BBC enters crowded Arab TV market

Pubcaster looks to make mark in Middle East

As the BBC gets ready to launch an Arabic-language TV channel later this year, the British are touting a long-standing audience base in the region stretching back to 1938 when the BBC’s Arabic service radio was first established. But much has changed since the days when Arab viewers had few options to choose from. Today the Arab news market is one of the most, if not the most, competitive on the planet.

In addition to household names like Al-Jazeera and its well-heeled rival, Al-Arabiya, most of the world’s major players have also launched Arabic-language news channels over recent years. These include Al-Hurra (The Free One) from Washington, Russiya Aleyoum (Russia Today) from Moscow, Al-Alam (The World) from Tehran and France 24 from Paris.

If anything, an Arabic channel from London seems late in coming. It arrives at a time of market saturation, as well as audience fatigue with government-backed Arabic news.

However, the Middle East market remains untapped in terms of investigative journalism — reporting that does not shy away from the so-called “red lines” of Arab politics and society. Few Arab broadcasters would ever consider venturing into topics such as homosexual culture, the expenditures of royal families and military ties between Arab states and the West, to name just a few subjects.

Instead of soul-searching, coverage on most Arabic news channels is agenda-focused, reflecting loyalty to patrons over resource-intensive journalism. For example, the launch of Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya was seen as the Kingdom’s response to dissident-friendly Al-Jazeera, which is owned by the government of Qatar.

The BBC itself is no stranger to the controversy-ridden Arab TV business. Its latest Arabic channel is actually the network’s second foray into Middle East television. The first, an early 1990s commercial partnership with Saudi paybox Orbit, ended abruptly after “editorial disagreements.”

This time around, British taxpayers will pick up the entire bill, yet at a proposed budget of $38 million, it will still be lower than the cost of setting up either Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya.

The BBC will also have to vie for viewers with dozens of smaller channels across the region, which act simply as conduits of political parties in Lebanon, Iraq and among the Palestinian territories.

The U.K. pubcaster is seen as more objective than most of its Western counterparts, yet it remains an outsider in a market dominated by passionate views and big-budget competitors.

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