Why viewers prefer their news ‘ideology-free’

There are six TV screens lined up along the side of Abdul Rahman Al Rashed’s office. All are tuned to rolling news channels. “We keep an eye on them all the time. I’m sure they keep an eye on us as well,” he says.

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By  Richard Abbott Published  July 2, 2006

|~|rahman200.jpg|~|Al Rashed... ‘We are more modern than Al Jazeera, more newsy. They spent more time on views than news’|~|There are six TV screens lined up along the side of Abdul Rahman Al Rashed’s office. All are tuned to rolling news channels. “We keep an eye on them all the time. I’m sure they keep an eye on us as well,” he says. The general manager of MBC’s Al Arabiya news channel is feeling pretty chipper. Ipsos-Stat ratings show that his channel is the top ranking news station in his home country of Saudi Arabia. Al Rashed’s office at Dubai Media City is a glass-walled affair that overlooks a circular studio. A presenter addresses the camera from a high stool, while researchers beaver away around her. “This is a 24-hour newsroom and we are geared up to go live at any moment,” says Al Rashed, who is smartly dressed in a grey blazer and dark trousers. The Arabic language news station has been broadcasting across the Arab world and beyond since March 2003, competing directly with Al Jazeera, its Qatar-based rival. Al Arabiya broadcasts a mix of live reports, talk shows and investigative programmes. It may not have quite the international reputation of Al Jazeera, which is labeled as a conduit for Al Qaeda by its critics in the West, but Al Arabiya has carved out a reputation among Arab viewers for being trustworthy and balanced. Early on in our conversation, Al Rashed can’t resist having a pop at Al Jazeera for what he says was a lack of coverage of an important event that happened the previous evening. But he says he tries not to get too hung up on his rival station — although he spends a lot of time talking about it. “Almost all TV stations have news hours, so we are not just competing with Al Jazeera. We are competing with about 60 Arab TV stations, including some that are government owned,” he says. When asked what makes Al Arabiya different from Al Jazeera, he argues that it is “faster, more modern and ideology-free”. What does he mean by ‘ideology-free’? “They judge news. We do not judge news. With them, it is only one opinion all the way,” he says. “We are more modern than Al Jazeera, more newsy. They spend more time on views than news. In the ratings, you will see viewers will spend more time watching news than views.” He adds: “People call us various things but we have strict rules to get everyone’s voice on the screen.” Al Rashed has watched with interest Al Jazeera’s stuttering plans to launch an English language news station, Al Jazeera International, but does not believe the time is right for Al Arabiya to follow suit. “It is a commercial decision that should be decided by the chairman. We will not do it before we think it is commercially viable,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t make profit, so someone has to subsidise it always. It is a very expensive game. “That’s why you see our friends at Al Jazeera struggling for almost two years and not launching their TV station. I wish them really good luck but it is a big noise and really it’s not going to be able to compete with news stations in different regions, whether you are in India or England. “So far, I don’t see an English channel has a commercial value. It means I will be driving this company into an expensive game or subjecting it to an unhappy situation.” Al Rashed was born in Riyadh and studied visual media in Washington DC. When he graduated in 1983 he admits he was disillusioned with the TV market in the Middle East, which was dominated by government-controlled stations. So he turned his back on the small screen and joined the Saudi newspaper Al Jazirah as foreign correspondent, based in Washington. After this, he was editor-in-chief for the influential pan-Arab daily Al Sharq Al Awsat for five years. He was planning a quiet life combining newspaper work with some documentary making, but when MBC approached him to run their news channel, it was an opportunity he couldn’t resist. “I had enough work in the newspapers. I wanted to leave and do some independent documentary work. One documentary a year was my plan. Then I was approached by MBC group.” To sate his editorial spirit, he remains a daily columnist for Al Sharq Al Awsat and has presented a programme on MBC that deals with journalistic investigations, called The Third Eye. Al Rashed is passionate about the ability of TV news channels to bring live events to the masses, something that newspapers cannot offer. “You are not going to wait until tomorrow to see the news. You want to see the pictures, you want to see people’s reactions literally as they happen,” he says. But he believes there is still a role for newspapers for consumers who want to be ‘educated’ about the news. “You have 3000 words in a single report. You cannot do that on a TV station. We are limited by pictures and time,” he says. The challenge now for Al Rashed is to stop viewers flicking between news channels with their remote control and settle on Al Arabiya as their first, and only, source of news — to make them feel comfortable within its environs. “I once asked my 80-year-old mother why she was watching one of the channels, and she said she didn’t have time to look for others. A lot of people just stick with the stations they feel comfortable with,” he says. Part of the plan is to expand Al Arabiya’s interactive offer, targeting internet and mobile phone users. But more important, he says is to keep in touch with the changing face of the Arab consumer. Female viewers are on the increase and there is an increasing tolerance of some Western values, Both of these changes call for a more modern style of reporting. The station recently aired a report on Saudi women marrying non-Saudis. This is what Al Rashed calls “challenging the status quo”. “We are not just covering Bin Laden and Hamas like some TV stations do. We have a more modern style of reporting and this is increasing our audience in different ways,” he says. He expects to see more channels appearing on the electronic programme guide. He welcomes them — but with a stark warning. “This is a big region and I will not be upset if I see more TV stations launched. I think the market can take more. A lot of them will just hire a room in Media City with three cameras and have their TV station, which is fine, but it will not change the market. “The big boys will remain few.”||**||

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