Arab web’s still No. 1 after 15 years

MBC still strong among Middle East sat nets

LONDON — Build it and they will tune in.

That was the philosophy of Saudi Sheik Waleed bin Ibrahim in September 19991 when he decided, at age 31, to set up the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), the Arab world’s first privately owned, 24-hour, pan-region satcaster, along with fellow Saudi billionaire Sheik Saleh Kamel.

Fifteen years later, although Kamel is gone (he was bought out in 1994 and went on to set up paybox ART), MBC Group, which includes four entertainment channels and news web Al-Arabiya, is celebrating its anniversary by continuing to lead the way among free-to-air Arab satellite networks.

“Fifteen years ago, we had no idea how the Arab world would react. It was a gut feeling and courage alone that spurred us on,” says bin Ibrahim, MBC group’s chairman and CEO. “But our instincts told us that Arabs around the globe required an arena in which they could interact with their home countries.”

Since the satcaster’s early days broadcasting out of London — it moved to Dubai in 2002 — the Arab TV scene has changed immeasurably.

There are more than 250 free-to-air Arab satcasters fighting for a slice of the region’s ad market and share of local auds.

“Launching a new TV station now is very cheap. With $200,000 or $300,000, one is capable of launching their own channel. We cannot be compared to such setups,” bin Ibrahim says.

MBC’s startup is widely believed, though not confirmed, to have been subsidized by bin Ibrahim’s brother-in-law, the late Saudi King Fahd.

MBC Group has increasingly sought to work within more customary business models. It’s one of the reasons why bin Ibrahim is constantly looking for new revenue streams.

The group wants to expand into the North African market to find alternatives to the lucrative Gulf ad market. Other plans include an English-language satcaster, as well as an IPO.

“We are negotiating with cable operators around the world to ensure that we will get maximum exposure for the English-language channel. It will be aimed at second- and third-generation Arabs and Muslims looking to reaffirm their links with their culture,” adds bin Ibrahim.

It’ll join a congested market when it does finally appear.

Al-Jazeera will launch its long-awaited English service in November, while a host of Western orgs from Russia, France and Germany are starting their own Arab satellite channels.

Elsewhere, rival Arab satcasters Dubai TV and LBCi continue to edge ever closer to MBC’s pole position.

It’s just another hurdle for bin Ibrahim to overcome as he seeks to keep MBC ahead of the pack.

“The Arab world is becoming prominent on the global stage, which means that different points of view are emerging,” says bin Ibrahim. “The biggest challenge facing Arab media is its role in impacting the world’s view of Arabs and the Arab view of the world around them. We have a duty to present information to our Arab audience in a fair and unbiased manner.”

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