Satcasting In Mideast Looking Like ‘Star Wars’

Arabic-lingo satcasting is developing into a “Star Wars,” with new channels joining the crowded space fray and existing broadcasters jostling for position.

But some of the satwebs seem to be fighting the galactic battles with horse cavalry, leaving earthling spectators wondering just what in the world they think they’re doing up there.

All over the Middle East, the skies rain down a glut of space channels but a dearth of original Arabic entertainment programming. There are already 12 Arab satcasters operating with at least one more planning to join the free-for-all in coming months.

One of the more successful spacers, the London-based Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), has announced launch plans for a second channel this year as part of an overall strategy to expand its satcasting to four channels.

A Kuwaiti business group has unveiled plans to start an Arabic space channel in 1995, tentatively called TVA and based in Paris.

Other birds currently flying are the Rome-based and Saudi backed Arab Radio & Television (ART) with four channels, Egyptian Space Channel (ESC), and government-run satcasters of Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Kuwait, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Oman. Future TV lift-offs are also under consideration by Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

Then there’s the Rome-based Orbit, inaugurated last May with an initial 20 TV and radio channels (both Arabic and English) and owned by a branch of the Saudi royal family.

Orbit’s stratospheric costs to subs – $10,000 for the decoder and $60 a month per channel – would seem to limit its potential clientele to wealthy Arab states where sat dishes have been banned. These include Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain. In most other Arab countries the dishes are either legalized or at least tolerated.

So there’s an awful lot of Arabic-lingo TV space babble to choose from, but as far as entertainment goes, most of it is on the Egyptian Space Channel.

Only ESC has a solid entertainment production base behind it. The channel is operated by the government-run Egyptian Radio & TV Union whose production sector churns out more than 700 hours a year of TV films, soaps, religious dramas, docus and kiddie programs – more than all of the other Arab states combined, claims Mamdouh el Leithy, production sector chief.

In addition, the ESC has an enormous backlog of Egyptian movies to choose from. It also has programming input from two national and five local channels.

Both the slick Euro-based ART and MBC are forced to rely heavily on old Egyptian films and hand-me-down Egyptian soaps and sitcoms to fill up airtime.

As for the smaller state-run satcasters, their programming consists mainly of rebroadcasts of their terrestrial stations, which are sometimes heavily censored.

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