Dubai, Asharq Al-Awsat- Recently awarded with a shield of honor by Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa, Walid bin al Brahim the chairman of the MBC Group board was dubbed ‘the knight of Arab media’. It seems a natural culmination and outcome for a venture that was founded by al Brahim 15 years ago to launch the first Arab satellite channel. According to the prize committee, the award comes as “recognition of the unique achievements of Sheikh Walid al Brahim, the first Arab businessman to risk establishing a privately owned Arab satellite channel, which in turn became the cornerstone of a success story that extended over 15 years.” Due to his accomplishments, a network for free television and radio services is available to all Arabs the all over the world.
Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper met with al Brahim who discussed the secrets of his success, also revealing that the media group was looking into forging new alliances and partnerships in the near future. MBC anticipates the launch of a new channel targeting Arab youth.
Q: Pioneering as the first Arab satellite channel, MBC was established 15 years ago, how do you assess the progress of the channel and of the group as a whole?
A: As high as the risks were, we have found that the results have been much greater than expected. Even though founding the MBC channel was a risk back then – it was well-researched. Launching a satellite channel at a time when only official government channels existed meant that we were offering a completely different project and that we would have to bear the consequences. We are incredibly pleased to see such positive results.
Q: What were the risks involved?
A: There were two aspects; the first of which is that we introduced a new technology that did not exist in the Arab media at a time when viewers were not yet accustomed to viewing satellite channels and receiving broadcast via satellite. In fact, many countries at the time had banned satellite dishes. The other risk was by virtue of the novelty of the idea of privately owned television channels – taking into account a few limited exceptions in Lebanon. However, they were more local experiences rather than on a larger Arab scale like MBC.
Q: The MBC group was one of the innovative media companies that became a group or a media network. What are the prospective steps in terms of alliances or partnerships, especially in relation to the internet and mobile media?
A: We consider alliances a strategic step. We are currently addressing other media groups and studying all the available means. We have concluded an agreement with Morgan Stanley so as to enable us to identify the most important partnerships and potential alliances for a group that would be suitable for MBC. Sixteen months from now, the company will have provided us with a comprehensive report on the best means to achieve these alliances. Then, we will decide what is best for us.
Q: The Arab viewer is continuously given the impression that satellite channels are embroiled in an ongoing war and that conflicts are always erupting between them. What is your opinion of this?
A: Actually, at the beginning of the satellite transmission in the early 1990s, there existed competition between the few Arab satellite channels that existed but it was quite different. There were no meetings or frequent conferences because everyone was afraid of the other party. Frankly, I must say that there was no pressure from the market as is the case now. Today there is a state of dispersion that surrounds the Arab satellite channels. Also, coded channels are being subjected to audacious and public thefts without any Arab countries interfering. Although media is extremely costly, coded channels are still being illegally accessed. All these matters make it necessary for major Arab satellite networks to convene and discuss the main obstacles that they face in the field.
Q: Where are the channel’s partners that it had in 1991?
A: We did not have any partners in MBC at first except for Saleh Kamel. He wanted to focus on coded channels and we preferred to continue offering free broadcast. Although he wanted a different experience and decided to pursue his own path in the end, we are still in touch and there is continuous interaction between us. I feel sorry for what he is exposed to in terms of broadcast theft which costs him millions, and the infringement of rights that he is subjected to by the official authorities of some Arab countries.
Q: MBC is responsible for the making of some of the Arab media’s biggest stars, what is the secret behind the network’s enduring success?
A: Perhaps MBC has helped in the making of these stars and introducing them to the Arab satellites; however they have offered much in the way to achieve this stardom. I admit that dealing with stars is not easy! They grow as you grow and as much as you expect them to be loyal to the institution in which they work, they also have rights that we are obliged to acknowledge which depend on the demands that the community expects of them. This is something the institution has to take into consideration, which is a sensitive matter in all cases. At MBC we strive not to wrong our stars and grant them their rights as long as we want them to resume work with us in accordance to the rules that we adhere to in the institution.
Q: Does MBC address the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia considering that it is Saudi owned?
A: I am proud to say that the channel belongs to Saudi Arabia. From a personal perspective I can say that all the good I have achieved in my life came through the grace of God, followed by this country. However, let me correct your information; this channel is directed at the whole Arab world. I would not be exaggerating to say that MBC’s channels are the only ones to address the whole Arab world rather than specific countries.
Q: Does advertising not steer you towards certain markets?
A: Definitely. That is what determines our direction or that of any other media establishment that seeks success. This is all based on regulations that do not limit the channel’s main inclinations. Sometimes we address the Saudi market for its high advertising potential, other times it is Kuwait or Egypt.
Q: But this does not change the fact that you mainly focus on addressing the Saudi market?
A: Let me give you an example of our program map during last Ramadan. In the period after Iftar [the breaking of the fast] we mainly addressed the Saudi market, airing series like ‘Tash Ma Tash’, followed by ‘Gshamshm’, then ‘Sahebat Al Imtiaz’ based on the consideration that this time has the highest viewer ratings. However, if you consider the series that we presented on the late night slots, you will find our main focus was on the Arab viewer in general when we would air series such as, “al Andaleeb’ (The Nightingale), ‘Al Amin’ (The Honest One), ‘Hadaeq al Shitan’ (Satan’s Gardens), and ‘Bab al Hara’ (The Doorway to the Alley). Therefore, our programs are not linked to one single country, but rather extend to include all Arab countries and viewers everywhere.
Q: There have been claims made by a number of columnists and on many websites, especially by those with a more extremist approach that accuse you of attempting to change the customs and traditions of the Saudi society. What is your response to such claims?
A: Who says that customs and traditions cannot change or be broken? If our generation believes that it can help in making us more open to the world with all its progress and modernity then it is our duty to break these obsolete traditions. If we can reconcile between the viewpoints of our society and others, we will. If this is all considered to be breaking customs and traditions, then I welcome it!
Q: What about principles?
A: We have never violated our principles and we never will. I can assure you that we cannot ever change our principles. If we did, our viewers would have left us from the beginning.
Q: Perhaps the series ‘Tash Ma Tash’ was responsible for fuelling this ferocious campaign against you. Do you agree that you granted this series a greater share of freedom in comparison to other series on Saudi television?
A: I do not wish to make myself an advocate of the series and the cast and crew that participated in it but I have deep respect for them and believe that they carried out their task professionally. I also believe that the criticism aimed at the series was incredibly exaggerated, as though we were a flawless society. All segments of society commit errors and erroneous groups should be criticized – why should we place our emphasis on one segment only?
Q: What is the extent of your responsibility towards the series ‘Tash Ma Tash’?
A: We do not adopt the ideas presented in the series, perhaps I agree with some of them on the personal level, however as a channel, we are not responsible for the ideas presented. This responsibility belongs to those who came up with the ideas, not the channel itself.
Q: Despite your extensive experience in the field of satellite media, you are nowhere near launching specialized sports or music channels, why is that?
A: I will honestly say that I do not believe in launching a channel dedicated to music only. That is not to say that I oppose presenting music videos, but rather I tend to regard the issue from a more comprehensive and wider perspective. We are currently planning to launch a specialized channel that targets Arab youth, which will feature music and topics that are of interest to that generation.
Q: What about a sports channel?
A: That is a different matter. Broadcasting sports can be very costly due to the high prices in the field. It reaches the point where advertisements can no longer cover these costs. However, once we come up with an equation that would enable us to cover the expenses of buying the legal rights to air sports tournaments; we will certainly launch a specialized sports channel.
Q: Would the idea of launching a news channel in the English language, which is a topic we discussed in an earlier interview, to address the Arab community living abroad be profitable?
A: The problem is that we cannot launch an English-language channel unless this channel has solid funding. Frankly, I must say that such a channel can never succeed without being supported by the governments of states. It is impossible to launch a channel in English without a fixed income to cover its expenses. This cannot be achieved through advertising – and who would switch off channels such as CNN and BBC and other international channels to watch an Arab channel in English!
Q: Why is there only one Saudi news reporter amongst the broadcasters at MBC?
A: Recruitment will never be linked to a particular nationality or identity. We have certain specifications that we stipulate and require when hiring regardless of nationalities. However, we welcome skilled Saudi youth and there are qualified Saudi members on our staff. I must confirm however, a fluent grasp of English is an essential skill in our field and in what we do.
Q: Who are the fiercest competitors to the MBC group?
A: Everyone competes…
Q: Is that a diplomatic answer?
A: Not at all. For example, Al Jazeera competes with us in the news field, while Dubai Television competes in drama series, and with Space Toon we compete in children’s programs. We find that all channels compete with us on a particular aspect, which helps us to progress, excel and develop.
Q: What is the unique secret that you employ to maintain your individuality?
A: Since we started in London and until our relocation in Dubai, the magic word we used as members of the group was: the one family. There are no differences in dealing with one another; an Algerian discusses issues with a Saudi and an Egyptian has lunch with a Lebanese. We are all one family, which I believe to be the secret of our success.
Q: Are you not you afraid of exposing this secret?
A: Quite the contrary, we wish that everyone could be privy to this formula which is no secret but rather a measure of success in any field. When utilized in media in particular, it always yields magical results.
Q: The Arab satellite arena is teaming with hundreds of channels that are considered good and bad. Will this affect successful channels?
A: What is happening is perfectly natural. The song ‘al Bortoqala’ (the Orange) was responsible for launching a satellite channel! We have a mechanism to monitor messages sent to satellite channels and we have found that requests for this song are the highest demand. The presence and prevalence of these channels is quite a conceivable matter to established channels; the real question to be asked is whether these channels will be able to continue. These aforementioned channels cannot continue with the same momentum and the arena is left to those that can endure the challenge for a long time through good strategy.
Q: After 15 years of running one of the largest satellite channel groups in the Arab world, do you believe you have a responsibility towards Arab families in the event of any mistake that MBC might commit in one of its programs?
A: I am fully responsible for any possible error in the channel’s programs, which is why I apologize to all Arab families for any error, which is certainly unintentional, that could have been presented to them or their children through any of MBC’s channels. Inasmuch as I bear the responsibility of protecting my children from any errors or unsuitable programs, I also bear the responsibility of all Arab children if any error were to take place. Once again, I offer my apologies.