Badar Salem
Last updated: 21 May, 2013

Arabic news channels – too many key players?

“Plenty of information,” says Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye, “leads to a scarcity of attention.” This remark could be applied to the media scene in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, writes Badar Salem.

With more than 500 TV channels and 90 million TV households in the region, launching a new Arabic-language channel is no news anymore. While giving Arab viewers more options is never a bad idea, the question is why these media conglomerates are competing to make a dent in an already crowded market.

According to a report by Booz & Co about TV trends in the region, the increases in the number of television viewers, along with a large and growing population, high media consumption and favourable economic conditions, have led to the entry of a plethora of TV channels in the region.

The history of television broadcasting in the Arab world goes back to the mid-1950s and early 1960s. As part of the national development programmes, newly independent Arab states used television as a government monopoly and official mouthpieces of government policies. As thus, television systems in the Arab world were constrained by insufficient productions, low-quality programming, government control, censorship and shortages of human and financial resources.

During the 1990s, the Arab television scene started to witness some change with the entry of commercial broadcasters, bringing vast technical and financial resources into the picture. And in September 1991, Arab audiences had their first taste of private satellite television when the Saudi-owned MBC Group (Middle East Broadcasting Centre) went on air from studio facilities in London. More private broadcasters followed suit, including Orbit in 1994, ART in 1995, LBC and Future Television in 1995, and Al Jazeera in 1996. Now, Arab viewers can choose between 500 free-to-air TV channels offering a wider range of programme choices and genres and operating at a cost of nearly $6 billion a year, according to recent reports.

The ad spend in the MENA region is less than one percent of the global total

With the increasing popularity of satellite TV channels in the MENA region, international media players have taken the opportunity to expand. One of first TV channels to break into the region was Alhurra.  Dubbed as the “American answer to Al Jazeera,” the US network targeting Arab audiences was launched in 2004 with one aim: to polish the image of the United States in the MENA region. The American broadcaster, which has cost more than $700 million since its inception, has failed to attract a reasonable percentage of Arab viewership. (As per the Senate Foreign Relations Committee report).

While Alhurra continues to struggle to build trust among Arab viewers, BBC Arabic had a much easier launch – or re-launch. BBC Arabic TV was launched in March 2008 as a 24-hour news channel, marking the BBC’s second attempt at an Arabic channel. The first attempt shut down in 1996 in the wake of an editorial dispute with BBC management and its Saudi funders. BBC’s presence in the region, however, goes back to 1938 with BBC radio which was first international radio to broadcast in Arabic for Middle East listeners.

France24 has also benefited from the presence of Radio Monte Carlo in the region since 1972. It expanded its reach recently by launching an Arabic version of France24 in 2010. “We should give Arabic language the attention it deserves because 60 to 80 percent of people in this part of the world speak Arabic only,” says France 24 CEO Alain de Pouzilhac.

Other news networks were soon to follow suit: Russia TV Today, German’s Deutsche Welle TV, EuroNews Arabic and Iran’s Alalam. Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal is launching a 24-hour Arabic-language news channel called “Al Arab” as well. The new channel, to be launched from Bahrain, will partner with the American financial news channel Bloomberg. Sky News also launched its Abu Dhabi- based Arabic channel last year. And about a month ago, Israel announced its plans to create i24news, which will start broadcasting in Arabic this summer to rival outlets such as Al Jazeera and France24.

As the TV market is getting crowded and the pie looks too small to share, one wonders how those broadcasters will be able to maintain a profitable market share in such a noisy marketplace, keeping in mind that the ad spend in the MENA region is less than one percent of the global total spending. In other words, the growth of the number of TV channels has so far outstripped the growth in TV advertising revenues.

But wait, who said the players are in for the money. In fact, many of these international broadcasters (as well the regional ones) are government funded and not commercial ventures, which means that there is no profit motive.

BBC World Service – including the Arabic channel’s costs – is met by Parliamentary Grant-in-Aid through the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. AlHurra is funded by the American Congress, EuroNews Arabic service is entirely funded by the European Union and Russia Today Arabic is funded by the Russian government.

So if we put profit aside, the bigger question is why these channels are targeting the MENA region.
Television is unquestionably the dominant medium in the new Arab public sphere. Therefore, if you aim at winning the hearts and minds of the Arabic speakers, or promote your country’s views, TV is your answer.

Although the arrival of international TV channels might help influence opinions, it did little to change realities on the ground, i.e. the lack of a trustworthy ratings system to measure viewing figures, and the lack of commercial regulations and rules to regulate the TV market.

While some remain sceptical about the reason behind this foreign penetration, others argue that such channels offer a greater understanding and awareness of this region – which is often overlooked or misrepresented in the global media. Whatever the reason may be, it’s for Arab viewers to decide which channels to stay and which to fail.