Crisis splinters Lebanon coverage

Rival channels find access, revenues blocked

The Lebanese TV biz is counting the cost of the political divide in the country.

Ever since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a massive car bomb blast on Valentine’s Day in 2005, Lebanon has been polarized between supporters of the Western-backed government and those of the pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian opposition.

That split has filtered its way into the Lebanese TV biz, once the most thriving in the region. Whereas Lebanon was synonymous with delivering popular entertainment programming such as locally produced versions of “Star Academy” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” for much of the 1990s and early part of this decade, now the focus in the country has taken a more serious current-affairs bent.

“In the past, TV channels here used to have one political program a week, but now they have up to four political shows,” says Layla Wehbi, the former head of programming at Future TV who recently ankled the satcaster to set up the media services company Think Plus. “People who want to be objective in Lebanon have to watch two or three news bulletins an evening because you can’t get the full picture from just one channel. They each show their own perspective. It’s a situation that’s unique to Lebanon.”

Future TV is a case in point. Founded by the late Hariri, it scored a huge hit in 2003 with the first season of “Superstar,” the region’s “American Idol” equivalent. Since Hariri’s assassination, however, the satcaster (while still owned by the late leader’s family) has struggled to reconcile its position as a general entertainment channel while also acting as a platform for Hariri’s Future political movement, a leading member of the government majority.

In December last year, Future execs launched Future News, a dedicated 24-hour news channel, partly to allow the original channel to reclaim its entertainment mantle, while also serving as an admission of the strategic importance held by current affairs.

But the news station’s political affiliations are hampering its ability to operate freely. The Future movement is highly critical of the Syrian regime, accusing it of being behind the Hariri assassination and the spate of bombings and targeted killings that have bedeviled Lebanon in recent months. Syrian officials have consistently denied the charges.

“We can’t get accreditation to cover the Arab Summit in Syria, and we’re unable to interview Syrian guests as much as we’d like because of the situation,” says Future News chief Nadim Munla, who previously topped Future TV. “In some ways, this polarization is virtual. Cable operators in some regions of Lebanon that support Hezbollah and Michel Aoun (two prominent members of the antigovernment opposition) won’t distribute the service, while guests from rival political parties won’t appear on each other’s talkshows.”

Fallout from the situation isn’t just affecting what’s onscreen.

Ad revenues are down for local channels due to the depressed economy, leaving Lebanese TV execs looking to diversify their businesses.

LBC, one of the most popular pan-Arab satcasters, has merged with Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal’s media titan Rotana. That deal most likely would have gone through anyway, but it is an indication that Lebanese satcasters can no longer rely as keenly on their domestic markets, particularly when Persian Gulf-based channels such as MBC, Dubai TV and Al-Jazeera are luring Lebanese talent with bigger salaries and greater security.

LBC’s deputy head Karim Sarkis, for example, ankled the satcaster to join the newly revamped Abu Dhabi TV as exec director earlier this year.

“There’s no doubt we’ve been affected by the political situation in Lebanon, but the economic situation is much more of an issue,” says LBC topper Pierre Daher. “Talent in Lebanon is getting better offers from around the Gulf.”

While fewer companies appear willing to set up major production centers in Beirut for fear of the security situation, Lebanese TV execs are turning away from broadcasting as a core business model. Though Egypt and Syria have traditionally been the major centers of production in terms of Arab TV drama skeins, Lebanon remains the place to go for general entertainment shows such as LBC’s still-popular reality skein “Star Academy.” Leading pan-Arab satcasters MBC and Dubai TV both produced their big-budget musical skeins “Album” and “Taratata” respectively in Beirut.

“Lebanon is still No. 1 in the Arab world in terms of producing content,” Munla insists. “We’re moving away from being the top broadcasters to being the top content providers.”

As political deadlock persists, the Lebanese are eyeing their fate carefully. What isn’t in doubt, however, is their belief in themselves to bounce back.

“The Lebanese are fighters,” Wehbi says. “Plus the know-how, talent and facilities are still in Beirut.”

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