Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
A new Middle East conflict is on its way-and this time it's not being brought to you by the region's satellite television news channels but it's a battle among the broadcasters themselves as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya come under assault from a host of new contenders.
Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, whose $20 billion fortune makes him the 26th-wealthiest man in the world, said on Tuesday that he would launch his 24-hour news channel "Alarab" sometime next year, with Bloomberg News providing financial news programming. A few days earlier, Sky News Arabia, a joint venture between Britain's BSkyB and Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corp, confirmed plans to begin their all-news network next spring.
While Alarab and Sky News Arabia are the most serious new contenders, others are also readying to enter the market with channels wholly or partly dedicated to news.
"There's no doubt it's a crowded marketplace and what we'll be looking for is ways in which the channels become distinctive within the marketplace," said Rob Beynon, chief executive DMA Media, an international media company that helps launch news channels around the world, including the Middle East.
"There are a lot of different ways to do that - greater or less concentration of business news, aiming for a younger audience, which the Alwaleed channel has said it will do. You could aim at a more internationally focused audience, which is something that Sky News Arabia can do," Beynon told The Media Line.
Al-Jazeera, which is owned by the government of Qatar, pioneered the idea of a pan-Arab news channel when it took to the airwaves in 1993. It was followed by Al-Arabiya, which is controlled by the Saudi-backed MBC Group, in 2003. Since then, the two have enjoyed a near duopoly on the eyeballs of news junkies around the region and have enjoyed the surge of interest in Middle East news generated by the Arab Spring.
In addition to the Alwaleed and Sky channels, Al-Mayadeen satellite media network plans a new Beirut-based satellite channel early next year, aiming to cover the "reality" of economic and social issues in the Arab world. Saudi businessman Ali Hassan Al-Nagoor said in April that he will begin a satellite channel called Tala that will air cultural, social and sports programs in addition to talk shows.
In Egypt, 16 channels have obtained licenses to broadcast to the country's 85 million people and via satellite to the Arab world. Among them is Naguib Sawiris, scion of a telecommunications and construction empire who is sponsoring two new channels that will complement his holdings in the news and public affairs channel OTV and his shares in various local newspapers.
Even Israel is entering the game: The country's regulators this week granted a license to Hala TV group, which includes Arab and Jewish partners, to operate an Arabic-language cable and satellite channel, which is scheduled to hit the airwaves in January.
The number of free to air (FTA) satellite TV channels in the Arab world increased by 10.5 percent between April 2010 and April 2011 to 538, according to a June report by the Amman, Jordan-based, Arab Advisors Group research. Two-thirds are privately owned, with the rest under government control.
A YouGov Siraj poll conducted last March found that 52 percent of some 11,500 people surveyed said they watched Al-Jazeera on a "regular" basis, trailed by a few percentage point by Al-Arabiya with 47 percent. Local news channels drew a combined 25 percent while the Arabic versions of the BBC and CNBC were viewed regularly by 21 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
The BBC and CNN in English each garnered 23 percent. The bad news for the new contenders is that is that only 9 percent said they don't watch news channels, which doesn't leave much new audience to tap. The good news for them is that the Arabic-language broadcasters all scored lower for trustworthiness than they did for audience, so there may be opportunities to take market share.
While Facebook and other social media channels got the most attention during the Arab Spring protests, Jon Alterman, Middle East program director at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said far more people got their news from and were influenced by satellite television.
"Pan-Arab media demonstrated that it fills many of the same roles that independent media do in other authoritarian countries, providing a counter-narrative to those of ruling regimes," he wrote in the latest issue of The Washington Quarterly.
Internet access isn't nearly that wide and many homes don't have a computer. But many poor households invest in a dish antenna, said Ramesh Srinivasan, who teaches and researches social media issues at the University of California in Los Angeles. A recent study funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, found that more than 70 percent of Egyptians have access to satellite television in their homes.
"I stayed in shacks made of garbage with satellite dishes on their roofs," Srinivasan told The Media Line, recalling a research visit to Cairo last spring. "These satellite dishes were picking up channels and networks not tightly controlled by the state."
The Arab Spring has acted as an impetus for the new channels, providing a continuous and compelling news story and in some countries, most notably Egypt, ushering in a new era of media freedom. "Alarab will focus editorially on the important shifts taking place across the Arab world with an emphasis on freedom of speech and freedom of press," a statement from Prince Alwaleed said this week, explaining his new venture.
But an all-news channel is an expensive proposition demanding huge investments in people and equipment, DMA's Beynon said. When the U.S. government launched Al-Hurra in 2004, its first-year budget was $60 million and that figure doubled in subsequent years. Backers can expect several years of losses and an audience that waxes and wanes depending on the flow of news.
"You have to be very distinctive in your marketplace to make money. People will watch news channels when there's a big story and often there can be days, weeks or months when there isn't one and you have to get in there and develop the brand," Beynon said.
Moreover, the market may be less accommodating to news broadcasters than they had hoped.
Last week Egypt's military rulers froze new licenses for private satellite TV stations and are taking steps against broadcasters they say are inciting violence. The offices of Al Jazeera's Egyptian unit Mubasher Misr, which launched following the revolution, were raided by authorities last Sunday, with a technical engineer arrested and equipment confiscated.
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