No. 5, Fall/Winter2000

Special Issue:
The Arab World

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The Egyptian Radio and Television Union launched its first satellite channel a decade ago—then furthered its commitment to satellite broadcasting three months later with the establishment of the Egyptian Satellite Sector, which consists of Egyptian Satellite Channels 1 and 2 plus Nile TV International. Heading the sector is Sana'a Mansour, whose program "Oscar" made her one of the best-known faces on Egyptian television. TBS Cairo Correspondent Heba Kandil conducted the interview.

Heba Kandil: How has the Egyptian Satellite Channel developed?

Sana'a Mansour: When it was launched, it wasn't a channel in the traditional sense; it didn't have its own production, but was simply taking programs from Egyptian terrestrial channels 1 and 2. But the regional audiences of the Arab world were looking forward to and were anxious for Egyptian television. They are loyal viewers. The channel was first launched on Arabsat, and so viewed only in the Arab world; now it has an international audience including the Arab world and parts of Asia, Europe and Africa. In the beginning it was simple and had no unique character. When the other channels were launched, the competition started. That's why the channel evolved into an entire sector on its own. It's independence from the Television Union evolved; the channel had its own scriptwriters, producers, and programs developed especially for the sector. It's been continuously developing; now 97 percent of the programs offered are its own. The newscast is central, along with drama productions from the television production sector.

Of course, the world is changing and there are a lot of new channels with bigger budgets and technical advances, and highly qualified talent, both Egyptian and other Arab nationalities. They don't have any nationality restrictions, and that's an asset for them. But Egypt is full of talent, and the channel is trying hard to compete.

What has it accomplished? In spite of all the critics who said that no international advertiser would throw his money away on the channel, that maybe an Egyptian advertiser would want to compliment someone by advertising, but no international advertiser would put his money in a channel without any profit in return, the Egyptian Satellite Channel is the only governmental satellite channel in the Arab world that has taken a large slice from the international advertisements cake. Most of the advertisements on the channel are international, not local Egyptian. This puts all the criticism at bay. Unfortunately, the public has taken to lashing out at the channel. You don't find other Arab nationals crying out against their national channels—only in Egypt. Still, it is the only Arab governmental channel that has so many international advertisement revenues. The other competitors for those revenues are private channels.

Kandil: What do you see as being the Egyptian Satellite Channel's role, as opposed these other channels you've mentioned—that is, other governmental channels or satellite channels from other Arab countries?

Mansour: A national governmental channel has a specific philosophy and guidelines it must follow. Essentially it is the media ambassador of Egypt, representing Egypt all over the world. It must follow certain taboos and restrictions regarding content—being free of violence and sex, for example—and talent must adopt a conservative dress code. There are a lot of taboos because it represents a country's policies and politics.

The Egyptian Satellite Channel can compete against all the other satellite channels. Cairo is not the cleanest or prettiest of Arab capitals. It's not the most comfortable in terms of easy logistics or an efficient infrastructure. It's crowded and provocative and polluted and so on. However, Arabs from all over the region choose to spend their vacations in Cairo, they love it, even though they could vacation in Europe. Arabs are attracted to Cairo and find it irresistible. Egypt has a distinct taste, charisma and character—and that attracts viewers. Even if there's heavy competition between the Egyptian Satellite Channel and others, we still find an audience. But we're not depending wholly on this fact. We're very busy developing the channel, putting all our effort into keeping up to date with the current trends and changes.

Kandil: There's been lots of talk in Cairo these days about opening the door for privatization. Would the government consider privatizing the existing satellite channels?

Mansour: No way. The Egyptian Satellite Channel is the toughest to privatize. But you can create a new Egyptian satellite channel that would be partially privatized. You can't allow a council of businessmen, regardless of their prominence, to represent Egypt. The Egyptian Satellite Channel is Egypt's media ambassador, so you cannot privatize it or allow other sectors or visions to partake in its strategy or ownership. It must reflect Egypt's national strategy.

Kandil: There was talk that you were going to head up a new private satellite channel.

Mansour: I was offered such a position but I turned it down. The offer was that I become the coordinator between the Egyptian Satellite Sector and the private owners of that new satellite channel. I've done my duty, advised them, given them the information needed and my own journalistic vision regarding a private channel, but I don't want to leave my job.

I have no inclinations of establishing a channel. When I was 29, I took part in the establishment in Egypt of Radio Monte Carlo, which changed the radio scene in the Arab world. I've also contributed to developing the Egyptian Radio and Television sector. Then I established the Egyptian Satellite Channel 2, and pulled it off in less than two months. I'm tired of establishing. But my experience makes me an excellent consultant.

I have the ability to create new programs. I've recently created such a program called "Egyptian Symbols," to be broadcast on local terrestrial TV. And my dream is to establish a private radio station. It's easier to get up and running than a private TV station. I already have experience in the process of establishing a radio station. All the details and plan designs are imprinted in my mind. But it has to be private.

Kandil: Having been previously involved in creating a private radio station, don't you long for such an atmosphere, free of censorship or bureaucracy?

Mansour: Of course. One can easily realize their dreams in a private radio or TV station as opposed to a state-owned enterprise. Your dreams aren't necessarily those of the state. Your taboos aren't those of the state. In a private venture you are the owner, you have your own ideas.

I've worked in the Middle East News Agency and then the Middle East Radio station, which were both private companies. Middle East Radio was the first commercial radio station in Egypt, headed by an Englishman, Lesley Knight, who also supervised its establishment. And I lived for 10 years in France, working in their national radio and TV. There's a difference between a European government and the government of a developing country. The French government is the epitome of freedom. I definitely fare better in a private venture than a state-owned one.

Kandil: What would a new privatize satellite channel look like?

Mansour: Fifteen percent will owned by the ERTU and the remaining 85 percent will be allotted to private businessmen. There are no private businessmen that can carry the whole load financially or technically; they must be helped by the ERTU, otherwise the private sector will pay tremendous figures. ERTU, the Egyptian Media Production City, and the satellite sector must contribute to such a channel. Otherwise the private sector will end up paying millions for setting up the channel and accessing a content library.

Kandil: Does the Egyptian Satellite Channel strive for an Arab expatriate audience, in Asia, the United States, or Latin America?

Mansour: There's no transmission at all to North and South America. These are procedures and agreements above me, from the ERTU as a whole, not just this sector. The union itself makes those kinds of decisions and has that authority. I've just returned from the United States, and was very disappointed that in all the Egyptian homes I visited there I found no Egyptian TV presence. All the homes have satellite dishes and receivers, with no other choice but to subscribe to other private Arab channels. The Egyptian Satellite Channel will remain free-to-air in the Arab world although it's encrypted in Asia.

Kandil: What are your current projects for the Egyptian Satellite Sector?

Mansour: It's almost Ramadan, and we're busy brainstorming new ideas. Our advantage is that we have no other competitor in the holy month. Ramadan is the golden month for the channel. Any advertising company is able to secure a year's worth of profit with us during this month alone. TBS

Copyright 2000 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo