London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Many in the Middle East realize that a fundamental factor of most issues concerning the Arab world and the West is centered on a perpetual problem in communication, with many in the Arab world feeling frustrated because their voices fail to reach the decision-making capitals of the world with little being done to rectify the situation.
In reality, western civil and governmental institutions have been more proactive in their attempts of projecting a better image and message than their Middle Eastern counterparts.
In 2003, the U.S. government launched the Arabic language news channel Al Hurra. A number of ambitious projects including a new BBC Arabic news channel, an Arabic version of ‘Russia Today’, and a French government sponsored Arabic news channel are expected to launch in 2007.
However, progress is slowly taking place. The Arab League-sponsored English language channel announced in 2002, with the aim of “reflecting a proper image of Arabs and Muslims”, has yet to appear and according to Dr. Mahmoud Abdulaziz – vice president of media relations at the Arab League, the “project is still being discussed”.
The Qatar-based Aljazeera news channel’s attempt to launch an English language news channel called Al Jazeera International (AJI) has experienced numerous setbacks and delays and is yet to announce an official launch date.
Katie Bergius , Al Jazeera International’s public relation manager confirmed to Asharq Al Awsat that a launch date is yet to be announced, and could not confirm industry rumors that Aljazeera English would launch next month to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the original Aljazeera channel.
Elsewhere, a report last week revealed that the Dubai based MBC group (the parent company of the Al Arabiya news channel) is considering launching an English language news service of its own, but according to the group’s owner and CEO, Walid Al Ibrahim, the proposal is “being discussed among other ideas,” but nothing will materialize soon.
Al Ibrahim also told Asharq Al Awsat that such a channel “would not target a western audience but second and third generation Arabs and Muslims living in the west to try and help them re-establish a connection with their homeland.” He adds, “we cannot compete with CNN or the BBC”. However would Al Jazeera International be able to compete with established western news channels?
Bergius told Asharq Al Awsat that she cannot discuss the marketing aspects of the channel until a launch date has been set.
But, Hisham Tanneer, regional manager of Starcom – Middle East and North Africa (a worldwide media planning and investment agency), argues that AJI may face difficulties in penetrating the European and American markets considering the extensive and diverse coverage that international news networks have in that region.
Nevertheless, Tanneer highlights that what might help AJI is Al Jazeera’s brand name, one of the most valuable in the world. He explains that the Qatari channel has gained worldwide recognition by obtaining exclusive tapes of the Al Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden, which all other networks carry with the Aljazeera logo.
As for AJI’s ability to draw in audiences from other channels such as CNN or BBC, Tanneer says that the new Arab station would only be able to win over a portion of them. “No matter what it does, AJI will always be an Arab channel that is broadcasting to the west which may cause people to hesitate to use it as a major source of information,” Tanneer stated. He continued, “Orientalists, the open-minded and those who are sympathetic to what is taking place in the Arab world would accept this channel, but I think the masses would prefer to watch the news on CNN or BBC before believing [AJI]”. “However,” Tanneer adds finally, “at the moment, we are still speculating and we might be surprised when the channel is actually launched”.
But even if AJI is successful and achieves high ratings, would AJI or any other Arab channel that decides to launch in English be able to support itself fully by advertising and subscriptions? Hisham believes that “with the exception of the MBC group which only recently became commercially viable, there are no stations in the Arab world that are commercially viable on their own “. Tanneer concludes that the “Arab television advertising market is not big enough to enable stations to invest in a product and become commercially viable and independent”.
So how do major news networks perceive the upcoming challenge that Al Jazeera International may pose? A spokesperson from CNN said, “It is difficult to comment on what we all have yet to see,” adding, “Competition is always healthy and in fact helps the television news business grow in terms of distribution and content sales business”.
Carolyn Gibson, vice president of sales, EMEA and North America at BBC World, told Asharq Al Awsat in an email statement, “We welcome the addition of another international news broadcaster into the market to help drive and sustain the growing appetite among audiences for international news. This has been part of the fuel for BBC World’s dynamic growth around the world and within the Middle East region”.
Gibson adds that the “Middle Eastern audiences of BBC World have tripled in the last five years. BBC World has also recently launched into the US market where it has been well received and critically acclaimed for providing a distinct voice and an alternative perspective on world events”.
Gibson continues, stating that “Aljazeera wants to do the same but just what that new voice will be, given that most of their key staff is ex-BBC World or CNN is yet to be determined. Aljazeera has huge influence in the Middle East but elsewhere, it will have to try to break free of its image of sensationalism if it is to attain not only advertising revenues but more importantly the precious distribution deals that will determine its commercial success. There has been a lot of push back from cable operators in the all important US market which is unclear as to how different Al Jazeera International’s brand and positioning will be to its parent brand, Aljazeera Arabic”.
Gibson’s statement confirms that which has been highlighted in many blogs and media related websites recently concerning the problems that AJI will face entering the US market. Also, the American media watchdog, Accuracy in Media (AIM) recently published results of a poll that it conducted which showed that the majority of American people (53%) oppose the launch of the channel while only 29% support it. The poll also shows that by 2-1, Americans believe that the U.S. government should not allow the new channel to launch into the U.S. Media market.
For her part, Katie Bergius declined to comment on whether or not AJI is facing problems with cable/satellite distributors in the US, claiming that the person authorized to talk about this issue is the commercial director Lindsey Oliver who was “not available” to comment.
As for the reasons behind the delay of the AJI launch, Katie stated that the channel is awaiting consent from “the technical people”, adding that the station is “not experiencing any (technical) difficulties as such, but is dealing with the most sophisticated technology ever deployed for an international news channel allowing us to broadcast in High-Definition, in real-time, 24/7, and worldwide. It would be a disservice to all to launch a minute too soon”.
On the other hand, supposing that AJI is in fact delaying due to matters related to HD technology, how strategic was it to miss out on what media experts might label as a “golden opportunity” to launch during the recent aggression that Lebanon endured?
Steve Gold, a veteran IT journalist states that this move was not strategic. He explains that the “HD (format) is still very much in its infancy” particularly in the UK and across Europe where only tens of thousands of people are using this format in comparison to the tens of millions watching standard satellite digibox transmissions via Astra and Hotbird.
Gold adds that “the volume of HD recordings available to broadcasters is still somewhat limited and this will take several years to change. Secondly, the cost of transmitting HD signals is significantly higher than transmitting conventional digital TV signals from a satellite”. He adds that the pretext that is being used, namely the testing of HD (high-definition) transmissions, is a façade.
For her part, Katie Bergius says that one of Al Jazeera International’s priorities is to be the first global HD television network, she said, “we are proud to set technical as well as journalistic standards”. “To achieve this, naturally, we would want to launch while the HD numbers are still small, thus leading the revolution. Our content being available on HD will encourage the purchase of HD sets and operators producing HD bouquets,” she adds. Bergiis concluded that “until our entire product is ready, we will wait in offering it to the public”.