Issue No. 1
Fall 1998
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Media Explosion in the Arab World:
The Pan-Arab Satellite Broadcasters

By TBS Senior Editor S. Abdallah Schleifer

It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by the impact of television, particularly in this decade of digital multichannel satellite platforms and particularly in an Arab world, where reading as a serious engagement beyond the newspaper and the weeklies seems to be approaching some sort of vanishing point. But even in the United States, where the penetration of cable and satellite alternatives to terrestrial television is higher than anywhere else in the world, the impact of television, tremendous as it is, can still be exaggerated. For instance, studies show that the majority of Americans think they receive their news exclusively from television. In fact, they do not; the majority do rely on a heavily TV-dominated mix of TV, radio and newspapers. But the impact of TV is so overwhelming, particularly when we consider the series of ceremonial events collectively experienced—perhaps beginning with John F. Kennedy’s funeral, through the bombing of Baghdad, and finally led us in a form of progressive degeneration to O.J. Simpson’s car chase and trial—that we tend to forget how much everyone still depends on the printed word for an intelligible understanding...that is, to the degree we seek (consciously or not) intelligible understanding.

I mention this simply as a preface to a historical corrective. The first major impact of new satellite technologies upon Arab media was in the eighties, not in the nineties, and it was the satellited daily newspaper, not television. First al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper and later al-Hayat newspaper began satellite transmission from London to major population centers throughout the Arab world. Although owned by private Saudi interests, these papers did and still do address themselves to a pan-Arab audience—and their staff, their editors and their columnists reflect that sense of a pan-Arab audience.

At the time I was struck by the irony, which still holds true in the Arab satellite-driven nineties, that in the end it was wealth, generated in a conservative Arab country, and technology acquired by that wealth, and not radical Arab ideology, be it Baathist or Nasserist, that had brought about a pan-Arab press.

Not that satellite technology capable of moving television signals did not already exist; by the mid-eighties an Arab-states satellite system, Arabsat, was operative. Despite the original allocation of transponders powerful enough to transmit signals that could be picked up by relatively small dishes, there was no attempt to use the Arabsat satellites as direct broadcast satellites providing direct broadcast service (DBS) either to cable, MMDS and encrypted terrestrial companies retransmitting the programming or direct-to-home (DTH) services to the rare but slowly growing number of homes (particularly in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf) with dishes.

Instead, Arabsat satellites were used in this initial phase for news and public affairs exchanges between existing Arab state-owned national television stations. This sort of exchange had minimal impact. The news programs of all Arab national television stations, if one chooses one’s words politely, reflected "information" or PR values rather than intrinsically journalistic values.(1)

Unlike much of the Arab press, which enjoyed at least a formative development as privately owned newspapers that functioned within the context of some sort of journalistic tradition, all Arab television—be it the prevailing state systems or ruling groups left-wing or right-wing, market economies or socialist economies, republics or monarchies—was state-owned. More than any other media, even if that other media was also state-owned, the national television channels were extensions of the ministries of information. It is no coincidence that in a number of Arab countries the minister of information operated the major offices of his ministry from the national television station building.

So I would suggest that if local news, which is precisely what was exchanged, had little in the way of intrinsic journalistic interest, the only thing that made it interesting was that it was local. Perhaps the visit of a minister to inaugurate a chicken farm is not terribly interesting, but since there is nothing else to watch, and at least its our minister and our chicken farm, we watch it. But who wants to watch some other country’s minister visiting some other country’s chicken farm?

And because of the high degree of official political considerations governing the national television channels, even the exchange programs were limited, in a world of shifting political alliances and sensitivities, by the hesitation over putting the programing of another country onto one’s own national channel. It is not a coincidence that the first news and documentary program exchanges that I ever saw on Egyptian television were with the Sultanate of Oman, which was the one Arab state that did not break relations with Egypt when it entered into negotiations with Israel and later signed a peace treaty and was expelled from the Arab League.

The very absence of Egypt, which, with its vast manpower resources for broadcast production, in entertainment and in journalism, its film industry as well as its radio stations and television channels, and its overwhelmingly dominant role in providing TV programming to the rest of the Arab world, was also an inhibiting force in the development of pan-Arab satellite television before 1988, when Egypt returned to the Arab League.

Then, in the late eighties and early nineties, two initially separate events converged to force the pace of what we now consider to be a veritable satellite-driven television media explosion in the Arab world.

The first was the availability for that small but rapidly growing number of dish owners of CNN International. CNN International’s signal in the mid-eighties was initially more or less limited to Europe, and it was a broadcasting venture whose original sense of itself was as a specialized service for hotels servicing international business travelers. But by the late eighties, CNN had also begun to transmit via a shaky Soviet satellite, which happened to have a footprint that covered the Arab world. Many of the highest-ranking government officials in the Arab world began to watch CNN courtesy of their own dishes. Later, as the Russian satellite continued to drift, CNN would move onto Arabsat, while the signal from the satellites CNN used for Europe would increase in strength and rival Arabsat as a signal source in the Arab world.

And by the fall of 1989 it was known among both political and broadcasting circles in the Arab world that CNN and Egypt were moving slowly, painfully and inevitably toward a deal whereby CNN would be rebroadcast terrestrially, available to the public for the first time in the Arab world as a pay-TV operation to be known as CNE (Cable Network Egypt, originally known as Cable News Egypt).(2) [Editor’s note: see this issue’s feature article "CNE in Egypt: Some Light at the End of an Arduous Tunnel," by Joe Foote, for details.]

This all seems very commonplace today, but the excitement and concern at the time that there would be, in Egypt, uncensored, unrestricted 24-hour-a-day news produced by an international news organization owned by an American media mogul (who about that time made the cover of Time) was incredible, despite the fact that this service would be in English and would be encoded, and thus realistically available only to a very small portion of the country’s actual TV audience.

In June 1990, the Egyptian Investment Authority finally approved the formation of CNE to rebroadcast CNN. The idea of direct broadcasting, even if for terrestrial retransmission, was in the air. A little more than a month later the second catalytic event occurred: Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Shortly before the Gulf crisis, the Egyptian government legalized the import and ownership of dishes. In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, local companies were beginning to manufacture local dishes to compete with imports for the rapidly growing market. These expanding markets were further stimulated by the Gulf Crisis.

Through the fall of 1990, Egyptian and other Arab forces serving in Saudi Arabia as part of the Alliance (as the American-led armed forces coalition was known), were subject to intensive psychological warfare by Radio Baghdad (as were the civilian populations of all the Arab countries.) But in December 1990, Egypt TV, formally known as the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) leased a powerful direct broadcasting transponder, and on December 13, one month before the air war portion of Desert Storm began, the Egyptian Space Net (ESN) began to broadcast 13 hours of daily programming culled from its two domestic channels.(3)

Dishes and transmitters were installed in the forward areas of Saudi Arabia where Egyptian forces, the largest contingent of Arab troops serving in the Alliance, were based so that the Egyptian Space Net—with its heavy diet of pro-Alliance and anti-Iraqi news and public affairs programing, as well as entertainment—could be seen on ordinary TV sets by Egyptian forces as well as by nearby Saudi population centers. (After the war, ESN took a position on a still stronger European satellite, Eutelsat 2 F3, and quickly achieved a significant audience throughout the Gulf because of the popularity of Egyptian movies and serials. In recent months it has been transmitted by the still stronger Nilesat signal, along with its sister channels that include ESN 2 (similar to Egypt’s terrestrial channel 2, which makes more of a nod in the direction of European programming), the Nile TV specialized package Nile Drama (TV movies, soap operas and drama), Nile News, Nile Sports, Nile Culture and Nile Children, as well as educational channels. On the planning board is a new art channel co-produced by the ERTU with the Ministry of Culture.)

By the time the air war in the Gulf had begun in mid-January, both Egypt TV and Saudi TV had begun to broadcast CNN directly to their large domestic audiences. In Egypt, the transmission was provided as a direct free service as well as an uncensored one, since CNE's management was not yet ready to take subscriptions. In Saudi Arabia CNN was taped, and then after censorship was rebroadcast several hours after initial satellite transmission. These two different approaches suggest the eventual divergence of the Saudi and Egyptian approaches to the reception of international satellite broadcasting.

In the years that followed the Gulf War, dish ownership was further stimulated by the increasing amount of international programming available, as satellites increased in power and range, as the cost of dishes continued to decline, and as the number of companies marketing, servicing and even manufacturing dishes tremendously increased.

This trend has been dramatically accelerated by the progressive appearance of three privately owned Arab satellite television broadcasting systems, all three of which are owned by Saudi Arabian business interests and all three of which enjoy, to greater or lesser degrees, linkage to members of the Saudi royal family. continued

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Copyright 1998 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu