A new satellite service aimed at 280 million viewers in 23 countries in the Middle East and northern Africa is gearing up for a March or April launch, uplinking to ArabSat from a base in Rome. Called Orbit Satellite Television, the service will beam a bouquet of five original channels plus an unspecified number of popular international heavyweights including Discovery Channel, CNN, ESPN, and Canal Plus.

A source close to the company described the venture as “along the lines of Star TV, which is the prototype of a multicountry satellite broadcaster.” Indeed , many in Orbit’s top management, including CEO Alexander Zilo, come from the Murdoch-owned Hong Kong-based satellite broadcaster.

Orbit is the first commercial satellite service to use a digital video compression network, enabling it to offer up to 25 channels. Going out direct-to-home, the service will be free-to-air for up to a year before becoming a scrambled pay TV package. Backed by a consortium of international businessmen primarily from the Middle East, Orbit aims to break even after three and a half years.

The five original-programming channels are a music channel (called Music Now) , two English-language entertainment channels (the Hollywood Channel and America Plus) and two Arab-language entertainment channels. Including in the programming bouquet will be at least three 24-hour news channels consisting of BBC (Arabic), CNNI and network news from ABC, CBS and NBC.

The Hollywood Channel will feature gameshows, award events, entertainment news and personality profiles of international celebrities. America Plus is a fiction channel hosting light sitcoms and dramas to classic programming. Music channel MusicNow will be aimed at an older and broader demo target than MTV, with Arab music given airplay but certainly not dominating the channel.

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