News Vet Takes Role in Iraq TV

Jan 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In the wake of the Pentagon’s decision to grant a one-year $96 million contract to the Harris Corp. to take over operation of a fledgling Arabic-language media network based in Baghdad, Iraq, former ABC news producer Dorrance Smith has been assigned to oversee the project for the U.S.-backed Coalition Provisional Authority, which currently governs Iraq.
The initial contract to create the network, which includes radio and TV stations and a national newspaper, went to Science Applications International Corp., a major defense contractor in the Washington area with little experience in broadcasting. The service created in spring 2003 is known as the Iraq Media Network.
Under SAIC’s command, IMN appeared to stumble badly and was widely perceived as a CPA mouthpiece that failed to win much credibility with the Iraqi people. The effort, which has already cost more than $24 million, was perceived as an arm of the U.S. Defense Department. Some sources remain skeptical about IMN’s future as long as the U.S. military continue to control operations, which may be the biggest hurdle Harris Corp. and Mr. Smith will have to overcome.
In an interview last week, Harris Corp. Chairman and CEO Howard Lance said his company had a leg up over SAIC because Harris is a major manufacturer and supplier of broadcast equipment and technology. “We have a very good understanding of all of the infrastructure technology required in the broadcast business,” Mr. Lance said.
In addition, Mr. Lance said Harris had recruited two Middle Eastern media firms as partners-The Lebanese Broadcast Corp. International and Kuwait-based Al Fawares-to train Iraqis, program the stations and operate the newspaper.
Mr. Smith, 52, who has been serving as a CPA media adviser since late last year, declined comment on his plans for the network. But he confirmed that he been asked to oversee the project by CPA Ambassador Paul Bremer. “I’m just getting started,” Mr. Smith said. “I’ll report back to you when I know where we’re going.”
Mr. Smith has been a news producer for CNBC and before that executive producer of “This Week With Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts.” He was executive producer of political program development for ABC News, executive producer of ABC News “Nightline,” executive producer of “This Week With David Brinkley” and a producer for ABC News in Washington. He was also ABC News senior producer at the 1980 Winter Olympics, the 1984 Winter and Summer Games and the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Mr. Smith, a native of Houston, joined ABC News as a Washington producer in 1977 after working as a staff assistant to President Gerald Ford.
Norman Pattiz, chairman of Westwood One and a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, said Mr. Smith was a “very capable guy.”
“Having him on board is an absolute positive for what is a very difficult mission,” Mr. Pattiz said.
Big Plans for Baghdad
Mr. Lance said that under the contract, Harris is ultimately supposed to have two TV and two radio stations in place in Baghdad, with one radio and one TV station focused on news and the remaining two offering entertainment programming. Under the plan, the signals of the mother stations are supposed to be retransmitted by existing radio and TV stations in 30 cities throughout Iraq. The feeds will include opportunities to insert local programming.
Under the ambitious undertaking, the signal of the all-news TV station is supposed to be retransmitted by satellite, available throughout the Arab world.
Mr. Lance said the contract also calls for Harris and its Iraqi-based partners to train the about 1,300 existing employees of the Iraqi Media Network and to help create an Iraqi executive and management structure for the network so the Iraqis can run every aspect of the operation.
What programming gets on the air will ultimately be up to the Iraqis, according to Mr. Lance.
“That will be done by the management and leadership that’s put in place in the coming weeks and months to run the company,” Mr. Lance said.
“We’re going to teach them how to fish,” Mr. Lance said. “When our contract is over, they need to be able to do that on their own.”
The Harris contract is good for a year, but with two additional six-month options that could increase the total value to $165 million, according to the company. Mr. Lance said there were apparently four other companies vying for the contract. A source close to the issue identified one of the applicants as SAIC.
In its request for bids for the contract, the Pentagon, on behalf of the CPA, said the provisional authority’s goal was to “bequeath to the nation of Iraq and its people a world-class radio and television network and an equally world-class national newspaper.” In addition, the Pentagon said the goal was to establish the media institutions by the end of this year.
A Dec. 17 story in The New York Times credited Mr. Smith for pioneering a service late last year providing live satellite feeds of CPA’s Baghdad briefings to the United States. According to the Times story, the initiative was aimed at getting out a positive spin on events in Iraq by giving independent stations and cable systems a way to get around the “filter” of traditional TV network news operations.
But Mr. Smith said the service was simply a “feed capability” that didn’t exist previously. A Pentagon spokesman said the service, which gives Pentagon-based reporters the ability to question Baghdad-based CPA briefers live, was not being marketed to stations as an alternative to network coverage.
“It provides them [reporters] the ability to ask questions of the people on the ground,” the spokesman said.
Assuming the Iraqi Media Network’s news channel makes it onto the satellite, it will have plenty of competition in the skies of the Arab world, including such established networks as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya.
In addition, the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors is still planning to launch a 24-hour Arabic-language satellite TV network known as Alhurra (“the free one” in Arabic) by Feb. 15, to serve the entire region. Congress gave BBG about $62 million for the launch and an additional $40 million to create a network specifically for Iraq called Alhurra Iraq as another alternative. Alhurra Iraq will be available in Iraq by satellite and terrestrially.