Al-Jazeera, Roku and the Future of Online Video

al jazeera boy

When the political upheaval in Egypt erupted late last month, many Americans hoped their cable news networks would be quick to cover the unfolding events. Instead, outlets like CNN, MSNBC and Fox News failed to cover the crisis in Egypt at all, and then struggled to play catch-up with international news organizations.

Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera English was gaining admirers across the globe for its around-the-clock, in-depth coverage of the protests and politics as they unfolded. The outlet was beating the American news channels at their own game. As the New York Times’ Brian Stelter wrote, “While American television networks were scrambling to move reporters and producers into Cairo, the Al-Jazeera channels were already there.”

Unfortunately, unless you lived in Washington, D.C.; Toledo, OH; or Burlington, VT you couldn’t view Al-Jazeera’s coverage on your TV because the cable operators don’t offer it; you had to settle for a live feed on your computer (if you had access to the broadband to support the stream).

In a better world, the major cable TV operators would be carrying Al-Jazeera English and dozens more news channels. And some notable advocates, including media critic and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, have called for greater adoption of Al-Jazeera in the U.S. But right now, cable giants like Comcast and Time Warner Cable refuse to carry them, leaving interested viewers — and the public interest — in the lurch.

Then, out of the blue, Roku — the little box that lets you stream HD versions of Netflix, Hulu Plus and dozens more Internet video channels right on your TV — announced it had added the Al-Jazeera English live feed to its news channel. Roku enables cord cutters like me who, in the pursuit of media freedom, gave up expensive cable TV subscriptions to stay tuned to many of the shows and movies they like.

Thanks to its addition of Al-Jazeera English, Roku users around the country can now watch coverage of Egypt in the same manner as those in D.C., Toledo, Burlington, and other parts of the world: on their TVs.

Roku’s move was a thrilling taste of what online TV might look like if big cable loses its grip on channels and viewers. Imagine if more channels, sick of waiting in virtual holding pens to be allowed to join cable lineups, instead just joined up with Roku or one of its competitors. And then imagine if viewers followed these channels off the cable reservation, cut their cords and relied solely on little Internet boxes for their TV content.

It would be a shiny future for online video. Except the cable giants won’t stand for it, and are using all their power to stop it: The cords that pipe in your cable TV also deliver the Internet, and big cable is all too eager to exploit that fact, threatening to throttle or block content they don’t like or that competes with them.

Independent online video efforts are running into problems left and right, and the cable giants are trying to stymie them for as long as possible while they test out their “TV Everywhere” offerings — which is their attempt at rolling out online video services without allowing subscribers to “cut the cord.” Thanks to loopholes in a recent FCC decision, there are a number of ways Comcast and friends could degrade or throttle Netflix, Hulu and other channels offered by Roku.

It’s true that with more innovations like Roku’s addition of Al-Jazeera English, the future of online video could be bright. But if big cable succeeds in squashing competition and stifling innovation, it could also get really, really dark.

Josh Levy is the online campaign manager for non-profit media advocacy group Free Press.

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