Authorities take aim at network officials

The BBC will launch a Persian language news channel Wednesday — but the web has already provoked the ire of Iranian authorities before its bow.

BBC Persian TV, funded to the tune of £15 million ($23 million) a year, will initially broadcast eight hours a day and carry a mix of news and variety programming.

The free-to-air satcaster is aimed at the world’s 100 million Farsi speakers, particularly Iran’s population of 70 million and the 20 million Farsi speakers in Afghanistan.

It will complement the BBC’s 68-year-old Persian radio service and popular Persian Internet site, which is partly blocked and filtered by the Iranian government.

Iranian authorities have wasted no time in attacking the new channel in public, with reports on Iranian news agency IRNA accusing BBC officials of espionage and spreading lies.

The Iranian government has denied permission for the new channel to have a permanent base in Tehran. While the BBC does have a journo based in the Iranian capital, it has long been forbidden from employing a native Farsi-speaker in the role.

BBC execs downplayed the spat at a London confab, saying they are maintaining a dialogue with Iranian officials.

“They’re taking a wait-and-see attitude,” BBC World Service director Nigel Chapman said. “There is an interest and curiosity, but they’re holding their cards close to their chest, which is understandable given the context of Britain’s relations with Iran.”

BBC execs hope the new channel will be more successful than its BBC Arabic channel, launched last March. It has found it difficult to dislodge market leaders Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar, and MBC’s Al-Arabiya, Saudi-owned but based in Dubai.

BBC Persian TV hopes to exploit a potentially big gap in the market.

Iranian auds have a limited choice of tightly controlled state channels, the U.S.-funded Voice of America and a clutch of U.S.-based satcasters that beam a mix of musicvids and anti-regime rhetoric.

“We didn’t have the same range of opportunity with Arab TV,” Chapman said. “There’s a bigger playing field for the Persian channel. There’s no Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya available in Persian.”

While satellite dishes are illegal in Iran, the rooftops of Tehran are littered with them. Chapman estimated that some 20 million Iranians have access to satellite TV.

The Persian-speaking market has become increasingly attractive to TV execs, thanks to its large, well-educated, youthful market.

News Corp.’s Asian entertainment unit Star is set to launch a Farsi-language general entertainment TV channel early this year. Targeting a Middle East audience, the company will set up a sales and marketing office in Dubai Media City, the base of its Middle East operations.

Last July, MBC, the Arab world’s most popular TV net, launched Farsi-language movie channel MBC Persia.

The 24-hour, free-to-air satellite movie channel was an audacious attempt by MBC’s founder and chairman Saudi Sheik Waleed al-Ibrahim to tap into Persian auds in Iran and the Arab world, particularly across the Gulf.

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