No. 5, Fall/Winter2000

Special Issue:
The Arab World

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Alexander Zilo
CEO, Orbit

When TBS talked with Zilo for the Fall 1998 issue, he predicted that Orbit would soon strengthen its production presence in the Arab world. Zilo and Orbit have been true to their word—particularly in Egypt, Dubai, and Jordan, all with media free zones that are most attractive. But informed industry sources indicate that Orbit remains committed to the basic strategy of moving headquarters from Rome to Bahrain. TBS Senior Editor S. Abdallah Schleifer conducted the interview.

Abdallah Schleifer:
What is the status of your long-drawn-out consideration of upgrading your MPEG technology, particularly so it is compatible with Nilesat?

Alexander Zilo: Technological decisions for emerging markets are indeed complex. The decisions associated with our new DVB technology of choice have been arduous owing to the transient nature of technological evolution and the constant industry modifications, changes and enhancements being made to both hardware and middleware. Although we have not yet formally made any announcement, I wish to share with you that we have made our final decisions regarding the appropriate choice of set-top box technology, conditional access and operating systems. Our DVB management team comprising our broadcast engineers, IT staff, and our various technological associates commenced the global integration process in June 2000.

Schleifer: Finally Orbit will be coming on board Nilesat, the satellite that many professionals believe is the "hot bird" in the Middle East. Why has this taken so long and what finally galvanized Orbit into taking action?

Zilo: At this particular juncture, I believe that it is very difficult and inappropriate to attribute the term "hotbird" to any one particular satellite, since our region hosts multiple satellites and since they all contain relevant and popular vernacular programming. "Content is king," if you will, and it is content embraced by the market over time which determines the profile and value of any given satellite. At present, for every professional who defines Nilesat as a "hotbird," there will be another professional who will attribute the same nomenclature to Arabsat. The ideal and true scenario for broadcasters and consumers would be for Arabsat and Nilesat to merge.

Schleifer: Distributors and agents in Dubai, most of whom have very positive things to say about Orbit's quality, are nevertheless greatly depressed by the sudden inability of Orbit to provide them with the boxes that will decode and decrypt Orbit. What is going on?

Zilo: As is typical with regard to inferences made about issues in the Middle East, one must be able to know the difference between mirage and reality. Given that Orbit is going to introduce new state-of-the-art DVB set-top box technology, it is sensible that we be extremely cautious about stockpiling our present STB technology. By the same token therefore, the distributors with whom you have spoken are also demonstrating caution in stockpiling these STBs. That said, we maintain sufficient quantities of STBs at all times in order to satisfy current demands in all our markets.

Schleifer: Last May you converted the Orbit website into a portal. What does that mean in terms of Orbit's future?

Zilo: Since inception, Orbit has spearheaded new technologies and has as a result enjoyed a reputation as a pioneer. This spirit is still with us. With the advent and growth of the Internet, one of Orbit's key strategies is to become a regional leader in this domain.Orbit's conversion of its website into a portal service was the first step in this direction. In the short period since the establishment of the portal, the service has received a little over four million hits to date.

Looking ahead, you will see a very strategically focused and determined management team paving the path for Orbit to become a full participant and leader in all facets of the delivery and content of material on the Internet. This long-term strategy is a further testament to Orbit's plans to become a vertically integrated telecommunications company geared to responding to the emerging needs and cultural tastes of the Arab world.

Schleifer: Any new channels planned or near the horizon?

Zilo: With the introduction of Orbit's services on Arabsat and Nilesat, the satellite capacity that has been made available to Orbit will de facto mean an increase in the level of services offered to subscribers. Additional services will incorporate more vernacular channels, multilingual thematic channels, pay-per-view, Internet delivery and interactive services.

Schleifer: Orbit recently (and exclusively) added BBC Prime to its Middle East/North African bouquet. How significant would you evaluate this acquisition to be?

Zilo: BBC Prime brings an entirely new perspective and dimension to the entertainment proposition on the Orbit digital platform. Entertainment programming from the United Kingdom has distinct appeal to our audience and BBC Prime complements our existing offer. Orbit continues to lead the field in broadcasting in the Arab world with the finest in international programming; new, original, and eclectic Arabic entertainment channels; and unparalleled comprehensive customer services. TBS

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