Sky News Arabia’s management team say that they recognize—but are not fazed by—competition from older, more established Arabic news networks like Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera. They admit that they have a long way to go before reaching the coveted third-place position, but are wagering on the strength of the Sky News brand.
Two things catch one’s attention when visiting the headquarters of the station in Abu Dhabi. The first that is the average age of the 400 editors and reporters is 33; they were hired out of 30,000 applicants, according to one of station’s managers. The second is the sophistication of the equipment and the technology, fitting for a station that was only built a year ago.
Another, unseen, thing that can be read between the lines in conversations with station executives is the strong confidence in news gathering involved in this joint project. BSkyB has bureaux all over the world, and Sky News Arabia provides it with a strong geographic base that opens to Middle East markets.
Why was Sky News Arabia established among the existing large pool of Arabic news satellite channels? This question was raised when the station was launched and continues to be asked in view of the strong competition one year after going live. Sultan Al-Jabir, the chairman of the station’s board of directors, told Asharq Al-Awsat that his company “felt that the Arabic media scene needed a channel that offers fast breaking, accurate, and impartial news.”
“In the past year, we have made big strides to accomplish this goal, and we have put the channel on the right course,” he added.
Jabir went on to say that “viewers began to quickly turn to Sky News Arabia to watch current events and to listen to balanced analysis. It was obvious that the available satellite channels did not address this need and did not close this gap. The information that we have about the response of our viewers tells us that our products offer what viewers in the Arab world want in a news service.
“We have also sensed a clear response from our target audience: the younger generation. This is in addition to platforms that provide news services electronically, such as the Internet, smart phones and tablets. This is a very important part of our work. We have noticed that the masses are greatly interested and follow on these modern platforms. Naturally, the important question is not related to the competition with other satellite channels, whether present ones and future ones. The principal challenge for us lies in our ability to develop constantly within the framework of our commitments from the start to broadcast our media with full professionalism.”
Jabir said that the partnership between his company and BSkyB is beneficial for both sides, especially because the Abu Dhabi Media Investment Company benefits from Sky’s name and trademark in the Middle East, as well as from the editorial independence of the channel. In return, the group that offers Sky News in Britain benefits from a window into the Arab world. However, Sky News Arabia’s media products are its own and the executives enjoy full editorial independence.
In terms of economic feasibility, Jabir told Asharq Al-Awsat that there is definitely a benefit derived from sharing the cost of news production, particularly in regions where there is only one partner. From this partnership, the Arabic Sky News benefits from the news resources of Sky News in areas where it is present. Moreover, the station’s network of correspondents in the region feed Sky in London with breaking news stories as they occur. Sky viewers often watch Sky News Arabia’s correspondents on their screens as they present breaking news in English from the site of the event.
In the same context, Nart Bouran, the station’s director-general, said that the cooperation between Sky News Arabia and Sky in London happens in all areas of news production: they share pictures, archives and analysts, as well as coverage. “We may have a correspondent in a location like Damascus where they do not have a correspondent. Our correspondent sends his report and it is translated. The opposite is also true, as in the case of the rape in India or the exclusive interview that Sky conducted with British foreign affairs minister William Hague. The translated version was made available to Arabic Sky News after only three minutes.”
Bouran went on to say that “naturally, our priorities differ. Fast-breaking news in Britain is not fast-breaking in the Arab region. However, news is often fast-breaking for both the Arabic and English channels. At any rate, all this is determined by news developments. For instance, at the beginning of the day, we do not say that ‘we are going to take 20% of the news on the English Sky, because each channel has its own priorities. Moreover, we benefit from certain products—for instance in the medical or health fields that they do well due to the experience they have gained over the years. We take such products from them because we bear the same name.”
Regarding Sky News Arabia’s first year of experience and its goals of the second year, Bouran told Asharq Al-Awsat, “Yes, we have more than accomplished the goals we have set for ourselves. The idea is that we had felt that there was a vacuum in the news market and we decided to enter it. At first, we had doubts that the Arab viewers would accept the style of fast-breaking news. However, we discovered that our viewership liked our balanced style in presenting the news and found out that viewership rose during our coverage of fast-breaking news.”
The station’s director-general also emphasized that “despite the differences in news priorities, we follow the 24-hour coverage style adopted by Sky, but we steer away from lengthy programs. We have allocated more time to programs that suit the taste of Arab viewers, such as the weekly Cairo dialogue that we launched recently and that is presented every week by the artist Hisham Salih Salim. However, this does not mean that we are steering away from the general policy of focusing on fast-breaking news—even in the middle of a program.”
Regarding plans for expansion, Bouran told Asharq Al-Awsat: “When we say we want to expand, we want that to be done correctly and soundly. This depends on news coverage, management and on financial and commercial matters. We have a plan for the next three or four years, and we know exactly where we want to reach both in economic expansion or in the number of correspondents.”
On whether the location of the station in Abu-Dhabi has an effect, Bouran said: “Of course the location has an impact, particularly from the commercial aspect. The biggest markets for advertisements and television commercials are in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and Sky News Arabia is interested in lucrative locations for advertisements and commercials as well as from the news aspect. We have to first cover our region. The question that is always raised is, ‘Should we give issues in the UAE more attention and coverage?’ The answer is that I should give these issues more time and cover them better than other stations. In my opinion, satellite news stations have not given the Gulf region the amount of coverage it deserves. The station is operates a program to train UAE university students, including on-the-job training.”
Regarding the station’s editorial policy, the acting director for news and programming, Arar Al-Sharie, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “What we have that others do not is the speed of the news. Newscasts are repeated, but in a different format. However, about three or four months ago, we turned into a Sky channel with an Arabic flavor and using Arabic spices, after we had been a copy of the English version of Sky. How did that happen? The Arabic viewer has a mood somewhat different from that of the British viewer. We opened up the space allocated to dialogue, but without undermining the importance that the channel attaches to fast-breaking news. We also expanded our presence on social media—perhaps even more than the English Sky. Our target audience is the young generations. If we want to work correctly with the young, we should focus on social media.”
Moreover, Sharie revealed that in two or three weeks, Sky News Arabia will launch a daily 30-minute program called “Signal” that will focus on social media. “There is a new generation that we wish to reach, just as the BBC and CNN and other satellite channels, like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, did with our older generations,” he added.
Regarding seeking to transmit in locations where there are no other Arabic satellite channels, Sharie said, “My job is to pounce on locations where there are no others for various reasons, like in Damascus. My job is to convey viewpoints quickly, accurately and objectively, and in a way that does not ignore that other viewpoint, namely, the opposition. We were the first to use the term ‘war’ in Syria after the features of the armed conflict became apparent”