BBC enters fray for Arab viewers

In a bid to increase its presence in the Arab world, the BBC World Service is launching a new Arabic-language satellite television channel.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  October 30, 2005

In a bid to increase its presence in the Arab world, the BBC World Service is launching a new Arabic-language satellite television channel. The new service, which will cost US$36 million annually and compete with the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news channel, is to be launched in 2007. According to Reuters, the closure of 10 local language radio services by the BBC World Service in Eastern Europe will help finance the new Arabic-language satellite television channel. Al Jazeera, which hired most of its staff from the BBC Arabic service that was shut down in the 1996, is also launching an English channel in 2005. “The service in 1996 was a commercial service, we did it in cooperation with a group called Orbit Communications. That floundered because Orbit decided to withdraw their funding after a dispute about editorial matters,” Mike Gardner, BBC spokesperson told Arabian Business. “The key thing for us is that the marketplace in the Middle East has changed as far as we’re concerned. We believe that in order to get to a certain part of the Middle East television is essential,” added Gardner. The BBC group’s services are available in short wave in throughout the Middle East, but are not available in North Africa on FM bandwidth. Gardner also pointed out that only 10% of Arabs speak English. “The changes add up to the biggest transformation of the BBC World Service that has been undertaken — and one of the most far-reaching — since the BBC began international broadcasting more than 70 years ago,” said Nigel Chapman, the World Service director. “Whilst the mix of services has to evolve as the world changes, the overall core aims of the BBC World Service will remain the same: to provide quality news and information that people trust, which stands out for its independence, authority and objectivity; and to be an open forum for global debate. “Our new services on television and in new media will be judged by those values just as their distinguished predecessors have been.” The new channel will broadcast for 12 hours a day. Hosam Sokkari, who heads the BBC Arabic service, will be fully involved in the development of the new venture, which will create 140 new jobs in total. “Recent research from seven capital cities across the Middle East indicates that between 80% and 90% of those surveyed are likely to watch an Arabic television service from the BBC,” said Chapman. “We will be satisfying a strong demand from the region for accurate, trusted, independent and comprehensive news and analysis together with a discussion forum for Arabic-speaking audiences in the region.” Gardner denied the decision to launch the new venture was because competitors like Al Jazeera were launching an English channel. “Not at all,” said Gardner, adding, “It wouldn’t make any difference at all. The key point is that we have a very strong presence in the market with our radio and online services.” BBC Arabic radio has between 11 and 12 million radio listeners in the Middle East, excluding its internet audience. The BBC World Service group, which has been offering news in Arabic since 1938, also has a news web site in Arabic that competes with Al Jazeera and CNN’s Arabic news web sites. Its newsgathering operation includes 250 news correspondents, reporting from 50 bureaux. The new venture will have its headquarters in London, with regional input from the group’s major bureau in Cairo. In addition to upgrading the existing bureau in Egypt, new offices will be opened up in the Middle East. Gardner denied there was a political angle to the launch of the venture and that there was any parallel with the US government’s decision to launch Al Hura television in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, in an effort to sway anti-American sentiment in the Arab world.

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