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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 March 2008, 19:12 GMT
BBC Arabic TV 'should try to be different'
By Faisal Abbas
Media editor, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Presenter Fida Bassil, left, prepares to go live on BBC Arabic television at Broadcasting House, 11 March 2008.
BBC Arabic television will go to 24-hour broadcasting later in the year

"If only this had happened a few years ago," was my immediate thought as I witnessed BBC Arabic television's resurrection at 0954 on Tuesday.

What would have happened to the Arab media landscape if the initial BBC Arabic TV project in 1994 had not foundered?

Back then there was relatively little competition, whereas today there are well-established media brands like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya that will fight fiercely for viewership, and many viewers who will take a lot of convincing to switch to the BBC.

That said, as the channel beamed back to life, I found myself quite impressed with the high production values and the ultra-modern look of this new channel.

Slow news day

It gave the impression that the hype was true - BBC Arabic was definitely an important addition to the Arab satellite channel sector.

But when it came to the actual first day's content, I found myself wishing that the channel offered something slightly different from the BBC's Arab counterparts.

I saw almost the same news, the same list of regulars being asked to comment and analyse events. Even the presenters had appeared previously on rival channels.

That the first day's news was not very engaging is not the fault of the BBC.

Annapolis

However, the channel has had enough time to compile intriguing and daring stories, in case day one happened to be a slow news day - and this did not seem to have been done.

A. Kamal Sourour Effendi, BBC Arabic service presenter in 1937.
BBC Arabic already has a long-standing radio service

More surprising was the first "exclusive" interview - a Q&A session with Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa.

I really wonder how "newsy" this interview was, when the highlight was Mr Mousa saying that the peace process relaunched at Annapolis was "a failure three months on".

I am pretty sure many BBC Arabic viewers in Gaza would have already guessed that before they heard it on the BBC.

What I would have liked to see on the channel's first day would be a tough interview with a world leader - George Bush, Gordon Brown, Ehud Olmert - or better yet an Arab ruler, since the BBC's promise was to report "without fear or favour".

Double-edged advantage

It would be premature to give a decisive opinion on BBC Arabic's content without monitoring it for a longer period.

But what about the BBC brand image in the Arabic-speaking world?

These days television is the medium you need to use to communicate with people in the Arab world.

Many viewers will know what the BBC is about - the disputes with the UK government and its fierce defence of its independence.

But some will be very sceptical about this "foreign" broadcaster coming from a nation that was a key ally of the United States in the Iraq War.

Full throttle

Still, sceptical viewers will probably watch carefully in the hope of finding biases or inaccuracies, and when, or if, they are proven wrong that would serve as great promotion for the channel, and enhance Britain's credibility abroad.

The BBC has been broadcasting in Arabic on the radio since 1938, but these days television is the medium you need to use to communicate with people in the Arab world.

That means Arab audiences have not been exposed to BBC journalism to this extent before, even though it is limited at the moment to 12 hours of output a day.

I would have liked to see the BBC launching a full throttle, 24-hour service, from day one.

It will be really difficult to compete in a 24-hour news market when you are broadcasting only for half that time, even if that is only on a temporary basis.



SEE ALSO
World Service confirms Arabic TV
25 Oct 05 |  Entertainment
Al-Jazeera English hits airwaves
15 Nov 06 |  Middle East
Iran launches English TV channel
02 Jul 07 |  Middle East
Arab TV broadcasters face curbs
12 Feb 08 |  Middle East
Al-Jazeera criticises media code
15 Feb 08 |  Middle East

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