Arab Satellite Broadcasting: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Arabic satellite media scene is chaotic and over-crowded. The latest statistics indicate that there are 620 channels. It is a known fact that a large number of such stations are owned and run by people who don't have a clue how to run a TV station.
By Nehad Ismail

We have a multiplicity of channels at the mercy of governments, political factions, commercial interests or religious sects. Many such channels serve narrow sectional interests and do not offer a general service to the public. We have many religious stations offering fatwas (religious edicts) willy-nilly, some are busy brain-washing the young and the naive. We have stations that analyse dreams, medical advice and the promotion of pornography with the sole aim of making money.

The Arab League did try to introduce a regulatory frame work for the media industry based on what is called "code of ethics and standards". This was largely ignored. On the other hand there is a large number of sport, music and film channels as well as locally produced drama and imported drama that cater for the market. There are also a small number of responsible and professional news channels such as Al-Arabiya, Al-Jazeera, ANN (Arab News Network), ANB, and the Lebanese New TV, and LBC, BBC Arabic and the Saudi Al-Ikhbariya.

For many years before the advent of Satellite TV the Arab media was controlled by governments. The viewer had to accept what was on offer. This is no longer possible. The internet has opened new horizons for the consumer (receiver of the media message) whether he is a viewer, a listener or a reader. Discussion and debate programmes allowed the viewer or listener to listen to different points of view and sometimes viewers are allowed to participate with their opinions.

The current trends: First: The media is the delivery of a message to the consumer. This message may be political, educational, religious or just entertainment etc. The method of delivering the message could be through TV, Newspaper, Radio, and internet or even through cell/mobile phone technology. Second: over 65% of the Arab population are young people below the age of 35 years. The media message must cater for this huge group. Recent trends indicate that the young are not interested in the heavy political content of programmes. In the last two years light news and talk shows are becoming more popular and have gained ground at the expense of the very serious hot political stuff. Soft-content and music is the sort of fare on offer by MTV, MBC and Rotana which are particularly popular. Thirdly: the most interesting development is the emergence of what is known as multi-media co-ordination and integration. The rapid technological advances in the field of communications enabled the media industry to exploit this development by introducing interactivity.

Media a tool of foreign policy The Middle East is a rich dynamic place. Not only four fifths of the world oil and gas reserves are in the Middle East, it is also a hot spot where regional interests are inter-mingled with international interests. The USA is spending some 100 million US Dollars per annum on Al-Hurra satellite channel which broadcasts in Arabic from a base near Washington. Despite the expense and the slick operation, it has failed to have an impact and it has been dismissed as an expensive PR tool for the State Department. The BBC Arabic has been more successful and it costs the British tax-payer some £32 million (45 m USD) a year. Russia Today, France 24 also joined the bandwagon.

Rapid economic growth makes the Middle East attractive to advertisers. Therefore we shall see more investment in the media sector by international players. BskyB which is 39% owned by News Corporation is currently in talks with a private Abu Dhabi investor to launch a 24 hour Arabic language news channel under the Sky-News brand name.

The most influential players are Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

To begin with Egypt is by far the biggest Arab country in terms of population and number of viewers. Light entertainment, talk and chat shows are popular. In the last year or so "90 minutes" on the Private Al-Mehwar was gaining popularity and also "Sabaya" which literally means young ladies and deals with women and family issues is also popular. Drama is popular among women and here there are a variety of channels like Drama 1, Drama 2, and Oscar Drama. Sport and football channel are mainly followed by Egyptian men. Film Channels occupy a prominent role so here we have Nile Films, Panorama Films, Rotana Films and all these can be picked up free. Orbit and Art films remain encrypted. Another group of channels which is doing well in Egypt is The Dream Channels which is owned by the Egyptian businessman Ahmad Bahjat. Dream 1 offers varieties, women programmes, Dream 2 offers news, politics and TV series, and Dream sport etc.

Saudi Arabia The Saudi media scene had witnessed rapid expansion in recent years and to understand the complexities of the Saudi satellite media, it is desirable to take a look at the three main media group in Saudi Arabia.

First MBC (Middle East Broadcasting) was the first Pan Arab Satellite Channel to be established in London in 1991 by Sheikh Waleed Al-Ibrahimi. In 2003 MBC2 was launched offering foreign films mainly American movies with Arabic subtitles. In 2004 MBC3 was launched and in 2005 MBC4 which has been showing mainly foreign imported programs and MBC Action for male viewers mainly the young.

The most interesting development came in 2003 when the MBC group launched Al-Arabiya news channel to break the monopoly of Al-Jazeera. It is worth noting that al-Arabiya focuses more on business news in the Gulf Region and in addition to international and Arab news it offers a blend of light news which gives it an edge over Al-Jazeera among the younger viewers. Second ART Group (Arab Radio and Television) was launched in 1993 by the Saudi businessman Sheikh Saleh Abdullah Kamel. ART Channels offering entertainment, variety shows, films, music and sport though most of its sport channels were sold to Al-Jazeera.

Third and most exciting is The Rotana Group. It began its operations in the late 1980s producing music records and by the beginning of the 21st Century it was transformed into an entertainment media empire. It boasts music and film channels such as Rotana Cinema, Rotana Zaman, Rotana Music, Rotana Tarab, Rotana Khalijia to mention just a few. Its success attracted Rupert Murdoch News Corporation to acquire a 9% stake in the group. Rotana is expanding and it has formed strategic alliances with Fox International Channels (FIC) and with Disney/Pixar animation studios.

In partnership with Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, Rotana is set to launch an Arabic language news channel to compete head-on with Al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya.