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Resource Documents – MMDS and the New Satellite Television Technologies: A Media Explosion in the Arab World

In 1995, TBS senior editor and publisher S. Abdallah Schleifer presented two substantially similar papers at two different conferences a week apart--the Broadcast Education Association convention in Las Vegas and the 12th Annual Symposium of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS), devoted that year to "The Information Revolution in the Arab World." Though neither was published, Hussein Amin, who was present at both conferences, quoted from the papers in some of his own subsequently published research. Since the papers deal in detail with Arab satellites at a time when TBS had not yet begun to publish (albeit it was at these two conferences that the idea of TBS emerged from discussions with colleagues such as Dr. Douglas Boyd and Prof. Leo Gher) and at a time when there was little documentation of this rapidly developing field, the editors of TBS have decided to reproduce a combined version of the two papers under the title "MMDS and the New Satellite Television Technologies: A Media Explosion in the Arab World."

Such radical changes have taken place in the region since this paper was written that a number of the then seemingly important developments that it documents have subsequently collapsed, such as the Orbit-financed BBC World Arab TV channel and the lavishly funded efforts to create a vast MMDS (wireless cable) system in Saudi Arabia.

Schleifer notes that the paper's then accurate characterization of Orbit programming predates the shift by Orbit to increasingly Arabic-language culturally relevant programming and the corresponding drastic reduction of cost for an Orbit subscription and decoder. This paper also predates the shift by the MBC Group from its Battersea headquarters to Dubai and its evolution into a Group with the development in Dubai of MBC 2, the Al-Arabiya channel, and the 03 Documentary production and acquisition company. Finally the paper predates the relative failure of the "Cultural Sovereignty Theory" which predicted that local Arabic programming would provide culturally acceptable alternatives to licentious Western productions.

The Editors.

MMDS and the New Satellite 
Television Technologies: 
A Media Explosion in the Arab World
By S. Abdallah Schleifer, TBS Publisher and Senior Editor

The first major impact of new satellite technologies upon Arab media was in the eighties, not the nineties, and it took the shape of newspaper, rather than television, transmission via satellite. First Asharq al-Awsat newspaper and then Al-Hayat began daily satellite transmission from London to major population centers through the Arab world. Although owned by private Saudi interests, these papers did then and still do address themselves to a pan-Arab audience, and their staff, editors, and columnists reflect that sense of a pan-Arab audience. At the time I was struck by the irony that it in the end it was wealth generated in a conservative Arab country and the technology acquired by that wealth that had brought about a pan-Arab press, and not radical Arab Nationalist ideology.

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 existence of technology powerful enough to transmit signals that could be picked up even by the relatively small dishes of those days, there was no attempt at that time to use the Arabsat satellites as direct broadcasting satellites providing Direct Broadcast Service (DBS) either to cable companies re-transmitting the programming or as Direct to Home (DTH) services to the small 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, and this sort of exchange had minimal impact. The news programs of all Arab national television stations reflected, to put it politely, information values or PR values rather than intrinsically journalistic values.

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 the prevailing state systems left wing or right wing, market economies or socialist economies, republics or monarchies, were state owned and more than any other media the national television channels were extensions of the ministries of information. It is no coincidence that in many Arab countries the minister of information ran 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 it is 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 programming of another country onto one's own national channel. It is no coincidence that the first news and documentary program exchanges that I ever saw on Egyptian television were with the Sultanate of Oman, which was one Arab state that did not break relations with Egypt either when it entered into negotiations with Israel or 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, and its film industry, as well as its radio stations and television channels, and overwhelmingly dominant role in providing TV programming to the rest of the Arab World, was also an inhibiting force until 1988 when Egypt returned to the Arab League.

Then in the late eighties and early nineties two 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 the small but rapidly growing number of dish owners of CNN International. CNN international's signals in the mid-eighties were 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 businessmen. But by the late eighties CNN had begun to transmit via a shaky Soviet satellite that 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 with their own dishes. Later, as the Russian satellite continued to drift, CNN would move onto Arabsat, while the signal from the satellites it used for Europe would increase in strength.

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 to a deal whereby CNN would be rebroadcast terrestrially--which means like a regular TV channel-available to the public for the first time in the Arab world on a Pay-TV platform to be known as CNE, which originally stood for Cable News Egypt (as additional channels were added to this Pay TV platform, the name was eventually altered to Cable Network Egypt.)

Now this all seems very common place today but the excitement and concern at the time that there would be uncensored, unrestricted 24-hour news produced by an international news organization owned by an American media mogul was incredible. But the fact was that this service would be in English and would be encoded and for both these reasons available only to small portion of the actual TV audience in Egypt.
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 re-transmission was in the air. Then a little more than a month later Iraq invaded Kuwait. 

That was the other event.

Shortly before the Gulf crisis the Egyptian government legalized the import and ownership of dishes. And 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 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 & Television Union (ERTU) leased a powerful direct broadcasting transponder and on December 13, one month before the air war portion of Desert Storm would begin, the Egyptian Space Net (ESN) began to broadcast 13 hours of daily programming culled from its two domestic channels.

Dishes and both 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 ESN with its heavy diet of pro-Alliance and anti-Iraqi news and public affairs programming, as well as entertainment, could be seen on ordinary TV sets by Egyptian forces as well as by nearby Saudi population centers. Since the war incidentally, ESN has taken a position on a still stronger European satellite and quickly achieved a significant audience throughout the Gulf because of the popularity of Egyptian movies and serials.
But back to the Gulf Crisis. By the time the air war had begun in mid-January, both Egyptian 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 (as well as uncensored) service since CNE's newly established management was not yet ready to take subscriptions. In Saudi Arabia CNN was taped, and then, after censorship, rebroadcast several hours after initial satellite transmission. These two different approaches suggest the eventual divergence of the Saudi and Egyptian approach to the reception of international satellite broadcasting.

In the years that have 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 was dramatically accelerated by the 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 Royal Family.

The first of these satellite systems is MBC-the Middle East Broadcasting Center-which began transmission in September 1991. MBC is an Arab version of an American or European commercial channel. It broadcasts 14 hours a day providing a mix of news and public affairs programming, along with sports, fashion, movies, and other entertainment. Its format and style is 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 to the Egyptian Satellite. MBC is transmitted and largely produced from London and its staff is an interesting blend of British administrators and technicians, an Arab higher management, Arab directors, writers, producers, and quite elegant Arab on-camera talent.

The second private Arab satellite system is ART-Arab Radio and Television-established by Sheikh Saleh Kamal, one of the original partners in MBC. ART has pioneered in the Arab world the global trend to specialization broadcasting. It began transmission from Fucino, Italy via Arabsat in January 1994, providing four channels--a movie channel, a sports channel, a general or variety channel and a children's channel. These channels now broadcast 24 hours a day. Aside from live and syndicated sports coverage most ART production originates in Cairo but programs are also being produced for ART in Riyadh, Tunis, and Jordan.

To the degree that ART relies on live and syndicated coverage, as in the case of sports, or its impressive film library, it has quickly acquired a very large following, particularly since it has not yet encrypted its signal.

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 Egypt TV.

Of particular interest is the ART almost no-news policy-"almost" because ART does broadcast business news. ART sources have suggested several reasons why 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). 

The most recent Arab satellite system is ORBIT, launched on May 1994. Orbit is able to deliver 16 television channels in its package because it employs digital signals and video compression technology similar to that employed on the DBS/DTH satellite services in America. It transmits from Rome. Unlike MBC and ART, Orbit is already encoded-and in addition to its subscription charge, subscribers must buy a particularly expensive decoder that was initially sold for US $10,000 and now sells for US $5,000.

Orbit's 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 Arab, in residence) as by the ban in Egypt on the sale of any decoders but those sold by CNE which for the time being gives CNE a monopoly in the Pay-TV business. In Saudi Arabia, the sale and manufacture of dishes have been banned for the past year. Orbit has some subscribers among the many dish owners who set up before the ban, but the ban has definitely crimped Orbit's opportunity to expand in the Kingdom.

The rest of the Orbit package consists of an all-news channel assembled from the major American networks along with the CNN international channel, Discovery, Music Now channel (with mostly Western pop music), C-span, the Hollywood Channel which is largely an Entertainment Today type of channel, a Super Movie Channel (for Western movies) and its own Orbit-produced channels for Arabic movies, and General Varieties. The Orbit product is slick but much of it seems rather irrelevant to an Arabic-speaking audience, and to Arab cultural values.

Orbit has commissioned the BBC to produce a BBC Arab-world television service which is offered, encrypted or encoded, exclusively in the Orbit package. The comparison between BBC Arabic TV News and MBC's news product is instructive.

Like the rest of the Orbit operation, the BBC channel is at the cutting edge of technology. BBC Arabic TV is not only digital and video compressed, it is also edited almost entirely on non-linear edit packs. That means basically that news stories are now edited with material loaded into a hard disc and then edited or cut by an editor operating a computer. In comparison to videotape editing, the potential for rapidly calling up library material and the ability to instantly edit in picture at any point in the television report without having to move tape back and forth or do entire story re-edits is extraordinary. Increasingly, reporters will have the potential to edit their own stories and editors will have to develop reporting skills to survive. The economies that could be achieved by the switch to non-linear editing-by reducing editing time and combining two different staff functions - could be tremendous. Non-linear editing 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 last June it went from two hours to four, then six, and now eight hours. The goal was for a 24-hour service but it is now fixed at ten hours a day. During its transmission, BBC broadcasts a half-hour news bulletin on the hour and fills the rest of the hour with BBC English-language documentaries and public affairs programming that lends itself to Arabic voice over.

Indeed the BBC Arabic TV service relies heavily on the BBC's English-language TV reporters (whose work is then voiced over) for many of their field reports. But some of its reporting is done using BBC Arabic Radio correspondents who are already in the field. They know Arabic but they do not necessarily know how to do television news. Right now BBC Arabic TV has only three Arabic producer-reporters of their own in the field plus the occasional special Arabic public affairs programming, such as Min Washington (From Washington), which is produced in Washington D.C., commissioned directly by Orbit and turned over for transmission to the BBC.

In contrast MBC now staffs seven bureaus with its own growing cadre of Arab TV producer-reporters in Cairo, Brussels, Jerusalem, Tunis, Amman, and Washington D.C.

MBC reporting is unique in that in contrast to the news programming of the national Arab channels, MBC follows the international format in which news worthiness rather than government press releases determines the line-up and in which news stories-by field reports or studio voice-overs-are scripted to picture rather than an anchor reading wire copy that at best approximates the overall content of the available video.

But MBC's style is also unique because in common with the BBC Arabic Service, MBC retains the more cautious approach to confrontational journalism that not only characterized the Arab media when dealing with its own or friendly governments, but which in principle (rather than opportunistically as in the case of the Arab world) characterized the quality press in America and England less than fifty years ago, a quality press that then took pride in the fact that it printed "only the news that's fit to print." This lends, whatever the origin or intention, a certain dignity to MBC's journalism.

As remarked earlier, all of this Arabic satellite programming-some of it not yet to international standards, some of it 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 come an increasing concern about program content, particularly when the programs originate from non-Arab sources.

The concerns were broadly cultural, specifically religious, and inescapably political. Islamic society in general and in this case Arab society in 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.

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 partial nudity, the simulation of sexual intercourse, and episodic sadomasochism; 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 alternative life style as well as those role reversals where representatives of law and order are portrayed as villains while outlaws and other criminal types are portrayed as misunderstood romantic heroes 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 year 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 Teheran was the Iranian TV station.

So the first political concern was of 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, under 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 extend re-broadcast Western programming, particularly movies, serials, and sitcoms. But this was far different from the specter of indiscriminate Western programming, no longer selectively identified for re-broadcast 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 the 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 was never as grave as in the case of what is taken to be critical, unfavorable, or biased satellite news reports. Over the past few years BBC World television service has generally been considered to be more of a thorn in the side of Arab governments than CNN International but the fact that both satellite news services broadcast in English has reduced the danger as it is officially perceived. That situation has changed now that Orbit is transmitting an Arabic version of the BBC World Service with full editorial control remaining in the hands of the BBC in other words, of non-Arabs.

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 the 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-is reportedly still exploring the possibility of sending up its own satellite for television transmission to the rest of the world.
So most of the Gulf, Jordan, and Syria but in particular Saudi Arabia--where dishes are now banned--have taken up an alternative delivery system to the Direct to Home satellite system, the MMDS-Multichannel Multipoint Distribution Service which is also know as "wireless cable."

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 in which a high power microwave transmitter delivers a multi-channel 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 is subscription television or Pay-TV.

In an ideal system, signals broadcast at microwave frequencies can be received by small, lightweight, and comparatively inexpensive home antennas and then converted to VHF or UHF super-band frequencies and decoded for reception by the standard TV set.

Studies and most of the decisions to implement were taken in the 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 proceeding to dig 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 is now a fact of life with widespread dish ownership through the region and particularly in the Gulf and it is certain to increase unless legally forbidden as footprints became larger and down links stronger. This increase will be abetted by the rapid increase in available satellite programming in Arabic as well as Western languages, the rapid drop in the cost of dishes thanks to local manufacturing, a very competitive market, and the stronger satellite signals, which make smaller, cheaper dishes more viable than ever before.

As such three patterns are appearing: first, the Jordanian /Gulf pattern, in which relatively modest MMDS systems are favored and operate as subscription television services by the government carrying prestige English-language foreign programming-such as CNN, BBC, AFRTS, CFI, and Prime Sports as well as MBC and/or ART-which has minimal cultural-conflict impact and can co-exist with DTH.

The second pattern is being developed by Saudi Arabia where dishes have been at least nominally banned and a sophisticated and expensive MMDS system is now being implemented by the private sector at an estimated cost of US$200 million dollars. In contrast to the small basically 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 and the programming will be offered for transmission via satellite in neighboring countries.

The third pattern is that of Egypt. A proposal to move Egypt's joint venture Pay-TV operation CNE from encoded terrestrial UHF transmission to an MMDS system was provisionally endorsed more than a year ago by the ministers of information and telecommunications (the latter controlling the microwave frequencies). But then CNE, or more accurately, Multichoice Egypt, the private sector company that now administers CNE's subscription management service, recently undertook a study of MMDS and on the basis of that study has now 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.

Saudi MMDS provides for the delivery of encrypted digital television programming from an uplink facility in England, via satellite, to approximately every population center in the Kingdom, followed by controlled redistribution through terrestrial microwave transmission to subscribers' homes, hotels, and other sites (private sector offices, clubs, educational institutions, diplomatic missions, and ministries).

The television programming transmitted from the London area will utilize a technology developed by General Instruments and used world-wide 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 impression and access control design allows up to ten individual television programs with stereo audio to be transmitted within one satellite transponder. (Saudi MMDS will be in fact offering twenty channels)

The first three channels will be provided without change. They are Saudi national channels 1 and 2 and MBC-1-the present general channel. The remaining 17 channels will be provided as subscription television. They will include four new MBC channels--MBC-2 (a film channel), MBC-3 (a family-children channel), MBC-4 (a sports channel), and MBC-5 (general entertainment). And some of the neighboring national TV channels like Kuwait TV and Oman TV systems should be operating by the first quarter of 1996.

However information provided in private conversation by a high ranking executive in ART (Arab Radio and Television) indicates that ART's own four specialized channels (Sports, Film, Variety, Children's), which are now broadcast in DTH by satellite throughout the region and are enjoying a strong following in Saudi Arabia (where dishes installed prior to the ban have not as yet been ordered to be dismantled) as well as in the Gulf and Egypt, will also be transmitted by Saudi MMDS.

Although the intention is to provide only programming which is acceptable to the Saudi Ministry of Information, a precautionary design has been developed to assure complete control over the content of television signals received in the Kingdom through the MMDS system. 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.

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 redistribution point, the editor has up to five seconds to react to interrupt each program. 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 Qatar, which has also banned dishes and started its own much more modest MMDS system and which theoretically shares the Saudi official interpretation of Islam; and it will work to a lesser extend 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 of one or two stories attached or semi-attached units since the land and expanding infrastructure is available and the conservative social mores prefer this sort of dwelling where human interaction is familiar rather than the high-rise elevator systems and long corridors that are impersonal in the grouping of people and in particular in the mixing of men and women. (Before anyone too easily ridicules this Saudi/Gulf perspective it would be wise to consider city planning studies undertaken in the USA which have developed the concept of "defensible space" and which reveal that high-rise low income housing with the elevator as its the 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 plus population is jammed into the relatively narrow Nile Valley and 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. Four UHF channels can be allotted to CNE; no more unused frequencies are available with the expansion in recent years of Egypt TV's regional channels.

When ORBICOM Transmission recently undertook a feasibility study for an MMDS system 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 generally available in Cairo.

UHF in Cairo has 90 percent penetration--this means that 95 percent of the time UHF transmission 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 has 90 percent penetration.

But an MMDS system with one transmitter on Muqattam can only reach 44 percent of CNE's present subscribers in Cairo because of high-rise building obstruction and, in Heliopolis, the contouring of terrain. (The latter outlying district is of importance since it is where 40 percent of CNE's present subscribers reside.) The combination of sloping terrain and high-rise building indicates that only 16 percent of the population would have a clear path.

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-who operate successful MMDS systems in Nigeria and (on a selective pointto-point business communication basis) in South Africa, work only when you can isolate the receivers of the bended 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. 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 effect in any way the loss of Zamalek.

In Zamalek, which is the smallest but most fashionable quarter of Cairo, MMDS would have almost no penetration at all. So increasingly the thinking in both Multichoice/CNE and official circles in Cairo is DTH. On the first of September of this year Multichoice Africa will test transmission on the new Panam Sat 4 (PAS 4) with its own digitized offering of 16 encrypted channels. A fixed 90cm dish which would cost less than US $200 will receive a strong signal. While Multichoice has not as yet gone public with its offering or even necessarily committed itself to the progranuning for all 16 channels, the Multichoice DTH Service is certain to offer at a minimum the successful bouquet formula of separate channels for English language, sports, film, music/entertainment, and news, as well as four of ART's Arabic-language channels--sports, movies, children, and general.

Since the only decoders which can legally be sold in Cairo are the CNE/Multichoice ERDETO decoders which will also decode the PAS 4 encrypted channels, the short term future for both Multichoice Egypt and CNE will be in selling decoders and subscriptions to what should be a large market for PAS 4 reception. Obviously a 2.4 rotating dish that has already been installed, if aligned on a well-made polar mount, would be able to pick up the PAS 4 signal which will be available at a difficult angle of 72 degrees East. In theory all that the approximately 100,000 dish owners in Cairo and the 100,000 dish owners outside Cairo would then have to do is acquire a Multichoice/CNE decoder and pay the subscription for access to what a Multichoice executive predicts will be "one of the hottest birds in town." Cultural consciousness will be exercised in deciding what English programming generated outside the Arab world is the least culturally subversive.

Egypt's own communication philosophy differs significantly from that of Saudi Arabia and when this philosophy is combined with the technical limitations on MMDS in the Cairo area, it has pointed Egypt away from MMDS and towards 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 Egypt TV, or the treatment of criminals as sympathetic characters; however, it is an Islamic ethic that is interpreted broadly enough to allow belly dancing, Broadway-style chorus girl routines, mini-skirts and bathing suits, movies with nightclub scenes that involve alcoholic consumption, and films both Western and Egyptian in which only the final sequences in seduction scenes must be cut.

Basically this philosophy, as articulated frequently by Egypt's minister of information Safwat El Sherif can be called "cultural sovereignty theory". It is 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 assure 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, in the form of actors, singers, dancers, musicians, comedians, journalists, producers, directors and even Qur'an reciters; and, courtesy of its earlier domination of the once powerful Arab film industry, of a dialect of Arabic that is widely understood throughout the Arab world.

Egypt is now committed to launch its own DTH Satellite--Nilesat--and is already seriously soliciting international tenders. Private industry experts familiar with the region expect that if still more individual Arab states or regional groupings enter the DTH satellite sweepstakes, the market could easily become so overcrowded over the next five years (Nilesat is estimated to be two years away from transmission) that only the financially fittest (Saudi Arabia's proposed SaudiSat as part of the MMDS project ) and the most resourceful in producing attractive local products (Nilesat) may survive. Then there will be in a curious face-off between these two Arab allies who will be competing with rival satellites high in the sky and with alternative delivery systems and communication philosophies in that treasured space we call home.

About Abdallah Schleifer

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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