S. Abdallah Schleifer,
TBS senior editor
There was a big splash when MBC moved out of Battersea several
years ago and took up quarters in its elegant lagoon-side section
of the Media City complex here (see New
MBC: The Marriage of Elegant Professionalism and Emirati Glitter,
TBS 9). The move was followed by another stir when MBC launched
its own 24-7 Arabic news channel, Al Arabiya, shortly before
the invasion of Iraq. Perhaps because far more was expected
of this new, barely tested channel than was reasonable to expect,
the relatively uneven performance of Al Arabiya during the invasion,
in comparison to the more seasoned operations of Al Jazeera
and Abu Dhabi, led some to discount its importance and the overall
potential of the MBC Group.
a mistake, magnified by a surprisingly weak sense of public
relations by the MBC Group at the time, which recently has been
rectified. Even TBS (nostra culpa) too long ignored developments
at that imposing black building with the best view in Media
past two years, extraordinary things have been happening there.
The MBC Group has emerged as the stealth bouquet or platform
of Arab satellite broadcasting, fielding five successful free-to-air
television channels. Right now, there is no other free-to-air
bouquet that comes close, though Al Jazeera will try to close
the gap with its own broad band of channels on air by the beginning
of 2006 (see Al
Jazeera: Once More Into the Fray in this issue).
that, the diversity of what the MBC Group transmits free-to-air
is challenging the pay-TV bouquets of Showtime, Orbit, and ART.
The MBC flagship remains the leading Arabic family entertainment
or "variety" channel. Then there is MBC 2, the Western
entertainment channel that is the most watched of its genre
in the Middle East during prime time, and now is an all-movies
channel. Al Arabiya is an increasingly competitive 24-7 news
channel, now challenging Al Jazeera for audience share in most
Arab markets, and surpassing Al Jazeera for market share in
Iraq. MBC 3, the Group's lively children's channel, was launched
in December 2004 and now broadcasts 16 hours a day on weekends
and 12 hours on weekdays. The latest addition is MBC 4, a spin-off
from MBC 2 featuring American sitcoms and other top American
TV series. MBC 4 equals and perhaps surpasses Showtime's Paramount
channel in its more discriminating sense of programming.
is an ongoing MBC Group tour de force. The MBC flagship's purchases
of fairly recent -- if not exclusively first-run -- films from
the big distributors and production houses provided sufficient
surplus a few year ago to justify creating MBC 2. A sufficient
number of TV dramas, adventures, and sitcoms came with the MBC
2 package to justify, after two years, a spin-off of that material,
along with acquisitions like CBS Morning News, CBS Evening News,
60 Minutes, ABC's Nightline, and Oprah into MBC 4, with MBC
2 strengthening its niche as an all-movie channel. If the American
adage is that all politics are local, the maxim for the overly
crowed, overly competitive Arab satellite business is that successful
channels are nearly all niche channels. The entire MBC package
is being ably advanced according to this logic by MBC's marketing
manager, Andrew Maskall.
Abdul Rahman al-Rashed
All of which
indicates that there is an organic quality to the growth pattern
of the MBC Group. It was MBC, after all, which pioneered professional-standard
TV news reporting with teams feeding the first-ever Arabic language
field reporting to the flagship MBC channel's two substantial
daily news bulletins. In fact, MBC's pioneering news efforts,
as well as its special programming, go as far back as 1993,
only to be eclipsed by the appearance of Al Jazeera's 24-7 news
coverage in 1996. So when the creative energy of the MBC news
team was harnessed by reinforcements hired away from Al Jazeera,
like Al Jazeera's first and founding senior editor Salah Negm
with Saleh Negm, TBS 10), it was almost inevitable that
it would be MBC who would enter the lists with Al Arabiya, the
24-7 news channel that it owns in partnership with some outside
not all there is to the empire. The MBC Group also transmits
MBC-FM, the leading music and entertainment radio station in
Saudi Arabia, and Panorama, the niche FM radio station responding
to an older Arab audience, rather than the teenie boppers courted
by US-funded Radio Sawa and Egypt's latest private sector FM
stations. Panorama offers more traditional tarab music,
talk shows, and news.
MBC project is Middle East News (MEN), currently under the leadership
of Al Arabiya's former senior news editor Salah Negm. Negm also
served as deputy to Al Arabiya's general manager Abdul Rahman
al-Rashed during the past year. MEN is a new television news
agency that may dramatically emerge at any moment as a major
competitor to APTN and Reuters TV. MEN provides facilities,
logistical support, camera crews, and in some cases reporting,
using the same bureau facilities as Al Arabiya. Already MEN
has as clients Bahrein TV, Oman TV, and Al-Ekhbariya, the state-owned,
local-oriented Saudi news channel.
to Nabil Khatib, Al Arabiya's former Jerusalem bureau chief
and now executive editor, the bottom line for the Al Arabiya
management team is to avoid the temptation of "populist
journalism, to be more professional and more rational despite
the risk that might involve in terms of an Arab street that
is used to the populist approach. As much as you are populist,
you are popular so we are taking the risk that you can be popular
without being populist."
Al Arabiya's share of market has been increasing since it first
launched, so it was with some trepidation that Al Arabiya "bit
the bullet" last summer when it decided decisively to avoid
the populist style of journalism. "The good news is that
in most markets we didn't lose, and in other markets we actually
increased market share like in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine,
and North Africa -- particularly Morocco and Algeria. In Saudi
Arabia, we are now neck and neck with Al Jazeera."
his evaluations of market share on the same market research
undertaken by a consortium of advertising agencies quoted by
al-Rashed (see A Dialogue
with Abdul Rahman al-Rashed in this issue) but he added
that the organization is also making use of data now being provided
by NGOs conducting viewer surveys in Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian
territories, and Iraq.
would agree that the angry, largely illiterate, poor Arab populations
will still be attracted by angry populist coverage because they
are so frustrated by their daily life and that hasn't changed
and won't change soon," Khatib said. "But despite
that fact, we continue to grow and succeed."
How do they
do it? Khatib says there have been two changes in content. First,
the channel has gone over to a more aggressive coverage of special
events by a special coverage unit.
is the unit that provided American election coverage,"
he says. "The first pilot for the unit was the anniversary
of 9/11, then the death of Arafat, then the story of the Iraqi
elections. The coverage has been very successful and we have
gotten very good feedback.
other idea we are working on is to broaden the scope of what
we are covering, to broaden the nature of news stories. Most
of the coverage, most of the material in the past was focused
on casualties, and very little material and news flow about
real life. You know, what's going on in people's lives. We are
dramatically increasing our coverage of real life events (with
a) special series of news reports followed by commentaries.
Take Eye on Palestine. We follow six ordinary Palestinians
(for) 40 episodes based on their lives, and then (air) six one
hour documentaries from the same coverage.
Iraq we follow up with reports on the families of those who
have been killed, or show how university life goes on. We report
on what's happening to the petrol shortages, the water shortages.
Nobody talks about Falluja anymore. We just aired a report today
(April 4) on the peaceful life that has revived in Falluja.
We broke the story about Ahmed Zaki's death, and we were the
only channel on that story for several hours, reporting from
the hospital. We were covering that story before he died, and
in a period of two weeks, we had six special reports on Ahmed
Zaki. He was an important part of Egyptian and of modern Arab
life and he deserved the coverage we provided."
up news coverage is still another branch of the MBC Group
03 Productions headed up by Fadi Ismail. 03 produces its own
documentaries. Some 40 hours a year are guaranteed acquisitions
for Al Arabiya and MBC channel, but it is also an acquisition
house, buying documentaries for Al Arabiya and commissioning
its own new documentaries. It also is developing an overseas
market. 03 has been commissioned by NHK to produce documentaries
for that prestigious Japanese channel, and for another international
broadcaster, Tele Production International, as well as MTV,
which commissioned O3 to produce programs about Iraq
During its first
two years (2003-2004) 03 acquired over 1,000 hours of international
production and 50 hours of Arab production. More importantly,
in the long term, it produced more than 60 hours of documentary
film, including such controversial films as Ex-Extremists,
Sudan and The Arab World: The Lost Decade. The number
of in-house productions should dramatically increase when the
figures are in for 2005-2006.
to David Wilmsen, an associate dean at the American University
in Cairo and a TBS contributing editor who regularly watches
documentaries on Al Arabiya, "no subject is off the table
and none is too arcane. ... Historical and topical themes are
popular, especially those that treat the nations and regions
closest to the Arab world." Wilmsen observes that true
to the nature of documentaries, Al Arabiya's documentaries provide
"rich historical detail to trends and events affecting
the lives of the channel's viewers. A splendid example of this
is the 20-part series Lebanese Sects, which took a balanced
if overall sympathetic look at the entire range of confessional
groupings in Lebanon, exploring their historical roots in the
region, their accomplishments, trials, triumphs and defeats,
even when this meant casting a cold, unflinching gaze at their
atrocious behavior during the civil war."
is struck by the ability of 03 documentaries to handle sensitive
issues. He says its coverage of the region is comprehensive.
These documentaries are "nothing if not thorough, bringing
films exposing the horror of war in Iraq, or examining the plight
of Palestinian refugees in camps in Lebanon (where the largest
numbers of them languish to this day), or the opposite imagery
entirely (such as) exiled members of the South Lebanese Army
in Israel. Even with such delicate issues, the language of narration
(but not, of course, that of some of those interviewed) adopts
an objective tone."
MBC's Children's Network
of this, and responsible for taking on the challenge of producing
real news back in 1992, moving the flagship channel to Dubai,
and backing up his programming and marketing professionals as
they expanded the bouquet, is the figure of Sheikh Walid al-Ibrahim,
chairman of the MBC News Group. According to Fadwa Obaid, head
of program content for MBC 3, Sheikh Walid has always wanted
to have a channel for children. "This is a dream close
to his heart. He has always felt there wasn't enough for kids
in the Arab world. He wanted a channel that was both entertaining
Now he has
it. MBC 3, which is an amazing operation in which the usual
children's channel diet of cartoons is seamlessly absorbed into
an amazingly active pocket studio in which charming studio host
Danyah interacts with her audience throughout the day. The tone
is warm and friendly but not patronizing. Obaid says, "We
have guiding principles -- respecting the kids, never talking
down to them, always addressed them as your buddies. MBC 3 is
not a parent or a teacher. It is, certainly, a responsible friend."
Danyah, MBC's children's channel host
the inter-activity going with quizzes, where viewers call in
and answer questions, and with birthday celebrations featuring
viewers who have sent in their pictures. There are vox pops
with kids from all over -- Cairo, Beirut, Jeddah, Riyadh, Kuwait
City. "The quizzes are run on a daily basis and we always
try to have visuals of whatever we are talking about,"
says Obaid. "On Friday, we will have religious questions
that encourage the kids to reflect a bit and after Friday prayer
we run animations with religious themes -- like animated stories
of the prophets.
viewers are encouraged to follow along at home demonstrations
of arts and crafts.
We read emails from viewers and showcase
their art work and read their poetry, and we have a topic of
the week -- friendship, modesty, the environment, and the kids
send us their thoughts. Lots of time is devoted to nutrition,
to eating healthy, to the problem of obesity," says Obaid.
it mean for a children's channel to be a responsible friend?
Well everyday Danyah opens the show saying, "Watch us,
but don't forget to do your homework!"