The president of Syria dies. The phones start ringing at the European Broadcasting Union's (EBU) headquarters in Geneva. TV producers from around the entire globe are calling to find out if EBU has a satellite transmission operation at the funeral. EBU does.
According to EBU Producer Youssef el Alfy, on large stories with wide coverage such as the funeral of Syria's late President Hafez El Assad (June 2000), there were too many satellite transmissions for Syrian TV to cope. Over a period of two days, at least 300 TV news stories were transmitted through the two EBU dishes that he had set up in Syria.
EBU also provided other technical facilities and support like video editing suites, live camera locations for commentaries, telephone lines, and even helped individuals fix faulty equipment-all services that are not exceptional to this particular news story but more the norm for EBU.
"EBU has a reputation for delivery," el Alfy says. "TV stations trust us, they know that they don't have to worry about the lack of local facilities or overcrowded local transmission points." El Alfy adds that EBU sets up their operations at convenient locations, usually at the same hotel where most of the journalists will reside. "Once EBU sets up TV correspondents, producers and crews come flocking to the site," says el Alfy. "And they often quit the story when EBU makes the decision to leave." He cites the example of Zaire during the fall of Mobutu See Seko and the rise of Kabila, a story that began when Kabila, a long-time rival of Mobutu, began a military drive from eastern Zaire in October 1996 to depose him and ended in May when Mobutu fled the country. Once EBU packed up and left, so did everyone else.
The European Broadcasting Union operates a news exchange service, the Eurovision news exchange, which allows sharing of news items between all participating television stations and television news agencies. For breaking news stories EBU establishes broadcasting facilities to work with the Eurovision Network for the backhaul of new stories from those locations where correspondents and producers are working. The EBU was the operator of the only generally available broadcasting facilities in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during the Gulf War, as well as in Kigali and Goma during the Rwanda crisis. The EBU has also been the only operator to make transmission facilities available to all broadcasters throughout the Yugoslavian civil war, enabling coverage from several locations such as Ljubljana, Zagreb, Tuzla, Mostar, Banja Luka, and Sarajevo. Most recently, EBU has had operations with feed points and production facilities in Grozny, Chernobyl, Beirut, Gaza, and Israel.
Yet despite the fact that EBU helps global broadcasters access stories, it does also in effect strip local TV stations and other private companies from much-needed income generated by servicing international television stations on large news events. El Alfy argues that this is not necessarily always the case. "King Hussein of Jordan's funeral (February 1999), for example, was a complete co-production between EBU and Jordan TV, which is an EBU member." He also believes that the benefits of transnational exposure and the facilitation of the free flow of information supersede any other secondary concerns, including economic climates, and adds that EBU is a non-profit organization that shares any profit made with its members.
David Lewis, EBU press attach, also points out that it works both ways. "The EBU offers a window of communication through which news from Arab countries is made available to European broadcasters, while news from Europe is made available to Arab countries." In addition, since many members of EBU are Arab states, they can also access coverage not only of European events but also of Asian and African events.
The EBU is the largest professional association of national broadcasters in the world. The EBU negotiates broadcasting rights for major events such as sports, it operates the Eurovision and Euroradio networks, organizes program exchanges, coordinates co-productions, and provides other operational, commercial, technical, and legal and strategic services.
Founded in 1950 by the pioneers of radio and television in Western Europe, it has since expanded to include 69 active members in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and 46 associate members in 29 countries. Active members in the Arab region include Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, and Tunisia, while associate members include Oman, the United Arab Emirates, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre and the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation.
At a global level, EBU works in close collaboration with sister unions on other continents. These include the Asia Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU), the North American Broadcaster's Association (NABA), the Union of National Radio and Television Organizations of Africa (UNTRA), the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU), and the Organizacion de la Television Iberoamericana (OTI).
The Eurovision Network operated by EBU--a mixed terrestrial and satellite network which covers the whole of the European broadcasting area and the Asian continent--provides not only worldwide coverage of major news events but also sports and cultural events. The Eurovision permanent network (up to 30 digital channels on a Eutelsat satellite) carries constant exchanges of news and programs. Ever since the first live multinational TV transmission in 1953, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, most news and sports pictures on European TV screens have passed through the EBU. Every day a dozen multi-item exchanges provide material for national news bulletins. Each year around 25,000 news items and 7,700 hours of sports and cultural programs are transmitted.
TV channels' individual coverage also transits via the Eurovision network. In 1999 alone, more than 100,000 items were transmitted through the EBU and more than 1,000 per day during the Kosovo crisis-a crisis which was of notable significance to and widely viewed on television screens in the Arab world. In September 1999 Radio and Television Kosovo launched an emergency television station via satellite transmission through the EBU after the terrestrial network had been destroyed by bombing the previous April. The EBU had been mandated by the UN Mission in Kosovo to run RTK for nine months until the Kosovars could take over.
The EBU does not just provide the coordination of television transmission services or news exchange opportunities or stimulate co-productions. It is also provides other equally vital services to broadcasters facing the challenges and demands of the 21st century.
Both technical and legal services have been an integral part of EBU's strategy. The EBU technical department has played an important role in the development of new systems used in radio and television broadcasting, such as Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) and Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB).
Lewis explains that through their participation in EBU meetings, representatives of various countries can become aware of the latest thinking in the audiovisual world. The EBU often arranges training sessions and seminars held in the Arab world and elsewhere. For example, the EBU organized a two-day workshop on digital broadcasting in Tunis (April 2000), a workshop on the same subject in Algiers in May 2000, and a four-day workshop on Documentary and Production in Cairo (February 2001). A workshop on copyright issues took place in Algiers in March 2001, a workshop on camera skills is scheduled for Tunis in May 2001, and a workshop on audience research and measurement will take place at the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) in Cairo in October 2001.
Jennifer Taaffe, public affairs manager at Irish television RTE sums up the EBU experience eloquently, saying that the EBU has been of great service to RTE over the years. "In terms of the amount of time RTE gives to foreign programs in our broadcasts, the figure for television would be quite low. However, we would broadcast many foreign productions on radio, particularly music shows and concerts such as the Metro Opera season. Similarly we would offer music programs, for example traditional Irish music shows, to foreign TV stations. RTE also makes use of other services provided by the EBU, such as technical support and information on the latest technical developments. The EBU's legal department negotiates rights for various sporting events, and the television news exchange enables us to receive footage from a variety of international news events which we may not have been able to cover otherwise due to lack of resources. From the point of view of RTE, the EBU has only had advantages. As a small country we have only had to pay a small fee, and yet we have benefited hugely from its expertise."