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Video Cairo Sat: Breaking New Ground as Usual, But This Time on Nilesat

It isn't enough that every well-known super-successful private sector Egyptian businessman probably has at least one or more TVRO (TV Receive Only) satellite dishes on his roof and could conceivably be subscribing to Orbit and/or Showtime and/or ART's lstNet, not to mention scanning the more interesting free-to-air properties available to anybody with a Nilesat decoder (which means automatically anybody subscribing to Showtime and/or ART.) What only God knows is how many of a probable circle of a hundred or more sophisticated and tremendously successful entrepreneurs that I allude to have nurtured the dream over the past few years of launching the first privately-owned Egyptian TV channel, that would by now be almost by definition a satellite channel, and given the trend a digital satellite channel.

But the Egyptian who right now has more than a foot in the door that thresholds everyone's dream and who should be launching the first privately owned Egyptian satellite TV channel on Nilesat by the beginning of the year 2000 is a quiet, casually dressed, barely known figure in the popular Egyptian press and from the perspective of Cairene fashionable society, an elusive figure for all of his own personal success. He is Muhammed Gohar, his company Video Cairo Sat (VCS), formerly Video Cairo, and his foot in the door is Cairo Sat News (CSN)--an umbrella operation that uses a small portion of the 24-hour space segment that VCS contracted on the Nilesat 101 satellite (which these days can reasonably be described as the "hot bird" of the Middle East) to move TV news agency style rough cut news stories to the Arab world on a daily news bulletin.

It's been operating since the startup of Nilesat in April 1998. The CSN daily news bulletin was made possible almost as a byproduct of an organization that has been slowly building up facilities and providing special event coverage and production facilities for a broad range of international and Arab broadcaster clients over the past two decades. This coverage started with Video Cairo camera crews, then a Video Cairo microwave link to the Egyptian ground station and a feed point and live on-camera position with the Nile River as background from its Corniche el Nile office and studios, to its most recent acquisition, a stand-by DSNG (Digital Satellite News Gathering) unit that VCS insists can be on its way to any Middle East destination within minutes of a client's call.

This gradual assembly of elements (and without the benefit of the millions of Saudi investment dollars that built privately owned satellite channels nearly overnight from the top down) that make Cairo Satellite News possible today and a full-fledged satellite channel on air by the beginning of 2000 most probable, include staff (from a two-man operation—Gohar and his soundman in 1977—to 100 employees today); equipment, and space (over the past decade Gohar has steadily acquired the old Nile-view office suites of NBC, CBS and ABC, all of whom once shared space in the late seventies and early eighties in the same building across the street from Egypt TV). (By the late eighties the American networks had abandoned the idea of supporting serious international news coverage and Cairo was but one of many global news centers where the networks closed down their bureaus. Now when an American network has to rush a reporter in from Paris or London or New York to cover an impossible-to-ignore story in Cairo, they will use Video Cairo facilities for live commentary, as a feed point, or even for field crews as the many European and Latin American channels that never had bureaus in Cairo have been doing for the past two decades.)

Twelve broadcasters are "trial clients" of the daily CSN news feed—Egypt TV, Abu Dhabi, Sharja, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Qatar TV, Al-Jazeera, Jordan, LBC, ANN, Libya and Iraq. The euphemism "trial clients"is a way of saying that right now nobody is paying for that daily news feed, which is one of the reasons that what started out as package with an average of four rough cut news reports (and with suggested scripts in English written by Video Cairo Sat staff and available on the VCS website) now averages one news report plus website script. But Gohar has no regrets; the daily news feed is a "loss leader" that fulfilled two purposes:

First it established beyond doubt that a private broadcasting operation with its own permanent and complete fiber optic uplink and with its own 24-hour available space segment on a satellite with a strong Middle East and North African footprint existed in Cairo. And it showed that this private company could provide superior quality signal and transmission backed up by microwave links and Immarsat telephones, conventional studios and a virtual studio. And its studio and field crews (including the DSNG unit) were trained to perform to international standards by Gohar, who learned the business back in the mid-seventies as the first Egyptian to work as a staff camerman for an American TV network news organization, and who is now a hands-on CEO who can still be seen on site for some special event coverage plugging cables together if that's what has to be done as the clock clicks down to feed time and everybody else is busy setting up.

So Arab channels (even some of the state-owned channels who realize that satellite TV means they cannot hope to hold their viewers with the sort of stiff and often amateurish local programming that so often characterizes state sector TV) increasingly turn to VCS for Cairo-based public affairs and news productions in which VCS provides all studio, field and transmission facilities and participates to a greater or lesser degree in the actual production of the show on a case by case basis.

Right now VCS is transmitting an average of three hours of programming a week for Al-Jazeera on its Nilesat space segment as different Al-Jazeera shows rotate a turn in Cairo, such as the London- and Qatar-based business news show "al-Iqtisadiya," which came into Cairo early in September 1999 for four straight days during a major regional conference for Arab investors. Video Cairo typically suggests and arranges for the guests, provides complete studio staffing including director, as and provides the uplink facilities. All Al-Jazeera has to do is send its host and a computer disk for VCS to project in its Virtual Studio and recreate the same set the show uses in Qatar or London. Abu Dhabi TV, Lebanon's Future channel, even Reuters TV and AP TV have contracted with VCS for one or more of its facilities.

The operation promoted the viability of Nilesat at the moment of its launch, which was of critical importance for Gohar. For no matter how many talk shows or haflas (special Arab musical events, literally "parties") or celebrity shots at the pyramids for Japanese television channels that Video Cairo helped produce and/or microwave or directly transmit over the past two decades, Gohar has always remained committed to the news business, to the idea that television news--factual, objective, detached but daring—is both a viable and an honorable way to make a living, and a good living at that. And a corollary of that commitment is Gohar's belief that the only hope for Arab television news that could fulfill such a definition would be one that could in his words " jump over the rigid wall, built up by the information environment and in state university or institute training, that strictly separated television (as a medium for entertainment and "information") from real journalism."

The privately owned satellite channel could make that jump, so for Gohar the future of real television news in the Arab world, has meant for many years that it would have to be satellite television news, and everything that has come to pass in less than a decade has reinforced that belief. The existence and success of Nilesat, with its private as well as state shareholders and a competitive management that has not hesitated to call in international consultants, is central to his vision.

Gohar says that Nilesat has changed everything. Nilesat's management—the former ERTU (and former CNE) chairman Amin Basiouni and his staff—appreciated the potential of a competitive Egyptian private sector operated DSNG unit to bring business to Nilesat. So for the past six months, since they were licensed to operate the DSNG, Gohar has been demonstrating to the regional and international market the potential of a regionally based DSNG unit by covering such events as King Hassan of Morocco's funeral. Gohar says he basically made the decision to move on that story on his own but as soon as he was set up, he acquired clients on the spot, serving as pool feeder for the American networks. He sent his DSNG unit to cover the Sharm el Sheikh peace agreement and generated 28 feeds for 16 Arab and international clients. The unit handled 32 hours of live coverage of the recent international handball championship in Cairo for the German sports channel DFS.

Gohar says that DSNG doesn't just mean more business for Nilesat (not to mention VCS). It means there is now a credible source for live news coverage of the Arab world which can be easily accessed by broadcasters anywhere in the world—in contrast to the difficulties of quickly securing picture or facilities from the slower moving, more bureaucratically managed national channels. Within the industry of private Arab satellite broadcasters, with its short memory (since the industry itself is less than a decade old), the breakthrough that enabled Gohar to take a major step in the acquisition of facilities, staff, know-how and reputation was appearance of Orbit in the summer of 1994. Although BBC was contracted by Orbit to produce the short and stormy BBC Arabic Television News as part of the Orbit bouquet, Orbit directly commissioned Video Cairo to produce and transmit live, for the first time in Arab broadcasting, a nightly Larry King type-format interview show with open line telephone call-ins. The show Ala El Hawa (On theAir) was hosted by Emadeldin Adib (who still hosts the show but no longer from Video Cairo—Orbit now produces the show from its own Egyptian studios.)

Adib's association with Gohar goes back to the early eighties when Adib was a bright young news editor at Cairo's most popular daily newspaper, Al-Ahram, and also served as a news consultant to the ABC bureau chief. At the time Gohar was either right next door at NBC News working for me as a staff cameraman, or personally manning Video Cairo's best crew on special hire to CBS just up the stairs from ABC. Adib's journalistic skills were further sharpened working in London for the first privately owned pan-Arab newspaper Shawq al Awsat, which was data-transmitted by satellite into a number of Arab capitals, including Cairo, and locally reprinted and which quickly acquired a reputation at that time as the best newspaper in the Arab world. (Adib would go on, among his many accomplishments, to found and co-publish in Cairo "Alam al Youm," a daily Egyptian equivelent of "The Financial Times," and precisely because it does not labor under the heavy burden of Arab-style political journalism, it is perhaps the best written and edited newspaper in the region.)

"Ala El Hawa" was a tremendous success, and Gohar says both Orbit's management and its Saudi owners deserve credit for the courage to launch such a no-holds-barred political talk show, which allowed an Arab audience to express themselves directly and freely via telephone on a TV show broadcast across the Arab world. King Hussein, Colonel Qadhafi, Chairman Yasar Arafat, and Egypt's Foreign Minister Amr Moussa all appeared on the show and not only had to field polite but tough questions from Adib but also to put up with direct challenges to their particular policies by viewers calling in by phone. Nor was the program groundbreaking only in the political sphere; one show (and this on a channel financed by Saudi princes) discussed the issue of women's rights in Saudi Arabia. The guest was Saudi Arabia's Prince Talal, well known for his support of women's NGOs and well known within the Saudi royal establishment for his outspoken and independent views. But the show achieved its highest rating of any show in the Arab world when Orbit agreed to Gohar's suggestion to take the show to Jerusalem where Adib interviewed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu live just after he had taken power and at a time of great tension generated by the Israelis opening a tunnel under the Old City's Muslim Quarter that ran alongside the foundation stones of the Haram Al Sharif. Netanyahu took calls from Arab viewers including one call from Damascus. (Cynics say only the head of Syrian intelligence would have dared to make that call.)

What is so fascinating about this story is that it is an epiphany for any future serious history that may be written about the emergence of an indigenous television journalism in Egypt. Invariably a few factors keep converging into a force field for Video Cairo in particular and the craft or business in general. They are moments of intense regional conflict or conflict resolution coupled with new technologies and in the truest sense of "technique" in the transfer of technology by real training experiences. And in one way or another Gohar and Video Cairo have always been in one sense or another at the center of these moments. Video Cairo's very first satellite production was that historic interview which Gohar proposed to set up for CBS in which Walter Cronkite simultaniously interviewed Egypt's President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin with the two appearing "together," by virtue of a split screen—something inconceivable in the Middle East until it happened.

It was also the first live satellite interview given by an Arab leader, and the facility that Video Cairo used was the president's "portable" ground station on the grounds of the Quba Presidential Guest Palace. In those days portability meant a 16-meter dish that required a prefab building to house the feeding and editing facility This was the moment when Sadat said he was ready to travel to Jerusalem for the sake of peace and when Cronkite asked Begin to respond and he said, in effect: yes, he will be welcome. The Sadat Peace Initiative had begun and overnight Cairo was transformed into a major news center as all of the American networks restocked their bureaus with video cameras and video edit packs and staff. Almost all of that staff was initially American or British, but many bright and bilingual young Egyptians were quickly recruited as news desk editors, production assistants or even drivers. They soon found opportunities to acquire training as soundmen, cameramen, field and satellite producers either with the American networks and then often from there to Video Cairo, or directly into training at Video Cairo to serve the many clients from Europe and Japan who wanted coverage but didn't have bureaus, or to serve the American bureaus who had frequent occasion in those days to add on an additional crew.

The first significant post-Camp David withdrawal from Sinai in which Egyptian forces replaced Israeli forces again linked history and the implications of satellite technology for Video Cairo. When the Israelis withdrew from Al Arish, the capital of northern Sinai, Gohar understood that the only way he could secure live coverage of the symbolic Egyptian military and civilian takeover for his clients ABC and UPI-ITN was make his own private premature peace with Israel in order to access Israeli links. The Israeli producer in the field, Itzhak Kohl, who would withdraw with Israeli forces a short distance to the east to what remained of Israeli-occupied Sinai, agreed to leave a cable hidden in the sand that would be hooked up to an Israeli TV OB van parked just on the other side of the new line separating Israeli and Egyptian forces. Gohar found the cable, hooked up and fed the live picture of the first Egyptian flag to be raised after the 1973 war on liberated territory in Sinai via the Hertzaliya ground station near Tel Aviv. It was at that moment, Gohar says, that he and his brother Nader, who is the general manager of VCS, realized that whatever was to be achieved in television news, it would have to be by satellite.

That insight became apparent to many other people in the Arab world in August 1990 when Saddam Hussein sent his army crashing into Kuwait. (The impact of the Gulf War on the development of satellite television is discussed in detail in Schleifer, "Media Explosion in theArab World: The Pan-Arab Satellite Broadcasters"and Joe S. Foote, "CNE in Egypt: Some Light at the End of an Arduous Tunnel," TBS issue l ). The first week of the Gulf crisis was played out in Cairo, where the Arab Foreign ministers gathered at Arab League headquarters to determine how they would respond to the Iraqi occupation and the Anglo-American readiness to reverse that occupation by armed force.

Suddenly hundreds of television journalists descended on the Egyptian capital, and at this critical moment Video Cairo was able to contract a microwave link from their office to Egypt TV across the street and from there by microwave hop to what was by now a permanent Egyptian ground station complex in New Maadi some eight miles away. Video Cairo could now provide their international clients with a permanent alternative feeding point to the more cumbersome facility at Egypt TV across the street and a 24-hour available studio facility for live reporting.

By the time the air war began in the first phase of Desert Storm (January 1991) all of Egypt was watching CNE's first immediate retransmission of CNN around the clock coverage of the Gulf War; in Saudi Arabia CNN was taped, and after occasional editing of what the Saudi authorities considered politically sensitive material, rebroadcast across the Kingdom by Saudi TV.

Suddenly everyone who could afford it wanted a dish, and increasingly hundreds and then thousands found ways despite initial resistance from the authorities to get them. It was at this point in time that separate groups of Saudi private investors, all with links to lesser or greater degrees with the royal family, began to plan to establish Arabic satellite channels. And the news was to be a major element in the programming of the first venture up in the air—MBC, the Middle East Broadcasting Center, which began transmission in September 1991. In the rush to air, MBC secured the services of Video Cairo to help staff and support an MBC news operation for a number of months until MBC could open its own bureau.

Here too was another case of convergence. When the Adham Center for Television Journalism at the American University in Cairo (AUC) started up in the mid-eighties as an almost experimental TV news training center, it had not yet secured a full-time technical instructor and coordinator to complement the instruction in field producing, reporting and writing provided by its director. Gohar volunteered for the first semester as a part-time instructor for any number of motives: His accurate perception of the center as a training ground for future Video Cairo staff; a sense of loyalty to his old boss at NBC News Cairo, this writer, who had left NBC for AUC to establish the center, or again, Gohar's abiding belief in the practices of a type of TV journalism that was only taught in the Arab world at the Adham Center.

So Gohar played his part in launching the Adham Center, and was one of the first to be honored by the center as an "Associate" or honorary faculty member. By 1990, averaging ten graduates a year in its two-year master's degree program in television journalism, the center had already produced a small well-trained cadre of largely Egyptian video journalists who had skills that could not be made use of at that time at Egypt TV. So many graduates ended up working directly for those Western and Japanese news organizations that still maintained some sort of presence in Cairo (including CNN, AP TV, Reuters TV, NHK, and Asahi TV) as field producers and news editors ,or they went to work for Video Cairo as cameramen, videotape editors, and production assistants. Or they went into print journalism and waited.

When everyone, state TV as well as Saudi and then Lebanese private sector businessmen, started up satellite TV channels in the wake of the Gulf War, the Adham Center graduates were on hand as reporters, field producers, and videotape editors first with MBC, then as videotape editors with ART Cairo and in time as producers, writers, and directors and assistant directors with ART at its broadcasting and production center in Avezzano; as reporters and videotape editors in London with Orbit's BBC Arabic TV Service and with Al-Jazeera in London and as the core cadre of correspondents and presenters for Egypt's English language satellite channel Nile TV, and the more recent Arabic language satellite news channel, Nile News. And always someone from the Adham Center is working at Video Cairo.

Now Muhammed and his brother and deputy Nader Gohar are convinced that VCS will be able to expand its presence on Nilesat into a full-fledged news channel by the beginning of the year, in keeping with what they have perceived as the new era in journalism—business news. In the West, particularly in America, business news and still more particularly TV business news has flourished as the entire nation has become obsessed with the stock market. Internationally it is an amalgam of the two cutting edges in the globalization process—communications technology and business—and that is reflected in the extraordinary growth of business news in the International Herald Tribune, on its way to being the world's first truly global newspaper, with an elite readership the majority of whom are not Americans.

But in the Arab world neither the American and European stock exchanges, nor the Cairo exchange for that matter (the liveliest and most interesting exchange in the Arab world), or the investment side of globalization has the same impetus. What makes the Gohar brothers' insight significant is that given the political environment in the region business news—freely written, accurately reported business news—is precisely what development minded political leaderships increasingly realize is a necessity in the privatization of economy that is proceeding throughout the region. In the Arab world the margins for professionalism, including detachment and the objective pursuit of at least factual truth are much wider and tolerable in the world of business news than in political journalism.

Gohar is a graduate of Egypt's Cinema Institute. He was a movie cameraman who volunteered his services to Egypt TV when the 1973 War began and he was the first Egyptian cameraman to cover the Egyptian Army crossing of the Suez Canal. That coverage led to a job as President Sadat's staff cameraman and in what I can only take pride in as an act of pioneering privatization, I recruited Gohar away from the presidency to come to work at the NBC News bureau in Cairo.

"From the time I started in the news business at NBC," said Gohar, "and that was before Ted Turner had started CNN in America, I knew I wanted to build a business out producing television news around the clock but I wanted it to be real news, news that brings slices of life and facts to people, not propaganda. That's what I learned at NBC and that's what I've trained all my people to practice. And I've done this in an environment which operated totally against this approach to television news. To have succeeded in this, makes me feel even richer than Ted Turner."

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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