As revolutions upend the political landscape across the Arab world, the news media landscape is shifting, too.
The market for Arabic-language television news, dominated for years by two satellite channels with close links to Arab rulers, is poised for a shot of new competition with the pending introduction of two 24-hour news channels backed by western media conglomerates.
Prince Walid bin Talal, the Saudi billionaire who controls the media company Rotana, provided details last month of one of the channels, which will be named Alarab and will operate in partnership with Bloomberg, the business news and information company.
Meanwhile, British Sky Broadcasting, the pay-television provider, is moving ahead with plans for the introduction of another new channel, called Sky Arabia, in partnership with Abu Dhabi Media Investment, which is controlled by Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a member of the ruling family of the Gulf emirate.
Analysts say the new channels, which are set to start broadcasting next year, could provide the first serious challenge in years to Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, which have enjoyed a viewership duopoly for much of the past decade.
Joe Khalil, co-author of the book ‘Arab Television Industries,’ said he did not think the newcomers would replace Al Jazeera, which is owned by the royal family of Qatar, or Al Arabiya, which is based in Dubai and owned by Saudi investors with royal connections.
Those broadcasters have long faced competition from several other regional news channels, including BBC Arabic Television and Al Hurra, which is financed by the US government.
But the new channels “are high-profile projects, and the increased diversity will put pressure on the market leaders to distinguish themselves,” Khalil said.
While the new channels missed out on the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, as well as uprisings in other Arab countries, executives say they are confident that demand for news will continue to grow. “We believe that these stories that are happening are not a one-off,” said Nart Bouran, general manager and head of news at Sky Arabia.
“News is news, and I’m sure we’ll have plenty of it next year.”
Sky Arabia, which plans to start broadcasting next spring from Abu Dhabi, will have 13 news bureaus across the region, and will share resources with Sky News of Britain, he said.
Jamal Khashoggi, director of Alarab, said plans for the channel predated the Arab Spring. He said viewers were ready for news with a different look and feel, including a greater emphasis on financial information.
“It was a reform-minded plan, so I think it will fit very well into the evolving landscape,” said Khashoggi, former editor of the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan. “We will focus on what people want, which is a better living.”
Bloomberg will produce five hours of daily business coverage, in Arabic, for Alarab. Bloomberg executives will also be “heavily involved in an advisory capacity” to the channel, Lindsey Oliver, international commercial director at Bloomberg Television, said in an e-mail. “We will be working alongside the Alarab team in developing the sets and advising on what has been shown to work best for international rolling news channels,” she said.
While the new channels will compete with each other and against the existing players, they are linked in at least one indirect way. Prince Walid is the second-largest shareholder in News Corp., which owns a 39 per cent stake in BSkyB.
Meanwhile, News Corp., which is effectively controlled by its chief executive, Rupert Murdoch, is the second-largest shareholder in Prince Walid’s Rotana. Alarab has been set up as independent from Rotana, however.
The Arab Spring heightened the demand for news and information, and broadcasters like Al Jazeera, in particular, drew praise from western analysts for much of their coverage. But the political uprisings also exposed perceived political biases at Al Jazeera and other news channels, analysts say.
Al Jazeera, for example, was generally seen as supporting the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya but was accused of soft reporting on the government crackdown on the uprising in Bahrain, a neighbour to Qatar. Al Arabiya, on the other hand, was more supportive of the old regime in Egypt, and is generally seen as more conservative than Al Jazeera.
Arab media analysts are also watching closely to see whether Al Jazeera changes after the departure of its longtime news director, Wadah Khanfar, who resigned last month. Khanfar was replaced by a member of the Qatari royal family, prompting speculation that the emirate might try to exert more influence over Al Jazeera’s news coverage.
Meanwhile, more fundamental changes may already be under way in the Arab news media scene.
One reason that news providers like Al Jazeera attracted such a large following was that they were beyond the control of authoritarian regimes in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, where governments kept the local media on a tight leash. Now that those regimes have fallen, the local news media are moving toward greater openness, and new channels providing news and commentary on current events have sprung up.
This could eventually undermine the audience for so-called pan-Arab channels beamed in from outside via satellite, analysts say. “The pan-Arab market is already saturated,” said Faisal Abbas, a former media editor at Asharq Alawsat, an Arabic newspaper that is based in London. “Unless you can clearly differentiate yourself from Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya, it’s going to be difficult for the newcomers.”
In the shift to a greater local emphasis, Al Jazeera has already started a separate news channel aimed at Egyptian viewers. Khashoggi said Alarab would focus on Saudi Arabia, while not ignoring news from other countries in the region.
Furthermore, most advertising is sold locally, rather than on a regional basis, favouring national broadcasters rather than the satellite channels. But Bouran, the Sky arabia general manager, said there was room for new channels like Sky Arabia.
“I don’t know why people are saying there’s too many channels,” he said. “A local channel in Libya is going to focus on Libya. There’s still a market for pan-Arab channels. They will complement each other.”
Though Sky Arabia has links to the Abu Dhabi government, the channel will be run as a for-profit venture, with financing commitments from each partner for “a sufficient period of time to allow us to stand on our feet and be commercially viable,” Bouran said.
To attract viewers, the new channels will also have to demonstrate editorial independence, an issue that has previously bedeviled western news ventures with Arab partners.