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With two more Arabic channels launching, we see if there’s room for fresh faces in a tricky market
May 19, 2011 2:52 by Sidra Tariq
With the MENA region at the center of current uprisings, this is perhaps one of the best times to report from the region. For years now, Arabic news channels such as Qatar-based Al Jazeera, and Middle East Broadcasting Corporation’s (MBC) Al Arabiya, have dominated the market with step-by-step coverage of regional events. Many other regional and international news entities have also followed suit over the past few years.
And now at least two more 24-hour Arabic news channels are slated for release in the next 12 months. Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud, chairman of Kingdom Holding Com pany and a 7 percent stakeholder in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (which owns Fox News), is reportedly launching a news channel in October this year.
Prince Alwaleed is also chairman of Rotana Holding, which is one of the largest producers and distributors of Arabic music and owns free-to-air TV and radio stations, a chain of cafés, and advertising sales arm Rotana Media Services. As of last year, News Corporation has had a 9.09 percent stake in the Rotana Group, which it had bought for $70 million.
Meanwhile, Sky News Arabia, a 50-50 joint venture between pay television provider British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) – in which News Corp has shares and which owns Sky News – and Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corp (ADMIC), will hit the airwaves in Spring 2012. The venture will be led by recently-appointed director of news Nart Bouran, who previously worked as director of television for Reuters news agency.
James Murdoch, son of Rupert Murdoch and chairman and non-executive director at BSkyB, said at a recent press conference in Abu Dhabi, “The Middle East and North Africa are going through rapid change and development: economic, social and political. What happens here shapes the news agenda, not just in this region, but across the world. Sky News Arabia is an opportunity for us to participate in and contribute to the region’s future growth.”
Ziad Skaff, group director at Omnicom Media Group’s (OMG) research unit Integral OMG, says, “I think it is a natural step for not only media channels, but for any multinational brand today to explore further developing countries or markets [to increase their growth figures and revenues].
The Middle East is one of the markets that is very interesting as well for media channels, because they can broadcast from one market – let’s say the UAE – and reach more than 300 million consumers in the region who speak the same language, and that is pretty unique.”
The Middle East may be attractive to set up a news base, but in a region where there are plenty of Arabic news channels and where two brands – Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera – enjoy a majority of the market share, is there really room for more?
“Like any other product category, there is always room for competitors,” says Mazen Fakhoury, managing director of media agency Mindshare KSA. “However, there has to be a differentiator that is relevant to consumers, and that addresses their needs in superior fashion, be it in terms of content, interface, or even interaction with viewers.
Credibility is key for such a channel to succeed.”
Skaff agrees that while the region’s media scene is “very, very, very” cluttered, there still is room for more channels as it gives consumers more choice. Consumers nowadays are very picky and know exactly what they want, he says. “This is why it is not any more a race when it comes to being channel A or B or C. Yes, definitely the channel name, the channel history, and the channel’s understanding of the consumers matter, but it is more about content.”
ROOM TO GROW
Adrian Wells, launch director for Sky News Arabia (previously head of international news for Sky News), says, “We are [aware] that there are already a few very good 24-hour news offerings in the market. Nevertheless, we think that there is room to bring the Sky News model, which obviously is predominant in the UK, into this market. That is not to say that we will be running the same editorial agenda as Sky in the UK, because the channel will be very focused on the MENA region, and of course have very strong elements of international news as well.”
Mindshare’s Fakhoury says that apart from the obvious strong contenders Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, the new Arabic news channels may also face competition – though to a lesser extent – from BBC Arabic, France 24 and Russia Today. Other potential competitors include the US-funded Al Hurra.
As a brand in any competitive market, the new channels will have to differentiate themselves from the existing ones. Wells says that Sky News Arabia has something different to offer in a number of areas. “[Firstly], Sky News relies and draws upon a breaking news model in the way that we treat news,” he says. “We do not have so much current affairs programming in our schedule. We want to be able to be truthful in our claim in being first for breaking news.”
“We are also very keen on this business being a multi-platform business from the very start,” he says. Sky News Arabia plans to launch a website and a mobile version by the end of this year – before the television channel is launched, he adds. It may launch tablet applications in the future.
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