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Media Explosion in the Arab World: The Pan-Arab Satellite Broadcasters

By TBS Senior Editor S. Abdallah Schleifer

It's so easy to be overwhelmed by the impact of television, particularly in this decade of digital multichannel satellite platforms and particularly in an Arab world, where reading as a serious engagement beyond the newspaper and the weeklies seems to be approaching some sort of vanishing point. But even in the United States, where the penetration of cable and satellite alternatives to terrestrial television is higher than anywhere else in the world, the impact of television, tremendous as it is, can still be exaggerated. For instance, studies show that the majority of Americans think they receive their news exclusively from television. In fact, they do not; the majority do rely on a heavily TV-dominated mix of TV, radio and newspapers. But the impact of TV is so overwhelming, particularly when we consider the series of ceremonial events collectively experienced—perhaps beginning with John F. Kennedy's funeral, through the bombing of Baghdad, and finally led us in a form of progressive degeneration to O.J. Simpson's car chase and trial—that we tend to forget how much everyone still depends on the printed word for an intelligible understanding...that is, to the degree we seek (consciously or not) intelligible understanding.

I mention this simply as a preface to a historical corrective. The first major impact of new satellite technologies upon Arab media was in the eighties, not in the nineties, and it was the satellited daily newspaper, not television. First al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper and later al-Hayat newspaper began satellite transmission from London to major population centers throughout the Arab world. Although owned by private Saudi interests, these papers did and still do address themselves to a pan-Arab audience—and their staff, their editors and their columnists reflect that sense of a pan-Arab audience.

At the time I was struck by the irony, which still holds true in the Arab satellite-driven nineties, that in the end it was wealth, generated in a conservative Arab country, and technology acquired by that wealth, and not radical Arab ideology, be it Baathist or Nasserist, that had brought about a pan-Arab press.

Not that satellite technology capable of moving television signals did not already exist; by the mid-eighties an Arab-states satellite system, Arabsat, was operative. Despite the original allocation of transponders powerful enough to transmit signals that could be picked up by relatively small dishes, there was no attempt to use the Arabsat satellites as direct broadcast satellites providing direct broadcast service (DBS) either to cable, MMDS and encrypted terrestrial companies retransmitting the programming or direct-to-home (DTH) services to the rare but slowly growing number of homes (particularly in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf) with dishes.

Instead, Arabsat satellites were used in this initial phase for news and public affairs exchanges between existing Arab state-owned national television stations. This sort of exchange had minimal impact. The news programs of all Arab national television stations, if one chooses one's words politely, reflected "information" or PR values rather than intrinsically journalistic values.(1)

Unlike much of the Arab press, which enjoyed at least a formative development as privately owned newspapers that functioned within the context of some sort of journalistic tradition, all Arab television—be it the prevailing state systems or ruling groups left-wing or right-wing, market economies or socialist economies, republics or monarchies—was state-owned. More than any other media, even if that other media was also state-owned, the national television channels were extensions of the ministries of information. It is no coincidence that in a number of Arab countries the minister of information operated the major offices of his ministry from the national television station building.

So I would suggest that if local news, which is precisely what was exchanged, had little in the way of intrinsic journalistic interest, the only thing that made it interesting was that it was local. Perhaps the visit of a minister to inaugurate a chicken farm is not terribly interesting, but since there is nothing else to watch, and at least its our minister and our chicken farm, we watch it. But who wants to watch some other country's minister visiting some other country's chicken farm?

And because of the high degree of official political considerations governing the national television channels, even the exchange programs were limited, in a world of shifting political alliances and sensitivities, by the hesitation over putting the programing of another country onto one's own national channel. It is not a coincidence that the first news and documentary program exchanges that I ever saw on Egyptian television were with the Sultanate of Oman, which was the one Arab state that did not break relations with Egypt when it entered into negotiations with Israel and later signed a peace treaty and was expelled from the Arab League.

The very absence of Egypt, which, with its vast manpower resources for broadcast production, in entertainment and in journalism, its film industry as well as its radio stations and television channels, and its overwhelmingly dominant role in providing TV programming to the rest of the Arab world, was also an inhibiting force in the development of pan-Arab satellite television before 1988, when Egypt returned to the Arab League.

Then, in the late eighties and early nineties, two initially separate events converged to force the pace of what we now consider to be a veritable satellite-driven television media explosion in the Arab world.

The first was the availability for that small but rapidly growing number of dish owners of CNN International. CNN International's signal in the mid-eighties was initially more or less limited to Europe, and it was a broadcasting venture whose original sense of itself was as a specialized service for hotels servicing international business travelers. But by the late eighties, CNN had also begun to transmit via a shaky Soviet satellite, which happened to have a footprint that covered the Arab world. Many of the highest-ranking government officials in the Arab world began to watch CNN courtesy of their own dishes. Later, as the Russian satellite continued to drift, CNN would move onto Arabsat, while the signal from the satellites CNN used for Europe would increase in strength and rival Arabsat as a signal source in the Arab world.

And by the fall of 1989 it was known among both political and broadcasting circles in the Arab world that CNN and Egypt were moving slowly, painfully and inevitably toward a deal whereby CNN would be rebroadcast terrestrially, available to the public for the first time in the Arab world as a pay-TV operation to be known as CNE (Cable Network Egypt, originally known as Cable News Egypt).(2) [Editor's note: see this issue's feature article "CNE in Egypt: Some Light at the End of an Arduous Tunnel," by Joe Foote, for details.]

This all seems very commonplace today, but the excitement and concern at the time that there would be, in Egypt, uncensored, unrestricted 24-hour-a-day news produced by an international news organization owned by an American media mogul (who about that time made the cover of Time) was incredible, despite the fact that this service would be in English and would be encoded, and thus realistically available only to a very small portion of the country's actual TV audience.

In June 1990, the Egyptian Investment Authority finally approved the formation of CNE to rebroadcast CNN. The idea of direct broadcasting, even if for terrestrial retransmission, was in the air. A little more than a month later the second catalytic event occurred: Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Shortly before the Gulf crisis, the Egyptian government legalized the import and ownership of dishes. In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, local companies were beginning to manufacture local dishes to compete with imports for the rapidly growing market. These expanding markets were further stimulated by the Gulf Crisis.

Through the fall of 1990, Egyptian and other Arab forces serving in Saudi Arabia as part of the Alliance (as the American-led armed forces coalition was known), were subject to intensive psychological warfare by Radio Baghdad (as were the civilian populations of all the Arab countries.) But in December 1990, Egypt TV, formally known as the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) leased a powerful direct broadcasting transponder, and on December 13, one month before the air war portion of Desert Storm began, the Egyptian Space Net (ESN) began to broadcast 13 hours of daily programming culled from its two domestic channels.(3)

Dishes and transmitters were installed in the forward areas of Saudi Arabia where Egyptian forces, the largest contingent of Arab troops serving in the Alliance, were based so that the Egyptian Space Net—with its heavy diet of pro-Alliance and anti-Iraqi news and public affairs programing, as well as entertainment—could be seen on ordinary TV sets by Egyptian forces as well as by nearby Saudi population centers. (After the war, ESN took a position on a still stronger European satellite, Eutelsat 2 F3, and quickly achieved a significant audience throughout the Gulf because of the popularity of Egyptian movies and serials. In recent months it has been transmitted by the still stronger Nilesat signal, along with its sister channels that include ESN 2 (similar to Egypt's terrestrial channel 2, which makes more of a nod in the direction of European programming), the Nile TV specialized package Nile Drama (TV movies, soap operas and drama), Nile News, Nile Sports, Nile Culture and Nile Children, as well as educational channels. On the planning board is a new art channel co-produced by the ERTU with the Ministry of Culture.)

By the time the air war in the Gulf had begun in mid-January, both Egypt TV and Saudi TV had begun to broadcast CNN directly to their large domestic audiences. In Egypt, the transmission was provided as a direct free service as well as an uncensored one, since CNE's management was not yet ready to take subscriptions. In Saudi Arabia CNN was taped, and then after censorship was rebroadcast several hours after initial satellite transmission. These two different approaches suggest the eventual divergence of the Saudi and Egyptian approaches to the reception of international satellite broadcasting.

In the years that followed the Gulf War, dish ownership was further stimulated by the increasing amount of international programming available, as satellites increased in power and range, as the cost of dishes continued to decline, and as the number of companies marketing, servicing and even manufacturing dishes tremendously increased.

This trend has been dramatically accelerated by the progressive appearance of three privately owned Arab satellite television broadcasting systems, all three of which are owned by Saudi Arabian business interests and all three of which enjoy, to greater or lesser degrees, linkage to members of the Saudi royal family.

The first of these satellite systems is MBC, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, which began transmission in September 1991. MBC is an Arab version of an American network or European commercial channel. It broadcasts 18 hours a day, providing a mix of news and public affairs programming along with sports, fashion, movies, and other entertainment. Its format and style are very professional, sophisticated and fast-paced compared to the various Arab national channels, but it stays within broadly defined Arab standards of decorum and decency, both in its entertainment and public affairs programming. It has attracted considerable up-market advertising, and in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, as well as in Bahrain (where no one needs a dish to receive MBC, as it is rebroadcast terrestrially by Bahrain TV), MBC has achieved major shares of the market competing against the national stations, ESN, and its two pan-Arab rivals ART and Orbit. MBC is transmitted and largely produced from London, and its staff is an interesting blend of of British administrators and technicians, Arab higher management and Arab directors, writers, producers and often quite elegant on-camera talent. At its head is the Saudi businessmen Sheikh Walid Ibrahimi, enjoying particularly close ties through marriage to Saudi Arabia's King Fahd. [Editor's note: please see this issue's exclusive interview with MBC CEO Ian Ritchie.]

The second private Arab satellite system, and no doubt the largest in reach and in Arabic programming, is ART (Arab Radio and Television), established by Sheikh Saleh Kamel, the famous Saudi entrepreneur whose Dallah al-Baraka company has grown into a vast holding company successfully involved in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries in trading, Islamic banking, supermarkets, food product manufacturing, publishing, real estate and many other ventures. Sheikh Saleh was one of the original partners in MBC. Since striking out on his own with ART, he has gained as his partner in this vast broadcasting venture Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, whose stunning investments in Citicorp, Euro Disney, News Corporation, Apple and the Plaza Hotel have made him a major player in global finance. [Editor's note: please see this issue's exclusive interview with Sheikh Saleh Kamel.]

ART has pioneered in the Arab world the global trend in specialization broadcasting. It began transmission from the Telespazio Center in Fucino, Italy, to the east of Rome, via Arabsat in January 1994, providing four channels: a movie channel, a sports channels, a general or variety channel, and a children's channel. Since then, ART has become a global platform for more than 20 channels, 17 of which are its own and most of which are encrypted. Over two years ago ART unveiled its own Broadcasting and Production Center in Avezzano, nearby the Telespazio Center. Operated by its Italian subsidiary Kidco Services, s.r.l., the Avezzano Center is a state-of-the-art digital transmission and production center put together for ART by Sony, which considers the center a showcase for its cutting-edge broadcast technology. The original three channels now broadcast 24 hours a day, except for the children's channel, which broadcasts for 14 hours a day. The basic ART bouquet also includes an Arabic music channel, the Discovery-like al-Ma'arif channel, and combinations of the above broadcast to Europe, North and South America, Australia, and Africa.

More ART channels are scheduled for launch in the fall of 1998, including Iqra, a broadly designed Islamic culture channel. ART also carries in its various bouquets other, non- ART channels such as MBC, LBC, M-Net, TNT, Cartoon Network, RAI International and the Moroccan and Tunisian national channels.

Aside from live and syndicated sports coverage, much of ART production originates in Cairo, but programs are also being produced for ART in Avezzano, Beirut, Amman, Riyadh, Jeddah, Tunis, Dubai, Dusseldorf, Paris, and Rome.

To the degree that ART relies on live and syndicated coverage, as in the case of sports, or its impressive film library, it quickly acquired a very large following in its initial phase broadcasting in the clear. Its general or variety channel—dominated by entertainment but with occasional public affairs and business programming and considerable religious and Arab heritage programming—reminds one of the format, style and tone of the national channels, particularly of ETV.

Since encrypting more than two years ago, ART has been struggling to recover that large audience by concentrating on the development of a higher quality of programming. Its sports channel has acquired Middle East rights to the best of European football, including the Italian League and most recently the British Premiere League, as well as all four of the Grand Slam tennis tournaments.

Of particular interest is ART's no-news policy. ART sources have suggested several reasons that ART avoids providing news bulletins. One is that news, particularly if it is produced conscientiously by one's own staff of Arabic-speaking TV journalists and by one's own overseas bureaus, as in the case of MBC, is expensive. Secondly, news bulletins, if they are independent and touch on sensitive issues, risk stirring up official wrath and potential sanctions (like forbidding the sale of decoders where dishes are legal, or being kept off wireless cable systems where dishes are not legal). But in its quest for quality, ART has increased its number of public affairs talk shows, some of which, like Ya Hala, hosted by the well-known Egyptian journalist Hala Sirhan, involve audience participation and tackle controversial, and by Arab cultural standards, daring social issues for public dialogue such as divorce, premarital sex, male impotence and drug use. Obviously, ART is testing the waters.

The most recent Arab satellite system is Orbit, launched in May 1994 by the Saudi investment group al-Mawared and transmitted from Rome. Orbit was the first of the three pan-Arab satellite broadcasters to go digital and to encrypt, and it has been able to deliver an extraordinary amount of programming because of its willingness to use far more non-Arabic language programming than either of its two competitors. Orbit subscribers have access to over 40 TV and radio services provided by its own TV and radio network and by Star Select, an exclusive package of services provided to Orbit by Star TV. Orbit's own network includes the Disney Channel, Orbit-ESPN Sports, America Plus (which features U.S. TV series such as Friends and Seinfeld), Super Movies (an HBO-type channel), Orbit News (a composite of programming provided by NBC, ABC and CBS), the Hollywood Channel (which focuses on U.S. fashion and entertainment), CNN International and the Fun Channel for children. [Editor's note: please see this issue's exclusive interview with Orbit President and CEO Alexander Zilo.]

Orbit's Arabic programming is more or less confined to al-Thania, an Arabic-language general channel with some of the most successful entertainment and public affairs programming on the air, and Music Now, a global pop music mix "with a distinctive Arabic touch. The Star Select package, part of the Orbit platform since January 1997, adds still more Western programming, such as Sky News and VIVA Cinema, and includes NBC, CNBC, Fox Kids Network, Star Movies, Star sports and Star Plus in America. The Orbit product is slick, but much of it seems rather irrelevant to an Arabic-speaking audience.

Although Orbit paid top dollar for access to Egypt TV's first and second domestic channels, which are now available throughout the Arab world as part of the Orbit package, its ability to enter the Egyptian market is not so much limited by its price (Egypt does have an extraordinary number of millionaires, both Egyptian and other Arabs in residence) as by the ban in Egypt on the sale of any decoders but those sold by CNE, thereby for the time being giving CNE an apparent official monopoly in the pay-TV business, which carries over to the pay-TV programming now offered on Nilesat, including ART and its non-Arabic-language ally and platform sharer Showtime. Orbit is not on Nilesat. The decoder monopoly is apparent given the black market trade in Cairo in Orbit decoders ordered and delivered to Egyptian subscribers via Cyprus. In Saudi Arabia the manufacture and the sale of dishes have been banned for the past four years. Orbit has a number of subscribers among the many dish owners who set up before the ban, but the ban, which is not at all strictly enforced, has definitely cramped Orbit's opportunity to expand in the Kingdom.

For a little more than a year, Orbit challenged MBC's strong card—an Arabic-language news service that provided field reporting at an international standard beyond comparison to the parochial and propagandistic tendencies of the Arab world's national channels. Orbit did this by commissioning the BBC to produce a BBC Arabic World Television Service, which was offered, encrypted or encoded, exclusively in the Orbit package. The comparison between the short-lived BBC Arabic TV News and MBC's news product is instructive.

Like the rest of the Orbit operation, the BBC channel was at the cutting edge of technology and production quality. BBC Arabic TV was not only digital and video compressed, it was also one of the first broadcasting operations to employ non-linear editing, which is clearly the future of television in general and, most obviously and most imminently, of television journalism in particular.

When the BBC Arabic TV Service began June 1994, it went from two hours to eight hours a day. The goal was a 24-hour service with half-hour news bulletins on the hour and the rest of the hour with BBC English-language documentaries and public affairs programing that lent itself to Arabic voice-over. In sheer quantity of news programming, it appeared to overwhelm MBC, even though BBC Arabic News was on the air half the time.

But the BBC Arabic TV service relied on BBC's English-language TV reporters (whose work is then voiced over) for many of their field reports. Most of its reporting was done by using BBC Arabic radio correspondents who were already in the field. They knew Arabic but did not necessarily know how to do television news. (It's a lot easier to go the other way—a lot easier for a TV reporter to do radio.) When the service came to an abrupt end in the spring of 1995, it had only three Arabic-language producer/reporters of its own in the field, plus the occasional special Arabic public affairs programming, commissioned directly by Orbit and turned over for transmission to the BBC.

The relative indifference of many BBC executives guiding the channel to Arab cultural concerns, and the often culturally irrelevant if not lifeless quality of the recut documentaries and public affairs programming, were troubling to many Arab viewers. But it was the extraordinary degree of attention given to a Saudi dissident living in London, along with the rebroadcast of an Arabic-voiced-over BBC Panorama show that belittled the Saudi judicial system and its application of capital punishment, which led Orbit's management to suspend the operation, accusing the BBC of failing to live up to its contractual responsibility of sensitivity to Arab cultural values.

In contrast, MBC has staffed a growing network of news bureaus with its own growing cadre of Arab TV producer/reporters in Cairo, Brussels, Jerusalem, Tunis, Amman, Paris and Washington, D.C. MBC reporting was unique for an Arab broadcaster in its first years, in that in contrast to the news programing of the national Arab channels, MBC followed the international format in which newsworthiness rather than government press releases determined the lineup and in which news stories—be they field reports or studio voice-overs—are scripted to picture rather than an anchor reading wire copy that at best barely approximates the overall content of the available video.

But MBC's style was also unique because, in contrast to the BBC Arabic service, MBC retained the more cautious approach to confrontational journalism that not only characterizes the Arab media when dealing with its own or friendly governments, but which in principle (rather than opportunistically, as the Middle East case may often be) characterized the quality press in America and England less than fifty years ago, a quality press that took pride that it printed only the news that's fit to print. If MBC's reporting of Saudi Arabian news was noticeably cautious and even sluggish in contrast to the more professional pace of MBC bureau reporting elsewhere, that one singular soft spot would appear to be of far greater importance to foreign critics than to an Arab audience that found MBC's overall news product exciting, professionally competitive, and credible.

MBC's problem is that it is again no longer alone. This time it faces news competitors which are less likely to make the same mistakes that Orbit's BBC Arabic TV service did. One service is al-Jazeera, an all-news Arabic-language channel transmitted via satellite from Qatar that employs many of the former Arabic-speaking broadcasters from the BBC venture. The other competitor is the Arab News Network (ANN), launched in 1997 by Dr. Sawmar al-Assad, a nephew of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and within less than a year broadcasting 24 hours a day and using AP-TV to provide local TV field reporting while it slowly builds up its own bureaus. Both services may have their own curious agendas, but the quality of news product and public affairs discussion rivals (but does not surpass) that of MBC. [Editor's note: these public affairs discussion shows, notably on al-Jazeera, were a hot topic in this issue's Virtual Symposium.]

As for Orbit, it has gained from the BBC experience another form of feedback, and is now actively committed to increasing the amount of original Arabic programming by dramatically expanding its own production facilities in Cairo, Beirut and the Gulf, while downgrading the size of its operation in Rome. [Editor's note: see Orbit President and CEO Alexander Zilo's comments on this reorganization in our feature interview.]

As remarked earlier, all of this Arabic satellite programming—some of it not yet up to international standards, some of it a bit irrelevant, and some of it both highly professional and yet Arab in its cultural authenticity—has dramatically stimulated the sale of dishes. But with the increasing availability of dishes has came an increasing concern about program content, particularly from non-Arab sources.

These concerns were broadly cultural, specifically religious, and inescapably political. Islamic society in general, and in this case Arab society in particular, is simultaneously proud of a great cultural legacy preserved through the use of classical Arabic and the media- prevalent modern standard Arabic derived from the classical language, and concerned that this legacy will not withstand the inroads of what is widely seen as a morally flawed popular Western culture that unfortunately seems to accompany the West's otherwise most attractive technological artifacts.

These tensions have existed for more than a hundred years, but the sudden visual impact of popular Western culture courtesy of television, coupled with radical changes in Western mores—at least as projected in much television programming—over the past three decades has intensified this defensiveness. I am referring to the effect of full or even partial nudity, especially of women; the simulation of sexual intercourse and episodic S and M; the public transmission of obscene speech; the acceptance in television programming of premarital sexual relations as well as the frequent sympathetic treatment of homosexuality as a publicly acceptable lifestyle; and those role reversals in which representatives of law and order are portrayed as villains while outlaws and other criminal types are portrayed as misunderstood romantic heroes. These are shocking to the still strongly held conventions in the Arab world. These conventions are almost universally held to be paramount in public life, even by those individuals or elites who may ignore them, relatively speaking, in their own private lives and in their own private entertainment.

To ignore these conventions, as Iranian television to a certain degree did during the years preceding the fall of the Shah, is to be in political peril. It is instructive that at the time of the Iranian Revolution, one of the first targets for the mobs that surged out of the popular quarters of Tehran was the Iranian TV station.

So the first political concern was the danger of a political reaction, of an anti-Western, Islamic fundamentalist reaction to the sudden easy availability of disorienting, if not destabilizing, cultural materials via DBS/DTH satellite transmission in which pro-Western Arab governments would be held responsible by radical opposition political forces for the culturally subversive content of Western television programming.

Arab national television channels have always, to a greater or lesser extent, rebroadcast Western programming, particularly movies, serials and sitcoms. But this was far different from the specter of indiscriminate Western programming, no longer selectively identified for rebroadcast by the national TV stations and, even when acceptable as a whole, still subject to censorship by the national channels for any socially offensive individual scenes.

The second political concern has to do with government sensitivity to unfavorable news reporting by satellite stations. Sensitivity to reports in the foreign press that are critical of Arab governments is nothing new, but since the foreign press has always had a very limited circulation in the Arab world and can be kept off the newsstands by government censors, the situation has never been as grave as in the case of what is taken to be critical or unfavorable or biased satellite news reports.

Over the past few years, the BBC World Television Service has generally been considered more of a thorn in the side of Arab governments than CNN International, but the fact that both satellite TV news services broadcast in English has reduced the danger as it is officially perceived. That situation changed when Orbit began transmitting an Arabic version of the BBC World Service with full editorial control remaining in the hands of the BBC—in other words, in the hands of non-Arabs. The presence of some of the British as well as Arab old BBC Arab TV hands in the service of Qatar's all-news and public affairs programming channel al-Jazeera, which seems at times as much devoted to embarrassing Saudi Arabia as it is to free discussion that never manages to touch upon Qatari sensitivities, has further inflamed the situation.

The third political concern has been the possibility of satellite broadcasts from hostile countries. There have been recurrent fears that the radical Islamic fundamentalist movement in Lebanon, Hizbollah, would launch a satellite station devoted to undermining the moderate Arab governments. It is also instructive that Iran, which has recently banned the use of dishes within its own borders, transmits via satellite to the rest of the world.

So most of the Gulf, Jordan and Syria, but in particular Saudi Arabia, have taken to the idea of an alternative delivery system to the direct-to-home (DTH) system. That alternative is MMDS—Multichannel Multipoint Distribution Service, also known as wireless cable. It has emerged over the past decade, first in Latin America and most recently in the Arab world, for a variety of reasons as a seemingly attractive alternative to cable, UHF terrestrial pay-TV transmission, and DTH satellite delivery systems. It was initially known as Multichannel Microwave Distribution Service, but that designation has fallen into disuse, largely because of the negative associations in Europe relating microwave transmissions to health concerns. Whether the programming to be transmitted by MMDS is generated locally or pulled down from satellite and retransmitted, the critical factor is the employment of a local broadband delivery system to individual locations from a central transmission point; a high-power microwave transmitter delivers a multichannel signal to individual standard television receivers, either directly or through a series of repeaters or "beam benders" used to overcome obstructions.

The MMDS signal is also encoded or "scrambled" at this central transmission point, since the imperative for the system—whether undertaken by the public sector, as in the case of Jordan and most of the Gulf states, or the private sector as in the case of Saudi Arabia—is subscription television or pay-TV. In an ideal system, signals broadcast at microwave frequencies can be received by small, lightweight and comparatively inexpensive receiver antennas and are then converted to VHF or UHF superband frequencies for interfacing with the standard television set.

Most of the decisions to implement were made in the late eighties and early nineties, when the possibility (which is now theoretically on the horizon) of harnessing existing non-fiber-optic telephone systems for cable transmission was inconceivable and the cost of securing rights of way and digging up streets to lay cable were unacceptable. But like cable, MMDS was attractive in the Arab world because it promised the possibility of developing a pre-emptive alternative to the inevitable appearance of DTH satellite channels originating outside of the region but with footprints extending into the region.

But by the mid-nineties DTH television had become a fact of life, with widespread dish ownership throughout the region and particularly in the Gulf. Dish ownership is certain to increase unless legally forbidden, given the rapid increase in available satellite programming in Arabic as well as Western languages; as footprints become larger and downlinks stronger; and as the cost of dishes drops rapidly, thanks to both cheaper local manufacturing and the stronger satellite signals which make smaller, cheaper dishes more viable than ever before.

Thus, three patterns are appearing. First is the Jordanian/Gulf pattern, in which relatively modest MMDS systems—operated as subscription television services by the government and carrying prestigious foreign programming such as CNN, BBC, AFRTS, MBC, CFI, and Prime Sports, which have minimal cultural-conflict impact—co-exist with DTH.(4)

The second pattern is being developed by Saudi Arabia, where dishes, as already noted, have been formally if not effectively banned and where an incredibly sophisticated and expensive MMDS system has been implemented by the private sector with government financing under the guidance of the Saudi Ministry of Information. In contrast to the small, essentially city-states of the Gulf Emirates and Kuwait, or the Jordanian MMDS, which is limited to the capital city of Greater Amman, the Saudi system will span the entire (and vast) territory of Saudi Arabia.

The third pattern is that of Egypt. There, a serious proposal to move Egypt's joint-venture pay-TV operation, CNE, from encoded terrestrial UHF transmission to an MMDS system was provisionally endorsed a few years after CNE's startup by the Minister of Information and the Minister of Telecommunications (who controls the microwave frequencies). But then CNE (or, more accurately, MultiChoice Egypt, the private-sector company that now administers CNE's subscription management service and holds a small minority share in CNE) undertook a study of MMDS and, on the basis of that study, effectively recommended against its adaptation. (MultiChoice Egypt is the name of the highly successful Johannesburg-based MultiChoice Africa operation in Cairo.)

We will take a closer look at the Saudi and Egyptian models, as they have the most unambiguous bearing on the future of MMDS in the region. The initiative for MMDS in Saudi Arabia was undertaken by MBC's sister companies Saravision and ARA. Saudi MMDS provides for the delivery of encrypted digital television programming from an uplink facility in England, via satellite, to approximately 40 MMDS reception sites in Saudi Arabia for controlled redistribution to approximately 40 cities and their immediate surroundings through microwave terrestrial transmission from the head-ends to subscriber homes, hotels and other sites (private sector offices, clubs, educational institutions, diplomatic missions and ministries).(5)

The television programming to be transmitted from the London area utilizes DigiCipher technology, a technology developed by General Instrument and used worldwide by many international program delivery services since 1992. It is an all-digital television communications system encompassing digital compression, digital transmission, and conditional access using digital encryption technology. This digital video/audio compression and access control design allows a little more than ten individual television programs with stereo audio to be transmitted within one satellite transponder. Saudi MMDS will have the capacity of offering 60 channels, but the system will most probably launch with 30 channels by the end of this year after testing in the fall.

ARA International's business plan was originally based on the provision of three free channels—MBC 1 (the current general channel, now available either by DTH satellite transmission or in its rebroadcast form from Bahrain along the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia), and Saudi channel 1 and Saudi channel 2. The three channels will nevertheless be scrambled prior to microwave transmission along with the other specifically pay-TV channels, for the sake of transmission consistency. However, all receiver decoders will be instructed electronically to automatically decode these three channels (as well as a fourth promotional channel discussed below).

The remaining channels will be provided as subscription television. They will include four new MBC channels. In the original plan these were to be a film channel (MBC 2), a family/children's channel (MBC 3), a sports channel (MBC 4) and general entertainment (MBC 5). Initially, the ARA business plan made no mention of directly competitive programming on the air. In addition to the new MBC channels, all of the remaining slots were provisionally allocated to various national television stations such as Kuwait TV and Oman TV. A high-ranking executive in ART indicated that at least four of ART's own four specialized channels (sports, film, variety, children's) would also be transmitted by Saudi MMDS.

What is significant here, from the programming point of view, is that MBC will be closing the tremendous gap between its own present mode of operation as a single general variety channel with a strong news component broadcasting in the open and that of its two competitors, the specialized, multi-channel encrypted television services offered by Orbit and ART.

Although the intention is to provide only programming that is acceptable to the Saudi Ministry of Information, a precautionary design has been developed to ensure complete control over the content of television signals received in the kingdom through the MMDS system. Editorial control is exercised through the access control system when the specifics of program content are known in advance. Where a specific undesirable program presentation is known of ahead of time, the access control system in Riyadh issues control signals to the addressable decoders, and the access control system will substitute that program with other viewing material available on a stand-by basis. When the undesirable program content is not known ahead of time, an editor has access to a real-time control mechanism which will interrupt the transmission and replace the segment of undesirable programming with a previously prepared teletext message.

This will be accomplished with a Manual Override Switch Server (MOSS), which permits an editorial control specialist or censor to monitor each channel and immediately interrupt the television signal by activating a switch that will block that channel throughout the kingdom. The interrupted program will be automatically replaced with a previously prepared teletext type message. (Every channel will have teletext capacity.) The editorial specialist will restore the original program when he is satisfied that unacceptable program content has ended, by again using the push-button switch control. Since a five-second delay has been inserted in each television channel at each MMDS head-end, the editor has up to five seconds to react to interrupt each program.

Despite several years in which announcements were made of imminent launches which never occurred, project implementation has finally taken place. The actual transmission system is now in place and the office facilities, warehousing, and dealer networks have been established. According to industry sources, ARA should begin tests this fall and by the end of the year will probably launch the service, with a first phase of some with some 20 channels.

The MMDS system will work for geographic as well as political reasons as the exclusive transmitting system for foreign television programming in Saudi Arabia and in Qatar, which has also banned dishes and started its own much more modest MMDS system and which, despite recent political rivalry, shares the Saudi official interpretation of Islam, an interpretation not officially shared anywhere else in the Arab and Islamic world. And it will work to a lesser extent for similar reasons in a state of coexistence with DTH in much of the rest of the Gulf and in Jordan.

The geographic factor is that, with the exception of a concentrated business district, the pattern of construction in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf is that of low-skyline horizontal expansion of residential quarters on flat desert terrain rather than the construction of high rise structures. Wealthy Saudis build larger compounds with bigger palaces; they do not build higher. Low-income housing is also invariably one- or two-story attached or semi-attached units, since the land and expanding infrastructure are available and since the conservative social mores favor this sort of dwelling, in which human interaction is familiar, over the high-rise elevator systems and long corridors that are impersonal in the grouping of people, in particular in the mixing of men and women. (Before anyone too easily ridicules this Saudi/Gulf perspective, it would be prudent to consider city planning studies undertaken in the United States which have developed the concept of "defensible space" and which reveal that high-rise low-income housing, with the elevator as its critical point, is always far more crime-prone, and in particular rape-prone, than low-rise smaller scale low-income housing.)

In Egypt, this geographic factor does not hold. Greater Cairo, which contains more than a third of Egypt's 50 million or higher population, is jammed into the relatively narrow Nile Valley. The combination of rising property values and the shortage of desirable housing and luxury office space in the most fashionable quarters has resulted in significant construction of high-rise buildings throughout central Cairo, in particular in the fashionable Nile island quarter of Zamalek and the adjacent areas of Mohandiseen, Dokki and other parts of Giza. At the same time, high-rise structures are also going up on Cairo's eastern bank of the Nile.

CNE's strong minority private-sector shareholders (the majority of shares in CNE are held by the Egyptian Radio and Television Union, the public-sector body under the Ministry of Information which owns and operates Egypt TV) had been pressing the government for the license to install an MMDS system in order to better compete with their own multi-channel programming against available DTH satellite transmission, which has become increasingly popular in Cairo. The problem, aside from the expense of installing powerful transmitters on the part of an undercapitalized company such as CNE and the slow response to the competitive environment by its (until recently) public-sector-dominated management, is that only five UHF channels can be allotted to CNE; no more unused frequencies are available with the expansion in recent years of Egypt TV's UHF regional channels.

But when ORBICOM Transmission recently undertook a feasibility study for MMDS in Cairo on behalf of MultiChoice and CNE, the results were disappointing. More than any other form of transmission, the MMDS system relies on clear electronic line of sight from transmitter to receiver. That is not particularly available in Cairo.(6)

UHF in Cairo has 90 percent penetration. This means that 95 percent of the time UHF transmissions from the CNE tower on the Muqattam hills, which are the highest point in Greater Cairo and which flank nearly the entire city from the East, have 90 percent penetration. But an MMDS system with one transmitter on Muqattam could only reach 44 percent of CNE's present subscribers in Cairo because of high-rise building obstruction and, in Heliopolis, because of the contouring of terrain. This important outlying district is where 40 percent of CNE's present subscribers reside. The combination of sloping terrain and high-rise buildings indicates that only 16 percent of the population would have a clear path. In Zamalek, which is the smallest but most fashionable quarter of Cairo with an usually high concentration of foreign business people and diplomats—the most obvious market for CNE since a transient market of individuals is less attracted to the short-term expense of purchasing and installation of a dish—MMDS would have no penetration at all.

Nor are beam benders, or repeaters, seen as a solution in Cairo as Jordan TV's MMDS management believes they will prove to be in Amman. Beam benders, according to MultiChoice—which operates successful MMDS systems in Nigeria and, on a selective point-to-point business communication basis, in South Africa—work only when you can isolate the receivers of the bent beam from other reception points to avoid cross reflection of signals, as can be done for the highly selective coverage in South Africa, and presumably also when beam bending down into isolated valleys from a series of hills, as in the case of Amman's topography. Even if CNE undertook the expense of installing a second transmitter close to Heliopolis, they would be spending half a million dollars to raise Heliopolis penetration from 26 percent to 32 percent and still not affect in any way the loss of Zamalek.

So increasingly, the thinking in both MultiChoice/CNE and official circles in Cairo turned to DTH, and two program providers—ART for Arabic programming and Showtime for English-language programming—were lined up and initially offered together by Multichoice/CNE DTH on the PanAmSat 4 satellite, and now on the much more powerful signal generated by Egypt's own Nilesat. [Editor's note: see Nilesat 101 Channels for a list of channels available on Nilesat.]

Egypt's own communication philosophy differs significantly from that of Saudi Arabia; when this philosophy is combined with the technical limitations on MMDS in the Cairo area, it further points Egypt away from MMDS and towards an embrace of DTH broadcasting. The Egyptian communication philosophy is also influenced, implicitly if not explicitly, by a conservative Islamic ethic. There is no soft porn or even partial nudity or obscene language on Egyptian TV, but it is an Islamic ethic that is broadly or liberally interpreted to allow belly dancing, Broadway-style chorus girl routines, miniskirts and bathing suits, movies with nightclub scenes that involve alcoholic consumption, and films, both Western and Egyptian, in which only the final sequences of seduction scenes must be cut.

Basically, this philosophy, as articulated frequently by Egypt's Minister of Information Safwat al-Sherif can be called the cultural sovereignty theory. This means that instead of attempting to bar or heavily restrict and censor foreign TV programming, Egypt should concentrate upon upgrading and expanding its own television product, be it news or entertainment, so that it can ensure its cultural sovereignty in a globally competitive situation. This philosophy is particularly attractive to Egypt since it alone among the Arab states has the depth of talent for such an undertaking—actors, singers, dancers, musicians, comedians, journalists, producers, directors and even Quran reciters—and, courtesy of its earlier domination of the once-powerful Arab film industry, a colloquial version of Arabic that is fairly universally understood throughout the Arab world. This inescapably profound development of an ever-larger Arab audience for DTH will significantly limit the once-bright future of MMDS.

Equally plausible is the thought that we will soon see a curious faceoff in the skies between these two Arab allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who will be competing with rival satellites high above, and with alternative delivery systems and communication philosophies in that treasured space we call home. The three pan-Arab satellite broadcasters fall into a curious alignment—MBC to commit its fortunes almost entirely to the Saudi MMDS system; Orbit in all likelihood excluded from both Saudi MMDS and Egypt's Nilesat but its future decisively cast with DTH; and ART playing it down the middle, formally committed, with its platform ally Showtime, via Nilesat to DTH while maintaining a strong if not thoroughly comprehensive position on the Saudi MMDS system—while all three broadcasters continue to converge in their approach to programming and program content. 

About Abdallah Schleifer

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S. Abdallah Schleifer is editor-at-large of  Arab Media & Society. He is the former director of the Adham Center and now professor emeritus in journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Prior to joining the AUC faculty, Schleifer served as NBC News Cairo Bureau Chief and Middle East producer/reporter based in Beirut, and has covered the Middle East for American and Arab media for over 20 years. Schleifer is honorary and former chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Cairo.

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