BBC Arabic TV: A

Issue 1, Spring 2007

By Lawrence Pintak

We all know the story: A decade ago, the BBC pulled the plug on its ill-fated Arabic TV joint venture with the Saudis when it turned out they didn’t quite see eye-to-eye on news values. The out-of-work staff became the nucleus of Al Jazeera’s original news team.

Now the Brits are back, actively fielding resumes for a new Arabic-language channel, this one sans pesky partners. Arab Media & Society co-editor Lawrence Pintak caught up with Hosam El Sokkari, the head of the BBC’s Arabic Service and himself a veteran of both that first BBC joint venture and Al Jazeera, to discuss the BBC’s re-entry into an increasingly crowded media market.

Pintak: BBC Arabic television, it is almost BBC coming full circle in the Middle East, isn’t it?

El Sokkari: In a way yes. We realized back in 1994 that this is the medium of choice in the Middle East. And we wanted to be available in vision for our audiences there. However that experience was not sustainable for certain commercial reasons. And since the closure of the first BBC Arabic television we have been trying to get back into the market. Previously we did not have the money. Now we have the money. And we’re going ahead with it.

Pintak: Where did the money come from?

El Sokkari: Re-structuring. The BBC has been trying since the experiment in the 1990s to get back on television in the Middle East.  But the BBC was not happy with the commercial model. The fact that this model did not last beyond two years made the BBC decide it had to be funded from public money. As the BBC could not get any extra funding overall, the decision was made to do some restructuring to re-organize BBC World Service resources. And Nigel Chapman decided that there are some parts of the world that do not need a BBC presence and that investing in the future of the organization means going into television is the way to go.

Pintak: This is a crowded landscape out here. Is there room?

El Sokkari: I am not sure it is crowded. I mean you have quite a number of TV channels that are video, music and entertainment channels. But the number of news and information channels is actually very limited. You can count up to 3 or 4. So in terms of numbers it is not a crowded market.

In terms of what we offer, we believe that it is unique, We also believe that there is a need. Our previous research indicates that at least 80 to 85 per cent of the sample of people that we surveyed from 7 or 8 different capitals would watch BBC TV often. And my own anecdotal evidence tells me that people are very interested in BBC Arabic TV. One of the first questions you always hear is when will there be an Arabic TV channel for the BBC? Or when will BBC Arabic television be back? So we do believe that there is a need.

We also believe that the market may not be as crowded as some people may suggest it is. There is a perception that the kind of audience we are addressing is the audience that is already watching some of the satellite news channels. We are different I think and we will be coming to the Middle East with something unique to offer. It is not just a TV station we are talking about but a multimedia platform in Arabic that will serve our audiences whatever they do wherever they are.

Pintak: Aren’t some of the Arab satellite channels going in that direction already? What is unique, what is radically different?

El Sokkari: What is radically different is the fact that we are doing this as an integrated multimedia platform. We have a radio station, we have an Internet operation, and we will have a TV operation. And we have compelling interactive content. I don’t think there is anyone in the Middle East that is doing that.

Pintak: Let’s talk content. How will that be different?

El Sokkari: The content is different because our angel is different. We do not take sides in debates. It is true that some of the Arab satellite TV channels introduced views that are not and were not common in the market, but it is the way these views are introduced that makes us different. I think that the plurality of views and perspectives that we offer is far more than anything that you can see in the Middle East.

And the way we handle these perspectives is very different. Our presenters do not join guests to attack other guests. We do not have a political message. Lots of channels do not hide the fact that they are there to advance what they believe is their audiences causes. And that in itself is a position. We do not take positions in debates. We are there to cover the issues. We are there to make it possible for people to contribute. We want to make people comfortable that their views have been understood the way they want them to be understood. We train our journalists to help people to express their views properly so even if they miss-represent themselves, they are comfortable that their views came across as they wanted them to be represented. So this is, I think, a radical difference. It is not something that you find very often in TV or media across the Middle East.

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