Stock Market Reporting On-air Now:
Business TV Comes of Age in the Middle East

By Tara Joseph

Oil pipelines, the port of Doha, and updates on Kuwaiti stocks.

Most people equate news from the Middle East with pictures of mass rallies, war, and burning U.S. flags.But now a plethora of Middle East related business news programs are sprouting up across the globe in a bid to substitute war for commerce. Globalization, technical innovation in the form of satellite and digital TV, and a rise in global capital flows are the driving forces. If company transparency improves and the region's stock markets grow in size, then the ventures could ultimately prove successful.

"Conflict in the region has done the reverse of taking people's minds away from business. It has made everyone aware that there is a lot more going on," said Neil Heathcote, Editor of the BBC's World Business Report.

BBC World, the 24/7 global TV service of the British Broadcasting Corporation in January launched a weekly program called "Middle East Business Report" with a mission to cover the entire region.

In late March the show was hosted from Doha, but it also conducted an interview with a Lebanese official on mobile phone privatization and carried packages on a manufacturing business in Dubai.

For international broadcasters the stories provide some relief from the barrage of Middle East headlines, which often pit Islamic values against western values and stain the picture of globalization.

CNBC Arabiya, a franchise with links to its namesake in the US, last year launched a 24-hour TV station dedicated to business broadcasting in Arabic.

CNN, often associated in the Middle East with American culture, has recently launched a new program called "Inside the Middle East," focusing on economic and social affairs of the region.

"There was a niche. We're finding demand out there," said Zafar Siddiqi, CEO of CNBC Arabiya.

During the day CNBC is aimed at trading floors in banks and brokerages. In the evening the station is targeted at high net worth individuals or middle managers in their homes.

Saddiqi said satellite penetration in the region has reached over 9.5 million people, providing a solid advertising base to make stations like CNBC Arabiya profitable.

"In 1990 satellite TV was unheard of. After the Gulf War you have had a multitude of satellite channels launching both state broadcasting and private stations," Sidiqqi said.

Business video is also a complement to the multimedia revolution which allows investors to view stock prices and financial news via the Internet 24-hours a day.

With broadband connections providing fast and easy access, the coming trends may prove to be a combination of video clips accompanied by financial data and print stories.

Reuters.com for example, is building video clips into its website so that investors can read, watch, and listen to global events simultaneously.

"Further development of broadband networks, mobile phone applications, and digital TV will increase the amount of content and customization to every consumer," said John Mastrini, Editor for Reuters Business TV based in London.

OIL ECONOMIES

But can business news thrive in a wholly different economic landscape where wealth is primarily in family controlled firms rather than in publicly traded companies?

Middle East stock markets remain small compared with their global peers. The daily amount of dollars changing hands on Saudi Arabia's stock exchange, the region's largest, is a small fraction of the ten of billions of dollars in stocks traded daily on the New York Stock Exchange.

Despite the development of free trade zones and a rise in privatizations, the Middle East's economic prowess is also heavily skewed towards oil and oil money.

The availability of company data and access to decisions makers for the TV cameras are major issues which can make or break a constant flow of eye grabbing news.

Some say it doesn't really matter.

The topic of business may provide a feel-good-factor in a region where political news is often rife with bad news and where widespread distrust of the West has increased since September 2001.

"Business news is very safe subject to hammer for home audiences. You certainly cannot fill airtime with political or social insight pieces and economics is neutral," said a Cairo-based journalist.

In the US some people talk of financial news as a form of eye-candy, providing weary professionals with flashy graphics and busy screen formats in a staid office environment.

Financial TV hubs such as the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ in Times Square New York have become global symbols of the money circus, with well-coiffed reporters talking about stock movements around the clock in a multitude of languages.

Some of the zeal for financial news has dissipated in the US and Europe since corporate scandals such as Enron and Parmalat broke public trust in publicly-listed companies. More significantly, many investors lost their shirts after investing in fast rising Internet companies in the 1990's dot.com boom.

Boosting business news interest in the Middle East however are signs of a repatriation of money back to the region after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

Bankers handling Arab money say fear of prejudice and greater US scrutiny of Arab funds may have prompted the transfer. But rising oil prices and stock markets could also be contributing factors.

STUNNING VISUALS - FRESH STORIES

Stunning visuals and fresh stories, however, provide a welcome relief for international broadcasters who need to fill 24 hours of programming 7 days a week.

Many business stories in the Middle East have never been reported.

"In Europe everyone has been through media training school and you can end up with a very standard way of relating to the media," said BBC's Heathcote. TBS


Tara Joseph is a Reuters correspondent based in Hong Kong.
Copyright 2004 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu