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Exclusive First Look: Alhurra Gallops Into Mideast Media Mix

Feb 16, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Like this image of Arabian stallions at full gallop, the new Alhurra Arabic-language television network is off and running this week with news coverage beamed at the Middle East, despite significant competition and mounting controversy.
The signature horses, done in several print and video variations, will be the on-screen brand image for the U.S. government-backed service, which will transmit by satellite to 22 countries in the region. There will also be a spinoff version of the news service for terrestrial broadcast in Iraq beginning in 30 to 60 days.
Alhurra was scheduled to debut over the weekend with a 14-hour-per-day program schedule that will expand to 24-hour programming in a few weeks. Programming will include in-depth newscasts, a nightly live talk show called “Free Hour” and Arabic translations of documentary and information programming.
The branding campaign for Alhurra (Arabic for “The free one”) was created by Martin Lambie-Nairn and Charlotte Castle for Lambie-Naim, an international branding specialist with offices in New York and London, said Lambie-Naim President Nick Hough. There is a corporate logo with animated versions for station breaks and for various news elements.
Norman Pattiz, chairman of Westwood One and a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the group that oversees the Middle East Television Network (a branch of the BBG), the parent organization of Alhurra, called the graphics package “magnificent” and said it will “raise the bar” for all TV services in the Middle East.
“An Arabian stallion is a symbol of great respect and great pride within the region,” said Mr. Pattiz. “It’s a symbol of freedom. It’s a symbol of openness.”
The brand will include a musical signature, which is being incorporated into an advertising campaign designed for Alhurra by the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency in Beirut, Lebanon, said Mr. Pattiz.
Radio Sawa
One of the first places ads are running is on Radio Sawa (“together” in Arabic), which the BBG launched as an entertainment and news radio service for the Middle East about two years ago, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The Arabic-language service, featuring a lot of western music as well as news reports, has become popular in the region, especially among young people.
There have been reports in the Middle East that Alhurra will be the video version of Radio Sawa, but Mr. Pattiz said that is not the case. “This will be much more like a CNN or an MSNBC or Fox News, or an Al-Jazeera for that matter,” said Mr. Pattiz, “only it will be much more visually appealing.”
Al-Jazeera is one of a number of Arabic-language satellite services already serving the region. Most are considered to have an anti-American slant, which Alhurra is intended to counter. But Mr. Pattiz promised that Alhurra will not broadcast propaganda in any form: “It would be ridiculous and self-defeating for us to do propaganda broadcasts when our mission is to do journalism. We know full well that if we put programming out that is perceived as propaganda or as not fair and balanced, or is perceived as biased, then we cannot possibly maintain viewers and listeners to our service.”
BBG Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson said in a statement, “Our competitive edge in the Middle East is our very dedication to truth and free and open debate. And we will stand out like a beacon of light in a media market dominated by sensationalism and distortion.”
This is the second major media initiative launched in the region by the United States. The first effort, known as the Iraq Media Network, serves only Iraq. It includes a TV and radio station and a newspaper and is developing a TV network. IMN has been severely criticized as little more than a mouthpiece for the U.S.-led coalition and the U.S. Department of Defense, which has funded it with more than $130 million since early last year.
When the contract for IMN came up in January, it was taken away from the initial vendor and awarded to the Harris Corp., which in turn enlisted the Lebanon Broadcasting Co. to help train workers (TelevisionWeek, Jan. 19).
While IMN is only in Iraq, Alhurra is a regional service and a completely separate effort. It is funded by the United States with $62 million for its first year and overseen by the BBG, the independent, autonomous entity responsible for all U.S. government nonmilitary international broadcasting. The U.S. secretary of state is an ex officio member of the BBG. Among the broadcast entities the BBG oversees are Voice of America, Radio Farda, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio and TV Marti, and WorldNet Television.
Alhurra has hired some 200 English- and Arabic-language journalists. It is based in Springfield, Va., a suburb of Washington, where new studio and broadcast facilities have just been completed. Mouafac Harb, who was Washington bureau chief for the London-based Arabic daily newspaper Al Hayat, is Alhurra’s news director. Alhurra also has bureaus in Baghdad, Iraq; Cairo, Egypt; Amman, Jordan; Kuwait; the United Arab Emirates and other Middle East locations.
Interview With Bush
The efforts of journalists for Alhurra will be joined with those from Radio Sawa, creating what Mr. Pattiz said will soon be “one of the largest Arabic-language newsgathering operations in the world.”
Even before it went on the air this past weekend, Alhurra was drawing criticism from some quarters. An Associated Press story out of Cairo quoted Egyptian journalists and others who called Alhurra “an American attempt to destroy Islamic values and brainwash the young.”
Mr. Pattiz said that is nonsense. “I’m not surprised by this,” Mr. Pattiz added. “These stories would be a lot more credible if the station was on the air when they were written and they actually knew what we are doing. They said exactly the same thing about Radio Sawa, and all the research done in the last year shows that it has become the most popular radio station for its target audience in almost every market that it is heard in, and its news is considered reliable. And the majority of the audience now has a more positive view of the United States.”
Many of the articles quote other journalists on the prospects for Alhurra. Mr. Pattiz said that is like asking Pepsi what it thinks of Coca-Cola: “We are basically being critiqued by our competitors.”
One of Alhurra’s first news coups is an interview with President George W. Bush, which will likely air in the next few days. Other programs will feature news reports, round tables and interview shows. A prime-time broadcast schedule is posted daily at www.alhurra.com.
The potential audience that can receive satellite in the region is more than 30 million, said Mr. Pattiz, who predicted the view of Alhurra will change once people get a chance to watch.
“It’s great they are talking about us,” he said. “That is going to attract listeners to sample us and once they sample us, that’s when we think we have a real opportunity to get them to come back again and again.”