The Arab world has witnessed phenomenal growth in the satellite
television industry in the past two years - and 1998 is also shaping as
a year of fierce competition, especially between the three free-to-air
stations, MBC, Future TV and LBC Sat, which are running rings around
most terrestrial stations in terms of viewing figures and
The latest figures from the Pan-Arab Research centre in Dubai estimate
that pan-Arab satellite television has a 66 per cent share of the total
regional and local TV spend and that free-to-air satellite stations
almost doubled their income in 1997. Monitored figures published in the
Beirut-based magazine, ArabAd, show that an estimated dollars 380
million was spent on advertising on free-to-air and cable satellite
stations in the Middle East last year, dollars 110 million of which went
on a handful of stations - MBC, Lebanon’s LBC Sat and Future Sat, Saudi
1, Egypt and ART.
Jihad Fakhreddine, acting research manager at the Pan Arab Research
Company, dismisses talk about a satellite boom, saying only three or
four satellite stations are doing well.
Fakhreddine points out that MBC, LBC Sat, Future Sat and the Egypt Space
Channel take more than two-thirds of the audience in the Middle East. He
also claims there is a limited viewership for non-Arabic satellite
CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War in 1991 gave Arabs their first taste of
satellite programming and MBC, quick to spot the size of the potential
market and a gap for a station which could be identified as pan-Arab and
independent, started broadcasting in September 1991. Fakhreddine
comments: ’MBC was broadcast from Bahrain to terrestrial stations and
could be received in remote parts of Saudi Arabia which created a
demand. Along with ART and Egypt Space Channel, it helped create the
demand for satellite television.’
The entertainment-oriented Lebanese stations came into the market two
years ago when close to three million satellite dishes had been
installed in the Middle East. Both had been terrestrial stations but
were looking for fresh ways to generate advertising revenue, given the
unimpressive growth of the TV advertising market in the country. Pierre
Daher, the chief executive of LBC, says he had no choice but to open up
to new markets.
Saudi Arabia is currently the biggest market for satellite TV and, given
the high spending power of most of its population, it could hardly be
seen as much of a gamble. Fakhreddine estimates that Saudi Arabia has
more than 70 per cent of the population of the Gulf Cooperation Council
countries - Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Oman - and
just over 60 per cent of the gross domestic product of the region.
’There is a point at which ’pan-Arab’ becomes synonymous with Saudi
Arabia,’ Fakhreddine says.
Incidents in the past have demonstrated that offending the sensibilities
of the conservative kingdom can cost dear.
The BBC World Service’s former Arabic television service found its
relationship with Orbit - which is backed by Saudi money - brought to an
end two years ago after it aired a controversial interview with a
leading Saudi dissident.
And, more recently, in July 1997, a Saturday night surprise for Saudi
viewers resulted in the state-financed French television company, Canal
France, having its lucrative partnership with ArabSat cancelled. As
people sat down to watch a scheduled children’s programme, they were
treated to a hardcore porn show. Apparently France Telecom had
accidentally switched channels.
Describing your news output as ’independent’ and ’unbiased’ is a bold
claim in the Arab world. Most terrestrial news stations are
government-owned and hundreds of newspapers, if not owned by the
government, are simply mouthpieces for politicians, religious groups or
businessmen with pretensions to politics.
But MBC has earned a reputation for the strength of its news and
political programming. It is owned by an independent Saudi Arabian
company, the ARA Group, and broadcasts from London to the Middle East,
Europe and North Africa. Being based in London, the station must abide
by Independent Television Commission regulations.
Edwin Hart, the director of news and international operations, rejects
the idea that broadcasting to the Arab world is different to any other
areas. ’Does this mean we are going to be totally outspoken? No. I have
to be realistic. But also you have to recognise that sensitivity does
not equate to censorship,’ he says. ’For example, there are problems on
reporting border disputes, such as those between Egypt and Sudan. But
because of these sensitivities, we are more prone to have people on both
sides to ensure balance.’
The ebullient Hart has an unswerving vision of how to operate in the
Arab world. He says that although economically parts of the region could
be described as third world, there is also a sophisticated and
well-educated audience with a thirst for information. ’We obviously have
to put some perspective on stories. My job is to tell people why they
Hart insists that there should be no difference in the quality of MBC’s
service than, for example, that of ABC in the US.
As well as the major Arab capitals, MBC has correspondents and bureaux
scattered throughout the world from the Horn of Africa to Algeria and
from Mauritania to Moscow.
Hart says: ’The idea was to transcend culture but people said it
couldn’t be done because of the mix of cultures.’ He says that in the
Arab world people shouldn’t assume homogenity on the basis of
similarities in language or religion.
Some of MBC’s programmes are selected and retransmitted to North America
through the ANN Television Network.
Around 40 per cent of the network’s output is entertainment, including
feature films, drama serials, light entertainment and sports. MBC
produces around one third of its output at its London studios and the
remainder through a variety of Arab and Western production
ANN is another station that recognises the potentially huge market for
news in the Arab countries. Given there are an estimated 300 million
people in the Arab world, there should be room for more than one
pan-Arab news service. ANN, which broadcasts from London to Europe, the
Middle East and North Africa, says it is backed by independent
businessmen. One of its founders is Sawmar Al Assad, the nephew of
Syria’s president, Hafez al Assad.
The network says it is expecting an emergence in the Middle East of news
coverage based on democracy and liberalism. It started programming in
September last year and has just launched 24-hour broadcasts.
Its reach is an estimated 15 million viewers, with the biggest audiences
in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. The Gulf and Saudi
Arabia are being targeted as the biggest area for advertising revenue
but the station says it will not ignore Europe and North Africa. Like
MBC, ANN covers sports and some entertainment. It also buys fashion
footage from Fashion Television and likes to think it is relatively
liberal with its programming schedule.
The Al Jazeera Satellite Channel, which broadcasts from Doha, is a
news-based station which is, according to Fakhreddine, perceived as a
quality operation. It is supported by Qatari interests.
Lebanon’s entertainment channels
Lebanon’s LBC Sat and Future TV’s entertainment-oriented programming is
drawing in viewers and advertisers alike. Both satellite stations grew
out of two of the country’s terrestrial stations and much of their
programming is retransmitted via satellite. The leader of the two in
terms of advertising revenue, LBC Sat’s mixture of Mexican soaps,
locally produced drama, variety and games shows and, until recently,
news and political pr gramming also ensured that last year saw 14 of its
programmes hit the top 20 in research by PARC. It has an unashamedly
populist approach and one of its shows, Play Your Cards Right, became
popular in Saudi Arabia with the post-1am audience. One of the quirks of
the kingdom is that twice as many people watch television at 1am than
Attractive female presenters in Western dress on both stations are
taking the Gulf by storm. One presenter, Future TV’s Yumma Sherri, is
inundated with marriage proposals from across the Gulf.
It appears that the Arab world is hungry for the degree of freedom of
speech and expression that Lebanon has traditionally enjoyed - or, at
least, most people are. The problem is that the Lebanese government is
having a hard time deciding how far freedom should be allowed to
At the start of the year, it banned political and news programming on
satellite channels in the wake of an item broadcast on LBC Sat from a
Beirut MP criticising the government. The prime minister, Rafik Hariri,
said airing Lebanon’s dirty linen in front of the eyes of the
conservative Arab countries was putting off potential investors. But
critics suggested this was just a retaliation from the prime minister,
who owns Future TV. LBC’s news and current affairs programming showed
how aggressively it was chasing its nearest rival, MBC. Last year, LBC
Sat took dollars 23 million in advertising revenue, compared with
Future’s dollars 12 million.
The terrestrial station, Tele-Liban, which is under the government’s
thumb, is waiting in the wings for a licence to air news and political
programmes via satellite. The other two satellite stations will have the
choice of taking the programming.
Recently, the Lebanese station bosses came to a gentleman’s agreement, a
kind of ’self-censorship’, in order to stave off proposed regulation,
after criticisms from leaders of the country’s large Muslim population
that there was too much ’immorality’ on television, including satellite
programming. A few months ago, LBC’s popular terrestrial aerobics
programming, Ma Ilak Illa Haifa, was taken off satellite after
complaints from viewers in the conservative Gulf about the daring nature
of Haifa’s sportswear and the so-called provocative camera shots.
Similarly, a programme about incest was recently withdrawn.
Future has built relationships with companies such as Disney, which
reflects the station’s desire to avoid offending viewers. The prime
minister’s station wants to send a political message to the Arab world.
’Lebanon needs a powerful marketing tool to erase the images of the past
We want to say to the viewing public, Lebanon is coming back,’ Ali
Jaber, chief executive of the station, recently said. But is the degree
of freedom that has long been the country’s hallmark at stake?