Télé Liban: How to kill a TV station

Following the publication of the book, 'Télé Liban, a Journey to Hell,' by Jean-Claude Boulos, about the chronic problems of the channel, Ibrahim Hachem describes how Lebanese politics killed off Lebanon's once-beloved TV station, the oldest in the Middle East.
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BEIRUT, Feb. 4, 2008 (MENASSAT.COM) – For many Lebanese who are old enough to have witnessed the birth of Télé Liban in 1958 – when it was the first TV station in the Middle East – it is painful to see the comatose patient it has become forty years later.

In its heyday, Télé Liban boasted the best sitcoms, attracting some of the country's best actors. Everybody remembers "Abu Melhem," a sitcom revolving around a typical Beiruti who everybody could relate too. And since it was also the only TV station, it was assured of a more than faithful audience.

Today, the only reason why Lebanese switch to Télé Liban is to watch "Best Seller", a program that consists entirely of reruns of those same old sitcoms, or perhaps "Hot Line" or "Living for the lack of death," light social programs that pretend to share the worries of the average Lebanese citizen.

So what happened?

A quick overview of the continuous crisis the channel has witnessed since its May 2001 rebirth, following the infamous closure of the channel in March of the same year, shows that no serious attempt has been undertaken by its board of directors to save the station from a slow death.

In other words, the mission of the current board is to manage the crisis – not to work on solving it.

The last attempt at reforming the channel came under the supervision of Jean Claude Boulos, who headed Télé Liban from 1996 to 1999. But by that time, the political forces in place had already set their minds on destroying the state-run channel and splitting its audience between them.

Consider the predicament: killing off Télé Liban altogether would have been a black marker for the regime at the time, while allowing it to continue as the voice of the state would kill off any hope for the newly established private TV channels to split its market share.

In addition to that, Télé Liban played an important role during the 2000 elections, when Lebanon's Syrian overlords used the channel to reduce the influence of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri by throwing an unprecedented mudslinging campaign against him – through what was supposed to be his own goverment's channel.

When the elections nevertheless resulted in a clear win for Hariri, it became even more imperative for the powers-that-were to control and discipline Lebanon's visual media.

This is when the third option saw the light, an option which was to condemn Télé Liban to a clinical death, a permanent coma in which it was not quite dead but not quite alive either. This solution perfectly suited the officials, who were also the owners of the new private TV channels, while leaving the citizens with the pretense of a national TV channel they had become used to over four decades.

The last real attempt to save Télé Liban, or what was left of it, is the subject of a new book by Jean-Claude Boulos, published by Dar an-Nahar under the title, "Télé Liban: a Journey to Hell."

The book documents all the chronic problems the channel faced, and the suggestions that were made to solve them. It describes thoroughly the role of each official in the regime at the time, and his role in the first place, especially after Fouad Siniora, then Finance Minister, said that the channel was useless and there was no role for it – period.

In 1996, the staff of Télé Liban consisted of 490 employees, only twelve of whom actually showed up for work, while the rest had found occupations elsewhere but still kept on getting their huge salaries.

They had all signed contracts under the war conditions of 1989, getting high salaries which amounted to a total of $12 million dollars per year, including social security, indemnities, thirteenth and fourteenth months, and other bonuses.

As a result, the station's debts mushroomed to $18 million, while its expenditures amounted to $20 million (which in an by itself should have resulted in legal bankruptcy). Almost a quarter of the expenditures were interest on the debt owned by Universal Bank alone. As for the profits. they were limited to $450,000 per month worth of ads sold through ReggieVision.

When the government finally agreed to pay some of the channel's dues, instead of giving the money to Télé Liban itself, Finance Minister Siniora transferred them directly to the station's creditors, such as the Mediterranean Bank, the Saudi-Lebanese Bank and Universal Bank.

Many questions come to mind when looking back at that period before the channel entered into a coma. Did President Rafic Hariri really want to improve the channel, or did he want to shut it down to benefit his own channel, Future TV? Was the Speaker of the Parliament, Nabih Berry, honest in his promises to help the management overcome its problems, or did he too use Télé Liban as a pawn in his battle with Hariri?

What seems certain is that in the "settling of the accounts" between Hariri and Berry, it was Télé Liban that paid the price. As Boulos writes, the same was true with Internal Affairs Minister, Michel el-Murr, who had put his sights on Télé Liban's ad revenues in view of starting his own station, Murr TV.

Télé Liban's near demise was further hastened by political interference with the programming, transferring some employees to private stations owned by the troika, such as Arafat Hijazi and Zahira Harb, or dismissing some of the best and most successful journalists, such as Zaven Kuyomjian, Charbel Khalil, Said Ghorayeb, Joseph Issawi and others.

This operation of deserting the channel financially, administratively and creatively went on unabated until March 2001, when the Cabinet took its famous decision to temporarily close the station and to end the contract of its almost 500 employees.

When Télé Liban was finally relaunched in May of the same year, what was really being launched was for the most part an empty screen. The station itself remains closed until further notice.