Arab Radio and Television (ART), as the "flagship Arab network" for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) TeleFood '98, broadcast the first global Arab satellite telethon in history, "Against Hunger." The aim of the event was raising money for projects to help poor farmers increase production and improve their quality of life. This goal, say organizers, was definitely achieved: more than US$400,000 was pledged at the event.
In a letter to Sheikh Saleh Kamel, chairman of the board of ART, FAO Director General Jaques Diouf expressed his "deep gratitude...your personal support, as well as the excellent working relationship and collaboration established with ART ensured that this first TeleFood event in the Arabic-speaking countries achieved its two main objectives: focusing on the plight of the world's hungry and malnourished, and generating resources to implement food security projects for the poorest of the poor in low-income food-deficit countries." Sheikh Saleh said in reply that the network "feel[s] that it is our duty to contribute to the success of such programs that will help in saving the lives of the poor in the world and to achieve the common objective of food for all, and to improve the social and economic conditions of the vulnerable groups."
The eight-hour telethon, broadcast live on October 21, 1998, aired from Cairo, Beirut, and Rome. Ten hours of promotional programming over a period of two weeks preceded the event. Phone lines were open to ART centers in Cairo, Jeddah and Dubai to take pledges from viewers. FAO set up a line in Rome for calls from Europe in cooperation with Italian Telecom, and opened a toll-free AT&T number in the United States. With this type of program, says Milad Bisada, director of ART's live productions in Cairo, grabbing the attention of and getting pledges from viewers requires a blend of entertainment, information and constant reminders of the projects the money raised will fund. In Rome two FAO experts, Abdul Rahman Bitar and Majed Shaar, were in the studio being interviewed. Cheb Khaled, a popular Rai singer, was also interviewed and later sang along with a video clip of his music. Popular hosts Lilian Andrawos and Jumana Bu Eid were live from Cairo and Beirut, respectively. The event included interviews with celebrities from the worlds of art and politics; among the distinguished guests were H.E. Bshara Mirhij, former Lebanese Minister; H.E. Ahmad Abdul Halim, ambassador to Sudan in Cairo; and popular Arab singer Hisham Abbas.
FAO approached ART about this joint project more than a year ago. TBS Senior Editor Abdallah Schleifer, in his capacity as a consultant to the chairman of the board of ART, was instantly enthusiastic when he received the proposal. "It was for a worthy cause, lends prestige to the network, and shows ART to be a network with a vision of social responsibility that transcends its usual programming."
ART reaches Arab populations around the globe, with transmissions to the Middle East and North Africa, Europe, North and South America, and Australia. It was decided that the transmission of this charity event should not be encrypted, so that the maximum number of viewers could be reached.
The planning process met with a few obstacles. With the Sheikh's illness in late summer 1998, there was a question as to whether or not ART would proceed in implementing the telethon without his active participation. It was not until six weeks before the event that the actual planning began. Another hitch was that telethons are new to this particular market. "Arabs, and especially Muslims, are not familiar with telethons because charity has always been done directly in this part of the world," Schleifer said. MBC's telethon for Bosnia had also addressed an Arab audience in the Middle East, but in that case getting attention wasn't very difficult. "Bosnia was hot back then, and it had a strong impact on Arabs and Muslims. People were frustrated and felt that governments were doing very little," notes Schleifer. ART organizers feared a viewer attitude that charity begins at home, and that very little interest would be generated if the problem didn't affect audiences directly. Schleifer's strategy to avoid this was to get FAO to commit to directing all funds raised by the ART telethon to help poor Arab and Muslim farmers, and to publicize this commitment. FAO not only agreed, but also said it might adopt this approach as a mode of operation for future projects as well.
All the difficulties meant a need for a well-planned publicity campaign and for taking full advantage of all relevant shows airing on ART. ART launched the campaign with a media event broadcast in early October at which Hala Sarhan added her name to those of celebrities worldwide, such as Harrison Ford, Celine Dion, and Phil Collins, on FAO's petition against hunger.
Sahar Hajjar, producer-reporter and programmer and ART's Rome bureau chief, did a ten-minute news report, broadcast on all ART channels, to inform audiences about FAO. Guests on shows like "Bayni wa Baynak" (Between You and Me), ART's popular psychiatric talk show hosted by Muna El-Shathily, included Michael Hage, representative of FAO in Egypt, and an expert from Algeria discussing the role of women in agriculture and land ownership issues. The daily show Good Morning ART promoted FAO through announcements and special guests. Sources outside ART got involved in the promotions, too: well-known poet and London-based as-Sharq al-Awsat columnist Moheddin El Lazikani wrote extensively and eloquently about the event.
On telethon day all the efforts paid off. "FAO informed us that the pledges were greater than the FAO telethon done by Spanish TV," Schleifer said. Henri Carsalade, FAO assistant director- general and TeleFood executive coordinator, said in a citation presented to Schleifer in a ceremony at FAO headquarters that "the outcome of this years Arab TeleFood program met indeed all FAO's expectation: ART's lead broadcasting role throughout the two weeks with public awareness and fundraising campaigns contributed to the enormous success of the program."