Ian Ritchie, former CEO of MBC, took over as CEO of Associated Press Television News (APTN) a year ago. TBS Senior Editor S. Abdallah Schleifer spoke with Ritchie about APTN and its Middle East Custom Coverage, his experiences at MBC, and the direction of broadcasting in the Arab region.
Ian Ritchie: The Associated Press decided in 1994 to go into video news; previously it had been in text and photos primarily. In 1994 they set up APTV as a wholly owned subsidiary. They decided to base the operation in London and to give it a separate legal constitution, separately audited but obviously wholly owned, and that's still how it applies today. There was an aggregation of ownership within the global news agency businessReuters bought Visnews, and then in 1998, APTV bought WTN from ABC. In 1998, APTV became APTN and now really the two major global video news companies are Reuters and APTN.
Schleifer: To what degree would you say that Reuters and AP constitute the market in terms of percentage?
Ritchie: In terms of video it's in excess of 90 percent with the two combined. We share a large number of clients; most of the big international broadcasters will take both. But perhaps people are increasingly looking to take one agency because they're being careful on the costs, and because there are many stories that we both cover. Between the two of us we have the vast majority of the market.
Schleifer: How many bureaus do you have now?
Ritchie: We have 83 around the world, which gives us very good coverage. With the content that we aggregate, circulate, and distribute from London headquarters, we actually provide from here the services to CNN, ABC, NBC, MBC, and Fox. We do it from here because they aren't looking for US coverage, they have thatthey're looking for international coverage.
Schleifer: Which the networks themselves have cut back on dramatically, because of the existence of APTN.
Ritchie: Precisely. If there is a big story then they will send their own correspondent, obviously, and the American networks still have major bureaus here in London, but not in other parts of the world. An interesting example recently is the spy plane story in China. We have very good relations with the Chinese, Chinese television is one of our clients, we provide facilities for them and they help us with facilities. Because we have this relationship we were able to offer not only pictures but also the ability through satellite links to play the pictures out from China. Although we have these bureaus and we have our crews and facilities, part of the interesting two-way relationship with your clients is one where they offer you the picture to distribute. We are in a competitive situation with Reuters, so we obtained for example from Al-Jazeera video of the statue destruction in Afghanistan and distributed it exclusively. It's really about trying to get into a relationship with the broadcaster, where we have a position of first refusal.
Schleifer: Are your partners not just clients and not just possible suppliers of material, but also supplying you with satellite facilities?
Ritchie: No, they use ours. A big part of our business, apart from the main news provision, is what we call broadcast services, which is the provision of uplinks, crews, edit facilities. Al- Jazeera started by using our crew to a great degree. Apart from the Middle East, we don't provide reporters, but what we will do is provide a crew and edit facilities and an uplink for a client's reporter.
Schleifer: Is the Middle East the slowest in terms of responding to field reporting? What about Africado they do more field reporting of their own?
Ritchie: Africa is still for us quite a difficult area; there are large parts, other than North Africa and the SABC in South Africa, that the satellite coverage doesn't reach. And there really isn't a market in much of those areas. But in the Middle East there are still people looking to expand their news servicesKuwait wants to expand, MBC, and there's still a great appetite for news coverage in the Middle East and there's the money to pay for it.
Schleifer: Before APTN you were with MBC. Do you think being involved in global news coverage for MBC was a preparation for this?
Ritchie: I think it was, because I'd worked solely in UK broadcasting before for nearly 20 years, and MBC was my first real foray into international news. MBC set out originally to be the CNN of the Arab world; my mandate was to change it into a more commercial channel and therefore the news played less importantly perhaps to entertainment and sport, because that what advertisers want to see. That's why I did the deal to bring the U.S champion league to MBC and a deal for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" But that's correct, as far as I was concerned it was an exposure to international news which has helped me in this job.
Schleifer: MBC had a great formula when they started out because nobody was doing international-standard news in Arabic at all, so they took the ratings everywhere. Does the shift begin with the launch of Al-Jazeera?
Ritchie: I think there were two shifts. One, it is very difficult if you are a broad stream channel to compete with a solely news channel. When MBC started, although there was an emphasis on news, it still had broader based programming. You can't compete, if you are a broad-based entertainment channel, with a 24-hour news channel and Al-Jazeera took this advantage. Second, the key issue I was there for is to make it commercially successful. Al-Jazeera may get great critical and editorial coverage, but it didn't make money. MBC certainly, by the introduction of broader-based entertainment, sport, etc., improved the revenue significantly.
Schleifer: Part of that was that you had a substantial revision of staffing?
Ritchie: Yes, we had a major redundancy exercise, which I think was unusual and difficult in the circumstances. But we did improve the revenue, and there was a ten-fold improvement in the financial position which was essential, and something the shareholders wanted to achieve. Now where they go from here I think is a very interesting situation.
Schleifer: Why did you leave MBC?
Ritchie: I think it was the usual pluses and minuses. I was heavily involved in the discussion of going to Dubai, and whether or not I wanted to go there personally. In some ways it was an interesting opportunity and in some ways it was an upheaval. At absolutely the same time I was approached about the job here. Here was an opportunity to build further, to have a really global situation. From my point of view being involved in running a news agency was a little bit different than broadcasting. At MBC I had some significant disadvantages like not speaking Arabic, but the basic principles of running a commercial broadcaster were very much the same. I had huge support from Sheikh Waleed, who was visionary in setting the situation up, and as far as I was concerned took great courage to appoint someone like me to the job. I always used the analogy of the BBCcan you imagine appointing somebody foreign to be the director general of the BBC, someone who didn't speak English? What I now find interesting is getting away from broadcasting, having done it for 22 years. A global news agency was an interesting situation as far as I was concerned.
Schleifer: At MBC as chief executive, you took a personal responsibility for news?
Ritchie: I was responsible ultimately for the content of the whole channel. The key issue for me was being responsible for the advertising revenue. As you pointed out there were some redundancies in the beginning to get costs right, but the next key to success was to get the sales operation properly organized so we could maximize the revenue. Here at APTN, after the merger of WTN which happened before I arrived, the cost basis is a very efficient one and therefore what we are looking at is providing customer service and looking at ways of generating revenues. The dust has settled, the two organizations have been brought together. I was lucky in the timing, that this matter was done and therefore my issue is to look toward the future.
Schleifer: Although you have been here for a short time, you were dealing all the time with news agencies through MBC, which gives you a sense of the operation. Where do you see APTN coming from and where do you see it going?
Ritchie: APTN comes from a really sound editorial background. When I was at MBC I was a customer of both Reuters and of APTN, and the key issue is still the quality of what you provide to the customer. That really means editorial coverage; it means we have a bureau infrastructure in place and that we have journalists in place to provide that sort of quality, and I think we're doing that extremely well. The issue for me in the future is twofold: how do you build on that and maintain that, and secondly how do we expand our content offering, because that is an area we need to look at very carefully. We are in the content business, and therefore how we expand our content, and how we drive that into a revenue stream, is extremely important for us. If we are not profitablewhich we are, but if we don't maintain thatthen we can't continue the investment in the infrastructure.
2001 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo