Tanks were greeted by protesters, police vehicles went up in flames and looters started to empty the building of the ruling party NDP in Cairo late Friday: These and more astonishing images of a regime on the verge of collapse have been broadcast live online by Al-Jazeera, and a huge number of Internet users worldwide have been flocking to Al-Jazeera’s streams to get a glimpse at the events unfolding.
The UK’s Livestation.com, which features both live Al-Jazeera Arabic TV programming as well as the live Al-Jazeera English TV feed, has been overwhelmed by the influx of visitors for the better part of the day. “Lots of traffic today,” the TV service acknowledged via Twitter, advising its users to “just keep trying.” Livestation later said it has served one million viewers today, despite these technical challenges.
Al-Jazeera’s own site has so far managed to keep its streams up and running, but the video occasionally stutters. Al-Jazeera English Head of Online Mohamed Nanabhay shared via Twitter that nearly 45 percent of the network’s current web traffic is coming from the U.S.
That little tidbit is relevant not just because it’s an indicator for the interest in this week’s events. It also explains, on a much more fundamental level, how Al-Jazeera’s online video coverage became one of the most important news sources for the tumultuous struggles for democracy in the Middle East.
Sure, part of the puzzle is obviously that Al-Jazeera has its base of operation in the region. But the fact that so many people seek out Al-Jazeera’s English-language online feed also has to do with the unique history of the network. Al Jazeera intended to make significant inroads in the U.S. news market when it launched in late 2006. It hired a number of high-profile reporters and anchors, including David Frost and the former U.S. Marine Josh Rushing.
However, the news network couldn’t gain a foothold in the U.S. cable market. Comcast (s CMCSA), Time Warner (s TWX) and Cablevision (s CVC) all declined to carry the channel. The operators cited economic reasons, but many critics suspected the aggressive stance of the Bush administration towards the network didn’t exactly help its cause either. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had called Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraq War “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable,” and some even went as far as to brand Al-Jazeera a “terror network.”
Without access to the majority of TV households, Al-Jazeera turned to the next best thing: the Internet. I did an interview with Russell Merryman in 2007, when he was working as the editor-in-chief of web and new media at Al-Jazeera English. Merryman told me a big part of embracing new media was an attempt to win over the hearts and minds of Americans, and he quoted from a review that called Al-Jazeera “the best cable news channel Americans can’t watch” as an early proof of success for that strategy.
Al-Jazeera embraced YouTube (s goog) early on for daily news clips, and soon after, opened a 24/7 live feed on Livestation. The network also more recently embraced Creative Commons licenses for some of its raw footage, and Nanabhay said it will make some of Friday’s footage from Cairo available under a Creative Commons license.
Ironically, the network has failed at its original goal. The big cable networks still don’t carry Al-Jazeera, and the ongoing disputes about retrans fees make it even less likely that they’re going to spend money on the network. However, the failure to capture cable has led to an unexpected success: Al-Jazeera has become a significant Internet TV news source, and the network’s live reporting from Egypt proves yet again that online, it’s far ahead of it’s U.S. competition.
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