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Bird can’t break through Tunisia clouds

Signs not so good country's first private TV caster

LONDON — Tunisia’s second private radio station launched this past week amid much fanfare and grand ambitions, but the nation’s first private TV channel is on the ropes.

Al Jawhara — the Arabic for pearl — comes hot on the heels of Mosaique FM’s success as Tunisia’s first privately owned radio station.

The radiocaster, with an FM signal — which will cover most of the central region of the Mediterranean coast — will similarly concentrate on music and call-in shows.

The signs are not so good, however, for the country’s first private TV caster. Only five months from its much-trumpeted launch in February, Hannibal TV is already staring hardship in the eye.

The brainchild of Larbi Nasra, a Tunisian businessman awarded the much-coveted inaugural private license back in 2003, Hannibal has failed to match the success of Mosaique FM, launched in 2003.

In setting up the station, Nasra bought 70,000 square feet of land in a northern suburb of capital Tunis for his $15 million studios. The satcaster employs up to 200.

Figures from Sigma Conseils, a local media research firm, estimate the TV station has achieved a local market share of only 2%-9% compared with state-owned Tunis 7, which commands 37% of viewers.

Hannibal also faces competition from another terrestrial state-run broadcaster, Canal 21, as well as a number of Arab satcasters and European channels such as Italy’s RAI-Uno and France 2. More than 60% of Tunisian households now have access to sat dishes.

Mosaique FM, on the other hand, with its blend of pop and chatshows, has captured 70% of listeners across greater Tunis.

Adding to Hannibal’s headaches was the launch of the Saudi-based Rotana Cinema film channel in January. With programming concentrating on Arabic-language films, the satcaster regularly pulls in a local market share of 18%.

To make matters worse, Nasra’s channel was banned by the Tunisian Football Federation from covering local soccer matches — a great draw for viewers and advertisers. The ban came after Hannibal TV carried a report on corruption in sport, a subject generally avoided by the state casters who remain free to cover local sport.

Another part of Hannibal’s problem is its programming, which has been criticized by locals as overly reliant on Egyptian sudsers and reruns, as well as its inability to match pan-Arab news satcasters Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyeh.

Despite its reputation as one of the Middle East’s most liberal societies, Tunisia remains firmly under the grip of President Zine El-Abedine bin Ali, who won his fourth term in office in 2004 with 94% of the vote.

With Al-Jazeera and U.S.-backed Radio Sawa both finding themselves temporarily banned due to bin Ali’s disapproval, freedom of speech remains a precious commodity in this Mediterranean country. Reporters Without Borders’ annual report on Tunisia decried the nation’s obstacles placed on journalists.

Nevertheless, encouraging signs are on the horizon. On launching Al Jawhara Radio, bin Ali (who brought an end to the state monopoly on radio and TV broadcasting in 2003) commented that a free media is crucial.

Meanwhile, Tarak Ben Ammar, the Tunisian media mogul who recently inked major deals with the Weinstein brothers and Gallic filmmaker Luc Besson, is planning to open his own satellite TV channel in the coming months.

Though officials from Ben Ammar’s Quinta Communications were unable to confirm an exact launch date for Al Jawhara, it is expected to make its bow toward the end of the year or early 2006. The nephew of Tunisia’s founding president Habib Bourguiba, Ben Ammar has similarly forged good relationships with current prexy bin Ali.

“There has never been censorship in the movies here,” Ben Ammar tells Variety. “As far as free news goes, it’s been more of a dilemma, but the government is opening the door to freedom of expression in news.”

Essentially the most important player in the Tunisian film industry — he owns Empire Studios, which is lensing historical epic “The Last Legion,” starring Colin Firth and Indian mega-star Aishwarya Rai, as well as owning a number of post-production labs in the country — Ben Ammar sees the TV station acting as a feeder channel to encourage local film talent.

“It’s important my TV channel isn’t only for a local audience. I want to train writers, directors, actors so they can also work in film,” Ben Ammar says. “I don’t want to just imitate other Arab channels. I want to do something different, something popular but also very Tunisian.”

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