NMIT Working Papers

Working Papers on New Media & Information Technology in the Middle East

Development and Decision-Making in Arab SatelliteTV

Posted by meaningfulconnections on September 6, 2008

Naomi Sakr, University of Westminster
Edited transcript of a contribution to the workshop on New Media and the Reconstruction of Popular Culture in the Arab World, Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. May 17, 2006

In this talk I plan to focus on decision-making in Arab satellite TV as a way of assessing some of the ways in which it is developing. As a point of entry I will start with a little anecdote about how decisions get made in one rather exceptional set of circumstances. It comes from an article written by Yasser Baraka for Middle East Times. Baraka was doing a story about private TV stations on the West Bank and he was sitting with a Palestinian family in Hebron, watching TV. The programme on the local TV channel was a documentary. But the family’s two teenage sons were not enjoying it, so the father dialled the TV station and spoke to the manager. All of a sudden the documentary went off the air, to be replaced by an action movie that was much more to his boys’ taste. To be fair, as part of the same article, the journalist also quoted the father as saying that this rather unusual form of “TV on demand” could equally work to his disadvantage. His family could be watching their favourite soap opera, and find it suddenly replaced in the middle with a football match or something else.

There are two reasons why this scenario serves as a way of contextualising decision-making in Arab television. The first is that it has nothing whatever to do with news. There is an ever-present tendency in research on Arab satellite TV to treat news and current affairs talkshows as the be-all and end-all of why satellite TV matters. The second reason is that it highlights the competition for airtime that exists among programme genres other than news. That competition exists not only in the budgeting and scheduling decisions made behind the screens, but also in the choices of viewers. In the case of the anecdote I just recounted, the competition was variously, at any given time, between documentary, drama, film, variety and sport — the things that people generally choose to watch in their leisure time viewing, whether they are on the West Bank or in Washington.

Of course, in most contexts, it’s a simple matter of zapping with your remote control to get the programme you want to watch. But the unusual situation of that family in Hebron illustrates in microcosm the different layers of competing forces that influence decision making in the television industry. For example, there are different groups of viewers — in terms of age, gender and control over access to the family TV set and “remote”. There are, as I have already mentioned, different programme genres, meaning that television managers have to decide the priorities they give to current affairs, drama, sport, movies and so on, based on their relative cost and popularity. And thirdly, who knows, there is very likely to be competition among different personalities in the television station in terms of where they take direction from and whom they wish to please.

I use that small example to illustrate one aspect of the development that has taken place across the Arab television industry over the past decade. It’s not just a question of private channels competing with each other and government channels wondering whether or not they should try to keep up. There are other struggles going on: inside channels, among audiences and between channels and audiences. It is also important to recognise that we can’t talk about the satellite sector as though it were self-contained. Terrestrial and satellite stations are not sealed off from each other; indeed, in the West Bank, small terrestrial broadcasters retransmit material from the big satellite channels. There is traffic between the two in terms of personnel. And recent changes in regulation have resulted in the first terrestrial TV licences being awarded to private operators in places like Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Oman.

So, with that said, I have structured my contribution around two dimensions of development in the industry as they relate to decision-making, namely proliferation and diversification. Under the heading of proliferation, I will address such questions as whether “more channels” translates into “more players” and whether barriers to market entry are higher or lower than they were. Under the heading of diversification, I will consider issues such as whether the power to take editorial decisions is being decentralised — whether it’s percolating through the layers of media management — and whether there is a serious increase in programming about local affairs. Inevitably, my remarks will be very broad brush and very schematic.

Starting with proliferation, it has become commonplace to talk about “200” or “250” Arab satellite channels. Once upon a time, people used to talk in wonder about 70 channels. Now we’ve way surpassed that — to the point where it seems not to matter very much how precise the number is. Whatever number we give this week will be out of date in a few days time. The main thing to remember about this explosion in numbers is that very few stations these days are content with just one or two channels. Naturally the pay-TV operators provide a big array of channels. But I’m talking about the free-to-air stations, which now also offer bouquets of channels.

Why do the channels multiply? There are important economic advantages for a single broadcasting company in being able to spread advertising over more than one channel; show material at different times on different channels so as to get “more bang for your buck” through repeats; build up a brand and audiences to match by offering alternative schedules. The logic of economies of scope applies to operations whether they are owned in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Dubai or anywhere in the world. Here I’m talking about operators that follow a rational business model, which would exclude Egypt’s state owned channels (of which I think there are around three dozen), but it would include Egypt’s private channels. Of course the obvious example of multiplication is MBC, which started out as one channel and is now four, or five if we include Al-Arabiya. Al-Jazeera is now a network, with channels for news, sports and children’s programming. Other Al-Jazeera channels are in the pipeline but that’s another story. Dubai TV consists of four channels, including channels specialising in film and sport. Rotana, owned by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, consists of six channels devoted to music and film, plus Al-Resalah, the new Islamic channel. Dream TV in Egypt started out with the intention of operating three channels and currently runs two. Melody, also Egyptian, divided itself into Melody Arabia and Melody Hits and added Melody Film.

This is not to say that there are no small newcomers to the market. There are. We hear about composers who create their own music channels, or publishers who recycle their content in audiovisual form. But it’s useful to check who is behind such ventures to see how new or small they really are, because what has happened with this explosion in free-to-air channels turning themselves into multichannel operations is that competition actually just got a whole lot harder. Any new entrant today has to compete with players who have already built up archives of music, film and other programming. These players have signed up exclusive deals with singers and film stars, signed sponsorship and advertising deals with the big companies that are interested in multi-country markets, and established relations with different audience segments across their different channels.

That’s why most of the new channels we see appearing are essentially music channels. They basically consist of recorded music and text messages running across the screen. This requires no budget for production or acquisition. And we see more religious channels — I think there are about eight now — which consist of televised sermons and talk. That’s also cheap. Where a new channel makes a splash, like Al-Resalah, it’s because it has the budget to hire prominent people. And that kind of budget usually means it belongs to someone from a ruling or business elite.

Now, as I wrote in my abstract for this talk, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with size. If we want diversity in content, and risk-taking in introducing daring or challenging content, very often it’s the big media operators who are best placed to go down this route. From a purely economic point of view, the security that comes with size should mean that an operator can take a chance in terms of putting new faces on the screen, introducing new content, or experimenting with new programme genres. Gambles like this can prove very profitable. But the question about big media companies is whether they have the flexibility to be creative. And that depends on how decision-making is organised. Obviously this is an issue that is in no way exclusive to Arab TV stations. It applies equally to Viacom, News Corporation, Time Warner, Disney and others.

You would think, in the multichannel environment, that there would have to be diffusion of control over editorial matters. Think of all the different job titles in companies where they have multiple channels. In MBC, you have a director of channels, an overall marketing manager, a business development manager and so on. Tim Riordan, as Director of Channels, was the person who fielded questions about MBC’s ill-fated experiment with Endemol’s Big Brother format in 2004. Michel Costandi, as Business Development Manager, had to do the same recently in relation to Fox TV’s series The Simpsons, screened by MBC as Al-Shamshoun. And ART has lots of departmental heads. The head of its Sports Channel is Charles Balchin, who used to work with the BBC and Sky. The head of its international sports event division is Karim Younes. He’s the one who has had to fend off criticism about ART, a pay-TV network, buying up exclusive rights to screen the World Cup in Arab countries. Likewise, we assume that Prince Alwaleed doesn’t micro-manage the six Rotana channels or Al-Resalah. Al-Resalah has a general manager, Sheikh Tariq Sweidan, based in Kuwait, and a Cairo bureau manager, Ahmad Abu Haiba. Rotana has someone overseeing SMS traffic across the network and its individual channels have managers. I don’t propose to give a list, merely to paint a picture of the proliferation of management jobs that occurs when stations and networks expand horizontally, as they have done in the past three to four years.

So the crux of the matter is this. If, as I argued earlier, entry into the TV market is getting harder, not easier (with the result that only limited amounts of new blood get in by that route), can we look instead to the proliferation of jobs that has taken place inside the big companies, in the expectation that this phenomenon has led to diffusion of decision-making?

Graham Murdock published an essay in 1982 in which he discussed different types of control in communication industries, including shareholder power.[2] In it he drew on existing work that distinguished between two basic levels of control. On one level you have allocative control, which signifies control over the allocation of resources, including the purpose for which they are allocated. On the other you have operational control, which signifies control over the use of resources that have already been allocated, according to purposes that have already been set. I think these categories are helpful in considering decision-making in broadcasters that operate multiple channels.

Allocative control includes hiring and firing at senior positions and allocation not only of budgets, but of resources needed for satellite transmission. It’s the kind of control that can be exercised with the briefest of telephone conversations. Someone powerful behind the scenes puts in a call to the network owner. The network owner puts in a call to a manager, and the deed is done. And, with the constant possibility of this kind of influence being exerted, those with operational control act accordingly. They learn to use resources in a way that will minimise interventions from on high. What lessons have they learned?

Some lessons have been learned from the summary removal of personnel. Mohammed Jassem al-Ali was removed as director general of Al-Jazeera in 2003. Al-Jazeera’s Moscow bureau chief, Akram Khuzam, was removed last year with no official explanation after nearly ten years in the post. Hala Sirhan, the prominent presenter and talkshow host who is now with Rotana, was forced out of Dream in 2002 when the Egyptian authorities threatened to withdraw the channel’s licence because of topics covered on air. Some lessons have been learned from incidents in which material didn’t get on air. Any news reporter, documentary maker or film production company in the region can cite examples of material they weren’t allowed to use for reasons of content, not space. Al-Arabiya spent US$50,000 to make a documentary about Darfur. It was called Jihad ala al-Jiyad (Jihad on Horseback) and it should have been aired in February last year. But the president of Sudan called the king of Saudi Arabia and the film was not shown.

In Ramadan 2004 there was the example of the drama serial, Tariq ila Kabul (Road to Kabul). It had a big publicity campaign, and was being shown on three or four satellite channels. It attracted viewers because it dealt with hot topics, including the story of the so-called “Afghan Arabs”. Yet it was pulled after only eight out of 30 episodes were shown, meaning that $2m had been spent on producing the series to no avail. According to Charles Levinson, writing in the Christian Science Monitor last year, the show had received threats from Taliban supporters but was actually cancelled because of US pressure on the Qatari government, since Qatar Television had commissioned the work. The US reportedly feared that scenes of CIA agents selling heroin to fund the mujahideen would fire anti-American sentiment in the region.[3]Now MBC, the biggest station to start showing the series, is suing the production company for US$20m for breach of contract. Its claim is that the company, Amman-based Arab Telemedia Services, failed to provide it with the complete series.

No wonder then that the heads of private production companies in Syria went on record recently as saying that their companies deliberately stayed away from history and politics in the material they produced for Ramadan in 2005. No wonder also that so much of the transmission time of leading channels is devoted to material that originates outside the region. I include in this the localised production of programmes based on foreign formats. The best known of these are Superstar and Star Academy, but these two are only the tip of a very large iceberg. I am not saying there is anything wrong with reality TV or game shows. I like some of these programmes as much as anyone else. I’m simply questioning whether decision-making processes are promoting development by allowing indigenous creativity enough scope.

Contact the author: naomi@mediaprobe.co.uk

Notes


D

[1] Yasser Baraka, ‘”TV on demand” all the rage in West Bank’, Middle East Times, 5 May, 2005

[2] Graham Murdock, ‘Large corporations and the control of the communications industries’, in M. Gurevitch, T. Bennett, J. Curran and J. Woollacott (eds) Culture, Society and the Media (London: Routledge, 1982) pp 118-150.

[3] Charles Levinson, ‘What’s on during Ramadan? Antiterror TV’, Christian Science Monitor, 3 November, 2005


All Rights Reserved. May not be reprinted in any format without permission of the Author.

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