BBC World Service Arabic TV: Revival of a Dream or Sudden Death
by the Competition?By
Hussein Y. Amin, TBS Senior Editor
of the significance of transnational radio news networks and
their impact on Arab audiences usually arrive sooner or later
at the unprecedented popularity of the British Broadcasting
Corporation’s (BBC) World Service Arabic Language service,
the only news network to dominate ratings among Arab radio listeners.
In fact, a new BBC World Service Arabic television service,
slated for launch in 2007, was conceived, sold and funded on
the foundations of BBC Radio's Arabic Service, which remains
a dominant force and hugely admired in the Middle East.
The region first heard rumors of a BBC World Television Arabic
Service back in the early 1990s, when the market for satellite
television in the Middle East was just starting to form. Negotiations
for the BBC Arabic channel started with the Saudi investment
group Mawarid's subsidiary, the Rome-based Orbit Communications
Corporation. An agreement was signed on 24 March 1994, but the
project was short-lived. On Sunday, 21 April 1996, the BBC World
Service Arabic Language Television channel, beamed across the
Middle East and North Africa by the popular Orbit satellite
network package, was closed down.
During its short life, there were numerous disputes between
the Orbit officials and the BBC World Service Arabic language
management on the editorial independence of the latter, particularly
about the BBC's failure to observe the cultural sensitivities
of the Saudis—especially when it comes to the Saudi royal
family. The BBC had crossed an invisible line when its reporting
focused on a Saudi dissident, Al Mes’ari, living in London
and criticizing the Saudi royals. In addition, the BBC rebroadcast
an Arabic-dubbed BBC show, Panorama, which criticized
the Saudi judicial system in general and its application of
capital punishment in particular.
With the closure of the BBC television service in Arabic, Arab
audiences had to wait—albeit not for long—for another
network to provide them with relatively independent, credible,
accurate, unbiased and balanced news in Arabic. The failure
of the first BBC Arabic television is a sad story, not just
because of the death of a dream but also because its closure
represented a blow to press freedom and freedom of expression.
Now, a decade after its retreat, the BBC is going to try again.
In October, the corporation announced that it had shut down
10 of its World Service radio stations that directed their signals
to the communist countries of Europe during the Cold War. They
will be replaced with a new Arabic satellite television channel,
launched in 2007 and financed by a Foreign Office grant of £239
million for 2005/6 and an estimated yearly operating cost of
£19 million. The mission is difficult, but not impossible,
since the satellite television market is not the same as it
The media environment in today’s Middle East clearly is
different than the environment in the early ’90s, when
BBC’s first Arabic-language television experiment failed.
In 1994, there was no competition for the BBC World Service
Television’s Arabic Service; in 2005, the satellite platform
is crowded with networks, many of them 24-hour Arabic news channels.
If we ask Arab audiences where they get their news and information,
the answer will almost universally be “satellite television,”
whether from personally owned sets or those shared by villages
or local coffee shops. Today, Arab audiences have many satellite
news channels that they watch with increasing loyalty, while
fewer and fewer Arabs watch national TV channels for news and
information. With governments more willing to tolerate criticism
than in the past and less fearful of (or more aware of the difficulty
of stopping) media freedom, the BBC faces a more welcoming and
more tolerant environment than it did at the time of its first
foray into Arabic television broadcasting.
The BBC World Service Television’s Arabic Service, however,
also enters a highly competitive television market that did
not exist in the past. The first type of competition comes from
Arab satellite television services. During the past ten years,
channels such as Al Jazeera (out of Qatar) and Al Arabia (out
of Dubai) have succeeded at creating worldwide audiences and
achieving dominance in Arabic satellite news broadcasting. These
two channels dominate all other news or news-oriented general
networks in the region, including Al Nil lil-Akhbar (Egypt’s
Nile News), Al Ikhbarieh (Saudi’s News-Teller), Abu Dhabi
Television, and more recently, Alhurra (The Free One), an American
Arabic-language network that entered the Middle East satellite
market as part of the US government’s public diplomacy
campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Arabs.
The main question for the BBC World Service Television’s
Arabic Service hinges on its ability to compete on this crowded
platform, especially now that Arab media organizations performed
better than expected, delivering news with international production
standards and winning large audiences throughout the world.
Experts claim that Al Jazeera, for example, now has an audience
of over 35 million viewers in coffee shops and living rooms
across the Middle East.
The second source of competition for the BBC Arabic Service
television channel comes from the Arab national state-owned
broadcasting services. Some state broadcasting services have
been liberalizing and reforming slowly, improving production
standards and lessening the share of protocol news, as well
as creating interesting and sometimes controversial news programming.
In large part, this liberalization is the result of increased
competition from the satellite news channels, with national
broadcast officials afraid to lose their entire audiences to
the satellite television channels.
The third kind of competition for the BBC World Service Television’s
Arabic Service comes from Arab audiences themselves. Arab audiences—as
opposed to Western audiences—have the benefit of being
able to watch the Arabic-language news networks as well as English-language
news networks like CNN, BBC World, Fox News, Euronews, and the
many other news networks available on Nilesat and Arabsat, the
two main direct broadcast satellites covering the Middle East.
Most of the Arab elite and upper classes are the primary decision
makers in Arab states are tuned in to English-language networks
and always have been loyal viewers.
The BBC’s competitive advantage is its reputation. For
decades Arabs have looked to the BBC, in its Arabic radio and
Arabic television incarnations as well as its English language
news service, as an honest provider of relatively unbiased news
and one of the best foreign broadcasters covering the Middle
East. Expectations are that the new BBC Arabic Television Service
will meet the same standard. There is a perception that, unlike
other networks, the BBC did not participate in the broadcast
of materials that provoked sectarian tensions in the Arab world.
Nor did it present materials that portrayed Islam in a negative
light or attack Islam as a religion. The BBC also enjoys a good
reputation in the Middle East for showing respect to the region’s
people, languages and cultural and historical legacy. This perception
gives the BBC a powerful advantage.
While the BBC Arabic service eventaully will compete with the
US-funded Alhurra channel for Arab “hearts and minds,”
it is more likely to have a better position since it enjoys
an established reputation for independence and credibility,
both of which are considered important in pubic diplomacy. But
the content of the BBC’s Arabic television channel most
likely will be presented from a British point of view rather
than an Arab perspective, and Arab audiences, who have been
on the defense since the introduction of Alhurra, most likely
will be on alert for any kind of approach that hints at bias
or attempts to influence their opinions, especially from a television
service that is broadcasting out of Great Britain, a country
which is one of the “occupying” forces in Iraq.
Those running the BBC’s Arabic television news channel
must understand that Arab audiences expect the service to support
democracy and human rights aggressively. This means that Arab
audiences are looking for the BBC to tackle issues of democratization
and corruption, as well as to open the door of free debate for
different political players in the region, whether it’s
the Moslem Brotherhood, opposition parties, or human rights
activists. This may be a challenge for the British, since it
was a hesitation to broach some of these same issues that caused
the BBC Arabic television channel to close down in 1994 in the
Despite the fact that the BBC World Service Television’s
Arabic Service is returning a decade late to the game, there
is no doubt in my mind that the BBC’s Arabic TV will not
only succeed, but will also force existing channels—both
terrestrial and satellite—to improve their standards of
production as well as promote ethical, unbiased and independent
reporting. The introduction of this service to the Middle East
is a powerful boost to the burgeoning sense of confidence in
news reporting and to the growth of press freedom and democracy
in the region. In the end, the Arab people will be the winners,
as they have access to more information, new perspectives, and
the respect that a highly competitive and increasingly world-standard
media environment provides its audiences.
Hussein Y. Amin, senior editor of TBS,
is professor and chair of the department of Journalism and Mass
Communication at the American University in Cairo. Amin is the
chairman of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU)'s
Research and Development committee and member of the Board of
Trustees of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU).
Amin serves as a member of the advisory boards of the World
Congress for Middle Eastern Studies (WOCMES), the Journal
of International Communication (JIC), and the Global
Media Journal (GMJ). Amin has published many research articles
related to international and transnational broadcasting with
specific reference to the Middle East.