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Stealth Bouquet: The MBC Group Moves On

DUBAI -- There was a big splash when MBC moved out of Battersea several years ago and took up quarters in its elegant lagoon-side section of the Media City complex here (see New MBC: The Marriage of Elegant Professionalism and Emirati Glitter, TBS 9). The move was followed by another stir when MBC launched its own 24-7 Arabic news channel, Al Arabiya, shortly before the invasion of Iraq. Perhaps because far more was expected of this new, barely tested channel than was reasonable to expect, the relatively uneven performance of Al Arabiya during the invasion, in comparison to the more seasoned operations of Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi, led some to discount its importance and the overall potential of the MBC Group.

That was a mistake, magnified by a surprisingly weak sense of public relations by the MBC Group at the time, which recently has been rectified. Even TBS (nostra culpa) too long ignored developments at that imposing black building with the best view in Media City.

For the past two years, extraordinary things have been happening there. The MBC Group has emerged as the stealth bouquet or platform of Arab satellite broadcasting, fielding five successful free-to-air television channels. Right now, there is no other free-to-air bouquet that comes close, though Al Jazeera will try to close the gap with its own broad band of channels on air by the beginning of 2006 (see Al Jazeera: Once More Into the Fray in this issue).

More than that, the diversity of what the MBC Group transmits free-to-air is challenging the pay-TV bouquets of Showtime, Orbit, and ART. The MBC flagship remains the leading Arabic family entertainment or "variety" channel. Then there is MBC 2, the Western entertainment channel that is the most watched of its genre in the Middle East during prime time, and now is an all-movies channel. Al Arabiya is an increasingly competitive 24-7 news channel, now challenging Al Jazeera for audience share in most Arab markets, and surpassing Al Jazeera for market share in Iraq. MBC 3, the Group's lively children's channel, was launched in December 2004 and now broadcasts 16 hours a day on weekends and 12 hours on weekdays. The latest addition is MBC 4, a spin-off from MBC 2 featuring American sitcoms and other top American TV series. MBC 4 equals and perhaps surpasses Showtime's Paramount channel in its more discriminating sense of programming.

The spin-off is an ongoing MBC Group tour de force. The MBC flagship's purchases of fairly recent -- if not exclusively first-run -- films from the big distributors and production houses provided sufficient surplus a few year ago to justify creating MBC 2. A sufficient number of TV dramas, adventures, and sitcoms came with the MBC 2 package to justify, after two years, a spin-off of that material, along with acquisitions like CBS Morning News, CBS Evening News, 60 Minutes, ABC's Nightline, and Oprah into MBC 4, with MBC 2 strengthening its niche as an all-movie channel. If the American adage is that all politics are local, the maxim for the overly crowed, overly competitive Arab satellite business is that successful channels are nearly all niche channels. The entire MBC package is being ably advanced according to this logic by MBC's marketing manager, Andrew Maskall.

Abdul Rahman al-Rashed

All of which indicates that there is an organic quality to the growth pattern of the MBC Group. It was MBC, after all, which pioneered professional-standard TV news reporting with teams feeding the first-ever Arabic language field reporting to the flagship MBC channel's two substantial daily news bulletins. In fact, MBC's pioneering news efforts, as well as its special programming, go as far back as 1993, only to be eclipsed by the appearance of Al Jazeera's 24-7 news coverage in 1996. So when the creative energy of the MBC news team was harnessed by reinforcements hired away from Al Jazeera, like Al Jazeera's first and founding senior editor Salah Negm (see Interview with Saleh Negm, TBS 10), it was almost inevitable that it would be MBC who would enter the lists with Al Arabiya, the 24-7 news channel that it owns in partnership with some outside investment.

And that's not all there is to the empire. The MBC Group also transmits MBC-FM, the leading music and entertainment radio station in Saudi Arabia, and Panorama, the niche FM radio station responding to an older Arab audience, rather than the teenie boppers courted by US-funded Radio Sawa and Egypt's latest private sector FM stations. Panorama offers more traditional tarab music, talk shows, and news.

Another MBC project is Middle East News (MEN), currently under the leadership of Al Arabiya's former senior news editor Salah Negm. Negm also served as deputy to Al Arabiya's general manager Abdul Rahman al-Rashed during the past year. MEN is a new television news agency that may dramatically emerge at any moment as a major competitor to APTN and Reuters TV. MEN provides facilities, logistical support, camera crews, and in some cases reporting, using the same bureau facilities as Al Arabiya. Already MEN has as clients Bahrein TV, Oman TV, and Al-Ekhbariya, the state-owned, local-oriented Saudi news channel.

According to Nabil Khatib, Al Arabiya's former Jerusalem bureau chief and now executive editor, the bottom line for the Al Arabiya management team is to avoid the temptation of "populist journalism, to be more professional and more rational despite the risk that might involve in terms of an Arab street that is used to the populist approach. As much as you are populist, you are popular so we are taking the risk that you can be popular without being populist."

Khatib says Al Arabiya's share of market has been increasing since it first launched, so it was with some trepidation that Al Arabiya "bit the bullet" last summer when it decided decisively to avoid the populist style of journalism. "The good news is that in most markets we didn't lose, and in other markets we actually increased market share like in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and North Africa -- particularly Morocco and Algeria. In Saudi Arabia, we are now neck and neck with Al Jazeera."

Khatib based his evaluations of market share on the same market research undertaken by a consortium of advertising agencies quoted by al-Rashed (see A Dialogue with Abdul Rahman al-Rashed in this issue) but he added that the organization is also making use of data now being provided by NGOs conducting viewer surveys in Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq.

"I would agree that the angry, largely illiterate, poor Arab populations will still be attracted by angry populist coverage because they are so frustrated by their daily life and that hasn't changed and won't change soon," Khatib said. "But despite that fact, we continue to grow and succeed."

How do they do it? Khatib says there have been two changes in content. First, the channel has gone over to a more aggressive coverage of special events by a special coverage unit.

"This is the unit that provided American election coverage," he says. "The first pilot for the unit was the anniversary of 9/11, then the death of Arafat, then the story of the Iraqi elections. The coverage has been very successful and we have gotten very good feedback.

"The other idea we are working on is to broaden the scope of what we are covering, to broaden the nature of news stories. Most of the coverage, most of the material in the past was focused on casualties, and very little material and news flow about real life. You know, what's going on in people's lives. We are dramatically increasing our coverage of real life events (with a) special series of news reports followed by commentaries. Take Eye on Palestine. We follow six ordinary Palestinians (for) 40 episodes based on their lives, and then (air) six one hour documentaries from the same coverage.

"In Iraq we follow up with reports on the families of those who have been killed, or show how university life goes on. We report on what's happening to the petrol shortages, the water shortages. Nobody talks about Falluja anymore. We just aired a report today (April 4) on the peaceful life that has revived in Falluja. We broke the story about Ahmed Zaki's death, and we were the only channel on that story for several hours, reporting from the hospital. We were covering that story before he died, and in a period of two weeks, we had six special reports on Ahmed Zaki. He was an important part of Egyptian and of modern Arab life and he deserved the coverage we provided."

Backing up news coverage is still another branch of the MBC Group – 03 Productions headed up by Fadi Ismail. 03 produces its own documentaries. Some 40 hours a year are guaranteed acquisitions for Al Arabiya and MBC channel, but it is also an acquisition house, buying documentaries for Al Arabiya and commissioning its own new documentaries. It also is developing an overseas market. 03 has been commissioned by NHK to produce documentaries for that prestigious Japanese channel, and for another international broadcaster, Tele Production International, as well as MTV, which commissioned O3 to produce programs about Iraq

During its first two years (2003-2004) 03 acquired over 1,000 hours of international production and 50 hours of Arab production. More importantly, in the long term, it produced more than 60 hours of documentary film, including such controversial films as Ex-Extremists, Sudan and The Arab World: The Lost Decade. The number of in-house productions should dramatically increase when the figures are in for 2005-2006.

According to David Wilmsen, an associate dean at the American University in Cairo and a TBS contributing editor who regularly watches documentaries on Al Arabiya, "no subject is off the table and none is too arcane. ... Historical and topical themes are popular, especially those that treat the nations and regions closest to the Arab world." Wilmsen observes that true to the nature of documentaries, Al Arabiya's documentaries provide "rich historical detail to trends and events affecting the lives of the channel's viewers. A splendid example of this is the 20-part series Lebanese Sects, which took a balanced if overall sympathetic look at the entire range of confessional groupings in Lebanon, exploring their historical roots in the region, their accomplishments, trials, triumphs and defeats, even when this meant casting a cold, unflinching gaze at their atrocious behavior during the civil war."

Wilmsen is struck by the ability of 03 documentaries to handle sensitive issues. He says its coverage of the region is comprehensive. These documentaries are "nothing if not thorough, bringing films exposing the horror of war in Iraq, or examining the plight of Palestinian refugees in camps in Lebanon (where the largest numbers of them languish to this day), or the opposite imagery entirely (such as) exiled members of the South Lebanese Army in Israel. Even with such delicate issues, the language of narration (but not, of course, that of some of those interviewed) adopts an objective tone."

MBC's Children's Network

Behind all of this, and responsible for taking on the challenge of producing real news back in 1992, moving the flagship channel to Dubai, and backing up his programming and marketing professionals as they expanded the bouquet, is the figure of Sheikh Walid al-Ibrahim, chairman of the MBC News Group. According to Fadwa Obaid, head of program content for MBC 3, Sheikh Walid has always wanted to have a channel for children. "This is a dream close to his heart. He has always felt there wasn't enough for kids in the Arab world. He wanted a channel that was both entertaining and informative."

Now he has it. MBC 3, which is an amazing operation in which the usual children's channel diet of cartoons is seamlessly absorbed into an amazingly active pocket studio in which charming studio host Danyah interacts with her audience throughout the day. The tone is warm and friendly but not patronizing. Obaid says, "We have guiding principles -- respecting the kids, never talking down to them, always addressed them as your buddies. MBC 3 is not a parent or a teacher. It is, certainly, a responsible friend."

Danyah, MBC's children's channel host

Danyah keeps the inter-activity going with quizzes, where viewers call in and answer questions, and with birthday celebrations featuring viewers who have sent in their pictures. There are vox pops with kids from all over -- Cairo, Beirut, Jeddah, Riyadh, Kuwait City. "The quizzes are run on a daily basis and we always try to have visuals of whatever we are talking about," says Obaid. "On Friday, we will have religious questions that encourage the kids to reflect a bit and after Friday prayer we run animations with religious themes -- like animated stories of the prophets.

"Our viewers are encouraged to follow along at home demonstrations of arts and crafts.… We read emails from viewers and showcase their art work and read their poetry, and we have a topic of the week -- friendship, modesty, the environment, and the kids send us their thoughts. Lots of time is devoted to nutrition, to eating healthy, to the problem of obesity," says Obaid.

What does it mean for a children's channel to be a responsible friend? Well everyday Danyah opens the show saying, "Watch us, but don't forget to do your homework!"

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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