with Ali Al Ahmed, Director, Abu Dhabi TV
By S. Abdallah Schleifer
The last two times
I met Ali Al Ahmed he was an important executive at E-Vision, Ittesalat's cable
network, which to a great degree had to struggle from within a telecom rather
than competitive broadcasting culture. I was struck at the time by his vision
and obvious energy that I felt were restrained by the nature of the E-Vision operation.
Now he has served for about one year as director of Abu Dhabi Television's Emirates
Media Inc. and during that time the channel we think of as Abu Dhabi TV has flowered
as a general channel, combining a particularly strong news department that provides
eight hours of programming with some fairly unusual entertainment such as the
extended, broadly cultural, nightly show Al Dunya. Yet Abu Dhabi TV-seemingly
without effort-transformed itself from the moment the first bomb fell on Baghdad
into a competitive 24-hour all-news channel, and its reports were competing with
those of Al Jazeera for the attention and re-broadcast by global broadcasters.
How did you prepare to meet the sudden challenge of going over to an all- news
24/7 format the day this war began, and do so so smoothly, particularly since
your own portfolio as director includes three channels reporting to you - Abu
Dhabi Sports channel, which has been a remarkable regional success, the Emirates
Channel, which is more GCC regional than pan-Arab, and finally Abu Dhabi TV, which
over the past year or so demonstrated strong capabilities in the field of news,
but nevertheless was a general channel, and now suddenly its all news, and getting
lots of global attention.
We decided a couple months ago that Abu Dhabi TV had to be capable of going 24-hours
as a news and public affairs channel on instant notice and that took a significant
amount of work that wasn't particularly visible, but was going on. None of it
showed, but it was there, getting everything in place so that on immediate notice
we could swing over to this all-news 24-hour format.
That was possible, just
like all of the other developments in this channel that have given us a unique
position in Arab satellite broadcasting, like developing the daily show Dunya
or one of the biggest game shows-The Chair-those developments as well as this
our latest development were possible because of the vision of Sheikh Abdallah
(Abu Dhabi's minister of information) and his ambition to bring the channel up
to its fullest potential, and because we function here as a team and in particular
the role in that team of my deputy Mohamed
Was this preparation for an all-news channel in the event of another Gulf War
reflected in some of your most recent recruitments?
Yes, the human factor is the most important for success. But we also took major
steps on the technical side, like acquiring SNGs and planning on using people
who were working in other departments, on shows, and having them ready to jump
in, so we could put all our resources in one direction. Three months ago we could
acquire the necessary equipment because we had planned by then how many cameras
and crews we would need for every conceivable location. And we also recruited
as much a possible within our own staff. Our reporter in Basra is an Iraqi sports
reporter and he is doing fine.
When you made that decision, six months ago, to be ready to go all-news in the
event of a war, there was only one serious Arab satellite all-news channel-Al
Jazeera. To what degree is Al Jazeera your model.
We are covering the war, and Al Jazeera is covering the war but the way we cover
it is different. People everywhere are calling in to say you are giving us a different
angle. First of all we don't, we handle the news as we see it. We don't chase
after somebody else's model. We don't say, okay that worked for Al Jazeera so
we should do the same or look the same or sound the same. Our viewers sense that
it isn't as if they are getting different news do much as they are getting a different
Yesterday somebody asked
why we don't express more sympathy for the Iraqis and I said when I cover the
news I am first and foremost a journalist. Its not my job to convince viewers
about one side or another. I bring the news and try to analyze it from different
viewpoints. But I am not going to tell the viewer what to believe in. When it
comes to news, we won't compromise on professionalism. When it comes to analysis,
we are very fair; when it comes to our sensibility as Muslims and Arabs we are
realists. I think the dividing point is this. As an Arab, as a Muslim we are very
sensitive to so many issues, but when I function as a journalist, I am going to
present the facts and the people will decide what to believe in, because the second
I try to manipulate them, by words or picture, I will have failed as a journalist.
the fact that you are government-funded hinder your ability to function that way?
BBC asked us the same question. How can you be government-funded and yet have
such credibility. And I pointed out that actually government funding gave us an
independence we might not have if we were totally dependent upon advertising.