international analysis and commentary

Television in the age of the internet – A conversation with Moeed Ahmad and Peter Bale

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Moeed Ahmad is Head of New Media at Al Jazeera Network, Qatar
Peter Bale is Vice President and General Manager at CNN International Digital, London

The internet revolution of the last twenty years has left with us a very different communications landscape. What has been and is the significance of the advent of World 2.0 for two major television networks like CNN and Al Jazeera?

Moeed Ahmad – Digital technology has certainly changed the way news is generated, produced and distributed. Today, anyone can shoot a video on cameras and cellphones and then upload it onto a social network. So television is made easier by World 2.0: we are able to follow events more constructively and effectively. Theaters of instability such as Palestine are made more comprehensible thanks to the precise and prompt reports that new media deliver. Our work is thus able to acquire a broader and more accurate palette than in the recent past.

Peter Bale – I would add another important point: the internet and technology have brought greater honesty and transparency to the news world and have dramatically impacted on the organizational aspects of news production and on relations with the public. Today, publishing a story on the internet means opening yourself up to an immediate reaction, which may be favorable or critical, but instant in any case. I think the circulation of news online provides a large proportion of users with skillfully-crafted and high-level intellectual content. We are imbued with a greater knowledge of the facts and a greater awareness that makes us better informed, but which also obliges us journalists to provide a more detailed and contextualized account: essentially, we are forced to up our game.

So television and the web are not at odds with each other. Does the future lie in their synergy then?

Moeed Ahmad – Al Jazeera’s website is designed as a completely different vehicle to the television channel. The time available for coverage of an item on television is obviously more limited, whilst the internet allows us to go into the details of a headline story. When an Al Jazeeera news team tackles a “top story”, it obviously gathers a lot of material that is not used in an end-product lasting just a few minutes. So the website becomes a place for exploring in greater depth, as well as launching, news items. Basically, it’s an effective way of strengthening the brand.

Peter Bale – CNN.com is definitely a great way to boost the image of our television network, but we need to learn to be more sophisticated in the way we get stories across. Through the web, we can engage with our users in a different way than we do on television, creating an interesting interaction between the network and its website users that will bring about major changes in the way multimedia product is put together. The CNN brand thus has multiple outlets: whilst TV is increasingly the medium for sports and entertainment, the web is more and more becoming the place to get news. In this division of roles, which has given rise to a multitasking media, the interaction the web brings with it is crucial.

In the new communications ecosystem, how are advertising strategies changing?

Moeed Ahmad – In developing countries, the “old media” are still the advertising vehicles of choice, receiving around 95% of advertising revenues, with the internet picking up the remaining 5%. In the post-industrial Western world, this ratio is 60:40.

Peter Bale – I think in future we will need to be much more creative. Obviously, the old media cannot do without advertising. But the new media enable us to reach a much more precise target: it is easier to match users up with particular brands, not only through what they consume, but also by building a profile of their tastes and preferences by tracking their online movements. As television networks, we must acknowledge this reality and be very innovative in tailoring advertised products to this new type of user.

The digital revolution has changed and will continue to change the relationship between the world of communications and politics. Will World 2.0 usher in a different concept of democracy in the long term?

Moeed Ahmad – The question arises differently depending on whether you’re talking about developed countries, or developing or extremely poor countries. For example, the relative priority of the internet or social networks differs in some areas of Africa: overcoming hunger and underdevelopment will have much more of an impact on reshaping democracy than exchanging tweets will.

Even where there is growing internet usage (in Iran, for instance), democracy is definitely not in place. Social networks have played an important role in public protests but have not produced an alternative political system.

The fact remains, however, that the internet is increasingly becoming a means for promoting freedom of expression, which helps to build more democratic societies. The internet has certainly altered the balance of power between the political, media and communications spheres. Governments – whether they be autocratic or democratic – seek to exert some form of control over the internet, but with varying degrees of success, depending on the circumstances: indeed, very strong centralized governments, like that in China, are one thing, whilst the former autocrats swept aside by the Arab Spring are quite another. The power of censorship certainly has a great effect if wielded by Beijing, less so if exerted from Tunis or Tripoli.

Peter Bale – I think much has yet to be revealed regarding the relationship between power and the news media. For instance, not much has come out about the NATO bombings in Libya, in part because of the lack of information disclosed by the Atlantic Alliance. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, we are faced with a twofold – and I would venture to say, unbalanced – situation: whilst the Western media has a lot of information at its disposal regarding the American and British side of things, much less is known about the Taliban state of affairs. This is an imbalance that needs to be redressed. It is not just a problem concerning the relationship with the new media, but also relates to the ability of journalists to give an account of events.

At the same time, there are growing calls among civil society groups for the media to take responsibility, demanding quality news reporting. Whilst, on the one hand, movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Indignados in Spain demonstrate the internet’s power to bring people together, they are also reshaping relations between civil society and the news media, one indicia of this being the profound dissatisfaction with the mainstream media. It’s not just a question of shooting videos of demonstrations and posting them on the net. If I really wanted to be pessimistic, I would say in particular that political leaders seem uninterested in listening to and genuinely understanding such groups, and that there is thus a real risk of losing touch with an entire generation.