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The Current Situation of Satellite Broadcasting in the Middle East

Several satellite projects are breaking new ground in the Middle East. Egypt needed to find an effective medium for transmissions that reach all parts of the country and the Arab region as well, with minimum expense. The Egyptian government wanted to take a piece of the satellite cake by taking advantage of two of the most powerful venues for cultural products in the region: Egyptian culture, which is the most dominant in the region, and the Egyptian Arabic dialect, which is still by far the most well-known in the Arab world. Nilesat was Egypt's solution to this challenge. Nilesat, the Egyptian government's first satellite, was launched on April 28, 1998 and provides services in various fields, especially in education, media and culture. The second satellite, Nilesat 102, launched this August, is to start new services that deal with webcasting and datacasting. The third generation of Arabsat craft is also based on digital technology and is providing additional transponders. Eutelsat has five "hotbird" satellites, and a replacement has also been made for the failed Asiasat satellite. This is in addition to other satellites that already exist and cover the region.

All satellite broadcasting in the region started as free-to-air satellite television services. Satellite broadcasting came first to the region on December 12, 1990, when the Egyptian Satellite Channel started transmission. Nile TV International was the second Egyptian satellite channel. It commenced experimental broadcasting in October 1993 in English and French. The main objective of this network is to promote the image of Egypt in Europe and to attract tourism. The specialized channels of Egypt on Nilesat 101 (Nile News, Nile Culture, Nile Sports, Nile Children and Nile Variety) are increasingly gaining position. The private sector is also establishing a footprint in the region. Egypt's gigantic Media Production City is now welcoming private and international production houses. A recent change that marked the open policy that Egypt is adopting is documented by the contract that was signed between Al-Jazeera and the Media Production City whereby Al-Jazeera is given facilities to produce and to transmit without censorship.

One year after the introduction of the Egyptian Satellite Channel, Saudi Arabia launched the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), which is a privately owned network. Saudi Arabia is the heart of the Islamic world, and therefore religious programming has a special importance in official Saudi television programming and dominates a good part of the broadcast schedule of the national television channels.

In 1995, Qatar made initiatives to introduce the first Arab all-news and public affairs satellite channel. The Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel stunned Arab governments and audiences by showing free-ranging political debates, including interactive debates with live phone-ins, which formed a new forum of freedom of expression in the region. Al-Jazeera is still leading the region in this direction and is gaining popularity every day.

In 1996 two Lebanese stations, LBC and Future, developed satellite delivery to the Middle East. With their relaxed and informal approach, and LBC's uninhibited game shows, these channels had an instant impact on viewing patterns in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.

The Middle East has four competing digital television platforms: ART/1st Net, Orbit, Star Select, and Gulf DTH/Showtime. ART developed from a single free-to-air analogue DTH channel to a full service of many popular channels. In addition to transmission to the Middle East on Arabsat 3A and Nilesat 101, the company also broadcast to Europe, North America, South America, Asia, and Australia. ART recently launched the first Arab Islamic satellite channel, Iqra. Orbit was founded by the Saudi al-Mawared Group and includes both Arab and Western programming.

Kuwait found it essential to start its own network after the Gulf War, and the Kuwaiti Space Network began on December 8, 1991. Star TV from Hong Kong started on Asiasat in October 1991, reaching audiences in Kuwait and other Gulf countries. One of the network's new digital pay-TV platforms comes from Gulf DTH, which trades as Showtime, and is backed with English-language programming by Viacom Inc. The new offering is co-financed by Kuwait Investment Projects Co. (KIPCO) and is now operating on Nilesat.

The Jordanian Radio and Television Corporation started broadcasting the Jordanian Arab Space Channel on February 1, 1993, utilizing channel 24 on Arabsat 1-C, which blankets most of the Arab world and Europe and has recently expanded to include transmission of the service to Canada and the United States.

In the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, national television was put onto satellite. The main reason for satellite transmission of the service was to develop bridges to improve communication between expatriate labor in Europe and the home country. North African countries have a different Arabic dialect that is not well understood by the rest of the Arab nations, and this may be why their satellite services mainly address North Africa.

The Gulf states were among the first nations that utilized satellite broadcasting since they did not have problems related to financing these projects. Bahrain and Qatar placed their main channels on Arabsat for direct broadcast transmission to the Arab world. Dubai's satellite channel was first to reach the United States, via Galaxy. At this point in time, there are many wonderful projects that will play an important role in promoting telematics and informatics in the region such as the development of new specialized channels, such as the Dubai Business Channel and the Dubai Sports Channel, as well as Dubai's Internet City.

At the forefront of the information society in the region are two technologies that stand above the rest: compressed digital satellite services and the Internet. There are serious moves toward Internet distribution via Nilesat; Showtime is working hard to introduce Internet services, as is Orbit. This will allow for a world where multicultural exchange is not only imaginable, but is undeniable. The Arab world is no exception. The communications revolution has fully arrived in the Middle East, causing dramatic changes in Arab society in economic, social, and political domains. It is the first time in the history of broadcasting in the region that audiences have the luxury of selecting news from a menu of news networks such as CNN, MBC, Nile News, ANN, BBC and Al-Jazeera.

The new platform of satellite broadcasting is being formed. That platform is soon going to attract the middle classes of the Middle East, audiences numbering in the millions. The management of satellite channels can no longer ignore the competition for ratings and competition for channels. This is excellent for access, as a plentiful supply of satellite capacity should restrain entry costs and should keep down other barriers for private broadcasting, as well as providing a superb setting for quality programs and programming for all audiences in the region. In the final analysis, the picture of satellite broadcasting in the Middle East looks very promising.

About Hussein Amin

Hussein Amin is the director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television and Digital Journalism and Professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo.

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