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Television Spring

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The Arab Spring has changed the Arab region and the world for the better, and it’s in large part because of the power of television, making the author, a television channel creator proud of his profession, for a change. We discuss the trends for 2012 for the region and the world, and how it relates to television in India.

The most pivotal region in the world

Despite its relatively small size – only 200 million people – the region is the most pivotal in the world. It’s not just the oil or the Israel / Palestine issue – drawing in the US as Israel’s ally -- that makes it important. As the birthplace of Islam, the region is the centerpiece of all Muslim / non-Muslim exchange / dialogue. As a firm believer in the power of the media as a bridge for cultures and nationalities, I wanted to see how I could make a contribution, however small.

The Arab world grabs the spotlight

Everyone agrees that the Arab Spring was 2011’s top story. On December 17 2010, 26-year-old Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, to protest his mistreatment by the authorities, and changed the world. He was a street vendor selling fruits and vegetables, and the sole support for his family of eight. His death sparked a revolution, not just in the Arab world, but the world. (The Occupy Wall Street movement was directly inspired by the Arab Spring. OWS organiser’s goal was to make an American Tahrir Square, in effect).

As a television channel creator, I am particularly proud of the mighty role that TV played in the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring has been called the Facebook revolution (with help from comrade Twitter). But the truth is that television channels, particularly Al Jazeera, played the leading role in creating sparks and keeping the fires burning bright. And, unlike Facebook, which has been a world media power for only the past year, Al Jazeera has been a catalyst for change and dialogue in the Arab world from its first days of broadcast in 1996.

The strange and unique world of Arab TV

The power of television in Southwest Asia (the politically correct name for the Middle East) and North Africa is accentuated by the peculiar nature of TV distribution in the region. There is virtually no cable TV in the region, and pay satellite operators have had little success, and enormous losses (piracy hasn’t helped).

Free to air satellite TV dominates the Arab world, and has killed off all rivals. Six billion dollars is spent operating 500+ channels, with advertising revenue reaching just over one one billion dollars.

The leading free-to-air satellite provider, MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Corporation), owned by Saudis, operated out of Dubai, gets nearly 70 per cent of the advertising revenue in the region with its eight channels. You do the math. There isn’t much left for the other broadcasters. The secret of the broadcaster’s survival is simple: TV is not a business, but a calling, a mouthpiece, a propaganda machine, and an extension of a country’s foreign influence.

All one needs is $300,000 per annum to rent a 2.5Mbps of space segment on the hottest of regional DTH satellites, Nilesat. If one wants to buy an additional space segment on other satellites (Arabsat or Hotbird) for additional coverage, why not? It’s cheap, considering they all reach all the way from Morocco to Iraq, a total of 3,000 kilometres, and everyone in the Arab world – I mean everyone – has a dish and a TV, whether deep in the desert or high on a mountaintop, whether literate or illiterate. With Arabic as a common language (although spoken in many different dialects), this creates an enormous platform for gaining mindshare and winning minds and hearts.

Governments, religious groups, political parties are happy to pay a few million for 24/7/365 access to the people, despite little hope for revenue.

Al Jazeera - The most important channel

Al Jazeera has virtually no advertising, but they are expanding far beyond the Arab world, launching English, Turk, Balkan, Swahili and other 24/7 news channels. Their reach and influence is enormous compared to the small size of its home country, Qatar.

There are a number of excellent books about the Al Jazeera phenomenon (which I highly recommend); they tell the story of the huge social impact the Al Jazeera Arabic channel has had throughout the region, with many

excellent provocative programmes helping to stimulate dialogue and debate. Despite American’s misconception about Al Jazeera being the “Osama Bin Laden Channel”, the channel has performed and is still performing a valuable public service, although it is far from perfect or completely objective.

Revolution TV

The ease of setting up a TV channel that will – as soon as it’s switched on – reach everyone in the region has led to the creation of a new phenomenon – the 24/7 Revolutionary TV channels. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions happened too quickly for their own revolution channels, but the Syrian and Libyan revolutions have several bespoke new channels just to carry revolution news – and they were and are playing an important role. (Disclaimer: I have consulted with these channels, but they are not keen for publicity regarding origination,

for obvious reasons).

This is a unique phenomenon in the world of media. Imagine a revolutionary channel for the breakup of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The technology simply didn’t exist. And after the dictators fell (in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya), the new political parties have launched dozens of channels to battle for influence and votes in the newly democratic countries.

The production values may not be great, but who cares? And it’s all possible because of the low-cost and universal access of free to air satellite TV. Power to the People!

Reality programming for good

It is widely agreed that job creation is the number one problem in Southwest Asia and North Africa. The youthful population faces bleak job prospects, which leads to a range of social problems and disruption.

I set out, with the help of 20 of the leading NGOs in the region, to create an innovative platform for new business and job development that would be helpful for the 15 million young adults who are currently unemployed or underemployed in the region. This platform, which we are calling “3plus1” was something I started to develop with Vietnamese NGOs when I was building TV channels in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in 2007. The secret weapon of the platform is video – we make brief, user friendly training video clips on each of the 40 3plus1 businesses, and will create – with a leading Arab broadcaster -- a reality show featuring the top 3plus1 businesses competing for a prize by earning the highest profit in their business category. We hope to launch in mid-2012, and work with a leading global production firm (such as Endemol or Fremantle) to license the format to the rest of the de-colonizing world.

The future of TV news

Like everywhere in the media, localisation is easier to achieve as costs of production and distribution go through the floor. While regional broadcasters in Arabic-language such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya deserve a lot of credit for having raised the level of professional standards in the region, and unified the region (everyone watching the same TV channel provides a shared experience), the time has come where the same professional standards can and should be applied to the national, provincial and local level.

I’m working now with my esteemed colleagues from all over the region to develop a platform for news production and dissemination we are calling “New News.” Our goal with New News is nothing less than a revolution, taking advantage of mobile phone camera technology, 3/4G, blogs, social media, and the intelligence and passion for the truth of the people of the region. Our inspiration comes from NY1 (TimeWarner in New York City) (1992), About.com (1997), ohmynews.com in South Korea (2001), and documen-tarian Errol Morris. We hope to launch as early as Q2 2012 in one country, then in every country in the region, and then share our vision with the world.

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