The international news will not be televised
If the United States wants to listen to the world, maybe it should start by watching first. By Cyril Blet When U.S. President Barack Obama spoke in Cairo this week, he delivered a message of openness. “There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one ...
If the United States wants to listen to the world, maybe it should start by watching first.
By Cyril Blet
When U.S. President Barack Obama spoke in Cairo this week, he delivered a message of openness. “There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground,” he told a global audience of billions. But if he convinced his listeners abroad, a lingering irony will catch up with the president upon his return home: Americans themselves are literally disconnected from foreign news; they are not “listening” at all. Foreign news stations are not broadcast in the United States, meaning that for all but the extended-cable watcher, seeing things from another point of view is, well, impossible.
To call for more international news channels on U.S. television might sound a bit outdated in the era of Web-based and mobile video services. After all, Al Jazeera English already claims that at least half of its Web traffic, or 11 million visitors a month, comes from North America-based IP addresses. Still, U.S. television remains the primary source from which most Americans get their video news; Watching news videos on YouTube or LiveStation is popular only among a small tech-savvy elite.
In the rest of the world, a plethora of international media channels is the televised norm. BBC World, France 24, Al Jazeera and the Chinese state provider, CCTV, all broadcast in Africa. Virtually all international news channels can be found on European TV. Germany, France and Britain have each launched Arabic-language news channels in the Middle East. And many international carriers now deliver international outlets’ programming to Asian and Latin American broadcasters.
Pity the United States, where programs from such stations as Al Jazeera English, BBC World, and France 24 are only on special cable packages or squeezed into few-minute slots on local PBS channels – if they’re available at all. In Washington, for example, cable provider RCN offers France 24 as part of standard cable, but customers pay extra for BBC America, and Al Jazeera is just absent. Another provider, Cablevision, only offers Euronews and BBC World.
Add the fact that, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest annual report on news media, U.S. cable networks spent only 8 percent of their time on foreign coverage in 2008, and you get a United States that is wholly detached from the global news conversation. Since, international news channels, by comparison, dedicate the bulk of their editorial content to world events, the result is a growing gap between what U.S. residents and most global TV-viewers see and think about.
The solution sounds easy: just introduce more foreign news channels. But cable companies claim that international stations simply do not attract large enough audiences for advertisers to be enticed. Offering foreign news in any but the most expanded cable packages would be a profit-losing venture. Instead, cable companies have invited foreign channels to be featured in a pay-extra international news tier, but the international stations balk at that plan, insisting that they deserve to be wrapped in the same package as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. That leaves the option of foreign channels paying the cable operators to broadcast their content – a hard sell to the stations’ funders abroad.
A shift in the current cable regulatory policy could change the game. The Federal Communications Commission that regulates U.S. cable companies allows them to operate on a broad tier basis, where channels are packaged in bundles ranging from basic to expanded (foreign news relegated to the latter). One solution would be à la carte pricing – selling each channel individually – an option that would enable consumers to receive Al Jazeera’s or Japanese NHK’s programs if they’d like.
When American viewers can’t access international news, their ability to take part in global conversations suffers greatly. The average U.S. television-watcher doesn’t ever see the diverse interpretations of any single event that filter in to most TVs across the world. So if ever the U.S. administration wants Americans to “listen” to the world abroad, it might start by providing them the soundtrack.
Cyril Blet is author of Une Voix Mondiale Pour un État, (A World Voice for a State), a book profiling the world news landscape, with a focus on France 24.
Photo: TENGKU BAHAR/AFP/Getty Images
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