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Lebanon’s new TV channel: OTV

Station launched in August after weeks of delay

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s newest TV channel, OTV, which finally launched in August 2007 after weeks of delays, was pitched as the first in the country to be “owned by the people” and couched in slogans of objectivity and integrity; a lofty claim given the deeply partisan nature of Lebanese broadcasting.

But despite its public shareholding scheme — which was aimed at raising some $40 million to fund the launch this July — OTV now fits comfortably into the self-righteous propagandistic landscape that is Lebanon’s media industry. This was obvious from the start, with the station’s brochures and branding drenched in orange, the color adopted by former general and top Christian leader Michel Aoun to represent his political party.

But if the colors and name weren’t enough, a recent ‘breaking news’ event served as the quintessential example of the seemingly impenetrable relationship between politicians and TV channels in Lebanon: everyone who is anyone has one, from Hassan Nasrallah (Al Manar) to Parliament speaker Nabih Berri (NBN), to majority leader, Saad Hariri (Future Television).

On a warm evening in August in the middle of OTV’s first in-house soap opera, programming was suddenly interrupted to carry a live event. But as is so typically the case with Lebanese television, and so foreign to Western mindsets, the “breaking” news was not carried on any other local channel but OTV itself. When the footage began rolling, it was none other than Aoun, known locally as “El General,” giving a live interview from his home via satellite to Dubai-based MBC during its regular newscast. Minutes later, after a few of the General’s trademark chuckles and warnings about America’s role in the Middle East, the brief exchange with the anchorwoman was over. The soap was then abruptly snapped back on the screen, although the tape had been rewound too far and viewers had to watch a couple of scenes over.

But OTV is not only about politics. In addition to dramas, OTV also has talk shows, documentary shorts, and a full slate of subtitled programming with a vaguely intellectual emphasis on art, history and science. Instead of the typical American or French fare, OTV has chosen to broadcast a number of programs from Germany’s DW TV. Move is an unexpected choice that may introduce a semblance of diversity into the local import market which is replete with Hollywood action flicks, sitcoms and reality shows.

In terms of production values, OTV’s significant budget places it in the upper tier of Lebanese television, providing some much-needed competition to the popular LBC, which has produced highly rated shows such as “Star Academy,” as well as Future Television, which produces “Superstar,” the Arab version of “American Idol.”

Both Future and LBC are seen as pro-government channels, while opposition-friendly Al Manar, New TV and NBN have produced considerably less in terms of high budget entertainment. Here perhaps OTV will make a difference, tipping the balance further in favor of the anti-American opposition and in such a way that incorporates bigger budgets, evident in OTV’s relatively sleek graphics, bumpers and promos.

In fact, OTV’s first drama series closely resembles any made by LBC, staring many of the same actors that often appear simultaneously in different shows during the same season — another weakness of the Lebanese broadcasting industry. However LBC, which has gained regional recognition well beyond Lebanon, has recently been merged with entertainment giant Rotana and thus may prove to be a tough, increasingly well-heeled competitor.

The most scrutinized OTV production, though, will be the eight o’clock news, where LBC has arguably been the most dominant force. There won’t be much competition between the two in terms of ethics. Both will claim objectivity while parading speeches and photo opportunities from a disproportionate amount of politicians they favor, over those they don’t. Thus, since Lebanese viewers have come to accept polarization, and because many watch several bulletins per evening, the real difference between OTV and LBC will be resources, i.e. the reach of coverage and the number and caliber of respective reporters and anchors. Here OTV will face additional challenges; none of its on-air faces are very familiar and most of its news packages have so far omitted the expected ‘stand-up’ segment, where a reporter often signs off.

Despite the shortcomings, OTV has so far demonstrated a penchant for playful wit, which is refreshing compared to the sober formality of LBC anchors. For example, the final news story or ‘kicker’ on a recent OTV bulletin consisted of a broken water main erupting in geyser-like fashion over a nearby highway. Naturally, the report was used to criticize the inefficiency of Lebanon’s US-backed government, but instead of a serious rebuke, the anchor remained silent as footage showed a number of drivers slowly pulling up to the waterfall-like phenomenon and driving to and fro underneath it with the effect of having a free car wash. The anchor then used the traditional Arabic phrase “naiman,” translated roughly as “happy bathing,” as a wry smile appeared across his face before bidding the viewers goodnight. That combination of humor and confrontation, which is common among Aoun’s speeches, may help OTV secure its core support base, but the new channel will need more than a little wit to keep most viewers from switching to the glitz of LBC and others.

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