Arab network reaches out to next generation

Al Jazeera Children's Channel emphasizes education

Hunting wabbits isn’t as foreign a concept to kids in say, Saudi Arabia, as you might think.

Four years ago, 90% of children’s television in the Arab world consisted mostly of fare like “Bugs Bunny” and “Tom & Jerry” dubbed in Arabic. That changed with the 2005 launch of Al-Jazeera Children’s Channel (JCC) based in Doha, Qatar.

The brainchild of Qatar first lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, it offers edutainment programming in formats like game, talk, magazine and animation — all in classical Arabic. It has special programming for Ramadan. And it’s altering the face of kids’ TV in the pan-Arab world.

“We try to bring our viewers — mainly children, but also their families — something that entertains but also educates and informs them on their lives, rights, education, health, environment and the world,” says Mahmoud Bouneb, JCC executive general manager and the closing keynote speaker at the upcoming Mip Junior in Cannes.

He adds: “Our competitors in the Arab world do not produce as much as we do. They buy programs, dub them and show them.”

JCC is so busy expanding programming that in January, it split into two channels to provide more airtime for different age groups. The new channel, Baraem, is for preschoolers, while the original JCC focuses on ages 6-15.

The edutainment mission of the channels — which reach 45 million to 50 million households in all of Europe and the Arab world via satellite — has invigorated the way children’s programming for the pan-Arab world is created.

“On JCC, we produce 60% of what we broadcast,” Bouneb says.

At headquarters in Education City outside Doha, the channels have three fully staffed production studios in use 80% of the time. They also commission and co-produce on all five populated continents. “The Baaas,” a show about a sheep family, was co-produced with Welsh public television station S4C and airs on Baraem in Arabic, and on the BBC in Welsh and English.

“The Baaas” is just one Baraem show that focuses on love of family, learning and the arts. Bouneb expresses disappointment that so much children’s programming on other channels has promoted materialism and viewed kids as mini-consumers. JCC and Baraem are not commercial. Funding comes mostly from the Qatar Foundation with a budget of about $100 million for the two channels.

The channels also are creating parallel programming online for classroom use and will soon launch an educational platform created by Arab teachers with the help of Microsoft.

At the same time, Bouneb says, “We are not a school — we would be a very boring channel.” One of the most popular JCC shows, “Addarb,” or “The Road” (as in “the road to knowledge”), is educational but in a fast-moving, competitive-game format.

“It’s physical and mental challenges, where the yellow team and red team face each other to reach the first prize, which is usually a computer or something like that,” Bouneb says.

The prizes Al-Jazeera is aiming for: creating a higher percentage of original programming and increasing reach. Just two of the shows premiering in 2010 are the animated “Rosie,” co-produced for Baraem with British company VGI Entertainment, and “Tell Me What You Eat,” a humorous magazine format for JCC promoting nutrition. The channels hope to expand to North America, where licensing issues have prevented them from broadcasting.

“We are among the top three channels for children covering the Arab world. We are doing our best to be No. 1 at least for preschoolers,” Bouneb says.

“We do not tell viewers, ‘Don’t watch “Bugs Bunny.” ‘ We tell them we have another (offering) that will help you understand yourself, your society and your world better.”

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