Opinion: America offline

CAIRO, Egypt — I can watch Al-Jazeera live on my iPod Touch anywhere on earth with an internet signal, but I can’t watch CNN. I can view EuroNews in real time from my office computer in Cairo, but not Fox News. I can watch BBC’s Arabic network live in my lap on a Wi-Fi-enabled jet 30,000 feet above the Atlantic, but not NBC.

American TV news organizations may claim to embrace the digital age, but this is studio-concocted nonsense. Not a single major cable or broadcast news network in the United States consistently streams their programming in real time. The only U.S.-based news network I’ve found that streams live content is Al-Hurra, the U.S. government’s news channel in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, networks from countries all over the world are offering their content free and live to anyone with an internet connection. Haber Turk and TRT-Haber, two of Turkey’s most popular news networks, offer free streams of their programming. Germany’s Deutsche-Welle network freely streams their English-language network as well as an Asia-focused network in German. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation similarly webcasts its evening news program live, and three of Italy’s largest news networks, Rai News 24, Sky and Mediaset, afford live viewing online.

There seem to be two main reasons American TV networks don’t care to do the same. First, cable networks fear streaming their content online will eat into subscription fees they collect through companies like Comcast and Brighthouse. This claim may have some merit, but what’s to stop a network like CNN from charging internet users around the world $10-$20 a year to stream their content live and around the clock?

This would lessen the need for traditional cable providers, with whom news organizations squabble anyway, and the networks may come out making more money. I’m willing to bet that an attractive number of the more than 5 million Americans living outside the U.S., as well as others, would be willing to pay $10 to stream CNN live on their laptops or handheld devices, not to mention the obvious fact that more eyeballs equals more advertising proceeds.

And in any event, mobile provision of TV content is the direction the industry is headed — and it’s the direction some networks around the world have already gone — so CNN and Fox News should just spare their heels the friction and accept the inevitable.

The second reason American TV networks cling to the old model is an absurd fear that people around the world will steal and misuse their content.

TV news executives: Stop flattering yourselves. Selling news reruns is no racket. People around the world don’t want to steal your news content. They want to watch it today to make better decisions tomorrow. (Oh, and they’ll watch your ads, too.)

Exhibiting this fear are executives at "60 Minutes," who offer an audio-only podcast of their weekly newsmagazine. Who wants to listen to "60 Minutes" without seeing their great interviews and footage from the field, or Andy Rooney’s dancing eyebrows? Few people, I suspect, but "60 Minutes" is convinced that providing vodcasts (video podcasts) to news consumers around the world will somehow lead to its ruin.

American sports’ broadcasting is even more miserly. NBC provided a free iPhone app for the 2010 Winter Olympics that offered some events streaming in real time, but blocked streams of this content from people outside the United States.

The Olympics represents the most international assembly on the planet, but NBC made sure iPhone users around the world weren’t part of it. Even more absurd, NBC didn’t give iPhone users outside the U.S. the option of paying for such access. American news networks can’t claim profit motives for such ignorance.

In an even more foolish display of insularity, CBS sold for $10 an iPhone app streaming live games from the 2010 NCAA men’s basketball tournament but, again, fans outside the U.S. were kept in the dark. I don’t have an MBA, but I feel confident that blocking millions of people from purchasing a product is a shortsighted business practice.

ESPN seems to be the only American channel regularly offering live sports content to viewers around the world, and they’re making good money through online subscription fees.

To be fair, there are occasional legal restrictions dictating what sports content American TV networks can steer online, but the simple fact remains that TV news networks in the U.S. are deeply resisting the call to go truly global and mobile, while the rest of the world is warmly responding.

In his book "The Post-American World," journalist Fareed Zakaria wrote that “just as the world is opening up, America is closing down,” which is precisely what American TV networks are doing. “We are becoming suspicious of the very things we have long celebrated,” Zakaria wrote, “free markets, trade, immigration and technological change.”

I’m not arguing that Turkish and German news networks are going to bury CNN and MSNBC, but journalism is wireless and increasingly borderless, and only news organizations that acknowledge this can become the world’s information providers.

The New York Times is the world’s global newspaper. The BBC is the world’s largest and most multilingual newsgathering organization. Non-Americans all over the world access NPR for its diverse global coverage. These outlets are industry leaders because they’ve seized the web’s capabilities for mobile content delivery.

American TV networks, though, are confining themselves into global irrelevance. As the world’s digital news consumers come calling, American TV networks have barred the door.

Justin D. Martin is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism & Mass Communication at The American University in Cairo. Contact him at martin@aucegypt.edu.