Al Jazeera America’s Bet On Serious News Only Snags 13,000 Daily Viewers

Earlier today, the New York Post reported that the newly launched Al Jazeera American cable news channel has very low ratings. For its first few months, the channel has averaged around 13,000 viewers.

That’s low, but not zero. The kicker is that the predecessor to what people now call AJAM, Current TV, had a larger average audience of, wait for it, 31,000. That number was so low the channel sold itself to the Qatar based Al Jazeera, committing suicide by corporate takeover.

The channel, according to the Post, is available in more than 40 million homes in the United States, which is mostly good news with a tinge of negative: It has the reach to grow to any size possible, but it’s also correct that even with that potential reach, it has failed to attract much more than tumbleweed.

Its rivals are a full order of magnitude larger. What I am surprised at is the surprise that AJAM is tiny. Of course it is. What else would it be? Current TV’s ratings were a running joke. Who honestly expected the channel to be born with an audience in its grip?

Also, as Peter Kafka points out, the total audience size for cable news is small to begin with. Summing all the large channels’ audiences together barely breaks the three million mark. So AJAM is fighting for a scarce number of eyeballs.

The TechCrunch crew, while chewing over the ratings news, posited partially that perhaps there is no market for serious news journalism on television, or at least that the niche is satiated by current offerings. I hope that isn’t the case.

Our own Greg Ferenstein correctly pointed out that CNN’s ratings fell during its period of heavy coverage of the rollout debacle of the Affordable Care Act. The other side to that fact is this, via the New York Times:

Did [CNN’s ratings fall] mean people didn’t want to hear wall-to-wall coverage of the failure of the site? Maybe not, if they were viewers already committed to the one of the partisan corners: Both Fox News and MSNBC did far better last week, with heavy coverage of issues related to the health care law.

I don’t doubt that taking a more partisan view to the news is an effective way to firewall yourself an audience segment. But I also think that we can agree as a body that CNN is hardly great television. It’s gamification of healthcare news was dull, and its regular quality is hardly well regarded.

There are some signs of life in other corners. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes is seeing his ratings start to recover from their firm slump that kicked into gear when he took over his primetime spot. Hayes is noted for his wonkish take on the news, with better discussion, commentary, and smarter guests:

Nielsen returns have All In With Chris Hayes posting its best averages yet among total viewers and adults 25-54 — excluding the breaking news boost from the Boston Marathon bombings (April 15). For the week of Aug. 26, and compared to the week prior, Hayes was up 71 percent to 224,000 viewers in the cable news network’s targeted demographic and up 47 percent among total viewers with a nightly average of 772,000.

Hayes of course came into his new time slot after a successful weekend show drew attention to his method of handling the news.

If AJAM wants to bet that a serious news channel has a shot in a market that includes endless helpings of the asinine and petty, I hope that it succeeds. But let’s give it enough time to find its legs before we write it off. There’s a Newsroom joke here that I’m missing. Feel free to submit it in the comments.

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