” If it hopes to stand out in a crowded field, it knows it has to make good on that.
Mary McNamara at The Los Angeles Times is harsher:
[I]t's tough to make a half-hour of truly informed conversation about climate change interesting; it's almost impossible if you're going to rely on three talking heads and some fairly banal graphics, as former C-SPAN host Libby Casey did on her first issue of "Inside Story."
Indeed, the opening hours of Al Jazeera America had, for all its high ambitions and expensive expansion, a muted color scheme, unexciting camera work and sophomoric graphics.
Of course, this is what Al Jazeera promised. (“There will be less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings," Ehab Al Shihabi, the channel’s acting chief executive, told The New York Times' Brian Stelter.) And, theoretically, this is the sort of news Americans want. (Or, at the very least, as Ana Marie Cox at The Guardian put it, "the news channel Americans deserve.") A March Pew poll found that MSNBC was the most opinionated news channel, while a February poll found that Fox news is the most or least trusted channel depending on which political party is asked. And CNN has suffered one embarrassment after another. But what people say they need and what they actually want, are, of course, often at odds. As Lowry puts it, "...if you want cute panda videos — or even just Anderson Cooper raising an eyebrow — look elsewhere [...] Whether there’s enough demand, alas, might be a different matter entirely."