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New Challenges for Arab Satellite Television

Special section: "Actors and New Stakes in the Euro-Arab Satellite Scene":
Reports from the Institut du Monde Arabe's first Arab broadcasting seminar

The essential question at hand in this seminar—the complex state of the Arab satellite broadcasting industry, and its relations with Mediterranean neighbors—was "phrased" in various ways by different panels, with the net effect of a more complete picture of the regional situation. First on the table was a geographic breakdown, going against the idea of a cohesive, essentialized "pan-Arab" broadcasting system with a panel examining the specificities of the Maghreb, Egypt, the Gulf countries, and transnational channels. Another way to phrase the question is "public versus private": officials from both government-run and from privately operated channels discussed the difference in their perspectives and concerns, plus current hot topics like the media free zones cropping up in Egypt and Dubai. A yet more honed-in panel examined thematic bouquets, relationships between cinema and television, and reaching expatriate and minority audiences, while an even wider perspective looked at Arab-European cooperation with questions like marketing Arabic programming on European bouquets.

The idea of organizing a conference on the new challenges for satellite television in the Arab world emerged during the first meetings of the Biennale des Cinemas Arabes a Paris. The Biennale, which is now the most important Arabic film festival in Europe, presents every two years a thematic conference on a subject related to cinema. During a visit to the Middle East, Magda Wassef, president of the Biennale, felt the enthusiasm of all the TV decision-makers in the Gulf countries for such a conference and such a subject. In fact, it was the positive attitude of people from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, and Bahrain that led the Institut du Monde Arabe to organize the conference.

This meeting was supposed to be an Euro-Arab conference but due to a lack of time for the organization it became a French-Arab event. Perhaps that was fortuitous: a French-Arab perspective meant we could hone in on the particular bond between France and the Arab region in terms of viewing preferences and audience demographics. It was easy to convince French television presidents to attend the conference; most of them already have strong relationships with Arab partners. Jean Stock, president of TV5 and CFI, was in Cairo in March 2000 for meetings and is aiming to increase his audience in the Arab world. Philippe Cayla, the former Eutelsat international manager and newly appointed head of the international department of France Television, is very aware that the Arab world will be one of the important challenges for the development of France Television International. Jerome Clement, president of La Cinquieme La Sept ARTE, is hoping to finalize two important projects, a French Moroccan channel and a French Egyptian Channel. Canal+ Horizon, the subsidiary of French Canal+, is also interested in increasing its audience.

Camille Cabana, president of the Institut du Monde Arabe, said that the Institut's role encompasses not only organizing exhibitions on Arab heritage but also showing the achievements of Arab countries in new communication and information technologies. Part of this, he added, is helping to strengthen the links between Arab television and European multimedia groups.

As soon as conference organizers started working on the list of participants, we knew it would be difficult to convince all the Arab countries to send a delegation to Paris. We wanted very much to have people from all the countries of the region; for us the presence of not only regional media powerhouses like Egypt and Dubai but also representatives from countries like Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Oman, and Palestine was very important, to hear how they view their presence and role in regional satellite TV.

I won't give the details of weeks of contacts, phone calls, and faxes with which any conference organizer is all too familiar. I was, personally, disappointed by the absence of a Saudi delegation from either official state-owned TV or private companies, and the absence of Lebanese private organizations like Future and LBC. Participants, though, represented a broad range of Arab broadcasting interests, regions, and perspectives: Omar Shoter and Said Abdallah Al-Qahtani, vice presidents of Arabsat; Muhammed Jasim al-Ali, managing director of Qatar's Al-Jazeera Channel; Michel Gabriel El Murr, president of MTV in Lebanon; Hussein Amin and Hazem Foda of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union; Amer Aoun, secretary of state for television for the Libyan Ministry of Culture; and the list goes on.

Our goal was to run the event along the lines of real partnership and cooperation—that means that all the participants were aware of the importance of dialogue. There were no official speeches; instead we noticed a lot of constructive proposals. No one came with a sense of superiority, and I think that was one of the reasons for the success of the conference. We encouraged an atmosphere in which participants felt free to speak and to give a realistic description of the situation. People were able to express different opinions and to criticize. There was no political aim, but the goal of letting people exchange points of view and ideas.

Ironically, participants talked for two days about the future of television without watching a single image. That seems in retrospect to be one weak point which we should improve for the next meeting. For future meetings—and indeed one outcome of the conference was the suggestion to strengthen the relationship between French and Arab television decision-makers and make this a yearly event—we must organize screenings of TV programs, workshops, and other venues in which we can delve deeper into the exchange of ideas and projects. For the future we also wish to include more of the people who bring professionalism to this field. It was unfortunate, for example, that due to our late invitation Peter Einstein, CEO of Gulf DTH/Showtime, was unable to come to Paris, and nor was Sheikh Saleh Kamel of ART able to attend. We welcome their participation—and that of other industry colleagues—at future events.

About Magdi Ghoneim

TBS Paris Correspondent and assistant head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa at France's TV 5, served as coordinator of the colloquium and files this report.

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