Vijaya Cherian brings you the inside scoop on Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture and Information’s multi-million dollar tech deals for its radio and TV facilities.
A US $26 million production facility in Dammam will be officially inaugurated after Eid; $31.5 million for a brand new digital radio facility in Jeddah and $33.5 million for TV centres in three Saudi provinces were awarded two months ago; a $7.5 million deal to refurbish the radio studios at Riyadh is currently under way as is a digital terrestrial TV project that was begun in 2006 while a state-of-the-art $30 million archival project is slated for completion in the next two years.
This is only a fraction of the multi-million dollar projects undertaken by the Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI) in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to achieve its three key goals: that of migrating to High Definition (HD), rolling out digital terrestrial television across the country and archiving historical footage that dates back to the 1950s.
Besides this, several satellite and transmission projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars as well as contracts for new production and radio facilities for some of the 13 provinces in the Kingdom are still to be awarded while others are awaiting completion or just been awarded.
Saudi Arabia is no small country. As the largest country in the Arabian Peninsula with an estimated population of 27.6 million (according to official estimates) and with very few private broadcasters operating in the Kingdom, the challenges that the Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI), which runs the country’s public radio and TV stations, face are many and daunting. For one, it places a huge onus on the MOCI to ensure that its four TV channels and radio stations reach the far reaching corners of the Kingdom.
The MOCI operates a whopping 150 transmission sites across the Kingdom, and although there are TV and radio production facilities in seven of the country’s 13 provinces, the objective is to have a comprehensive, albeit smaller facility in each of the 13, explains Dr. Riyadh Najm, assistant deputy minister for engineering at Saudi Arabia’s MOCI and a key player in helping the country meet sophisticated broadcast objectives that are on par with international standards.
“We already have facilities in Riyadh, Dammam, Kasim, Jeddah, Medina, Mecca and Abha,” explains Dr. Najm.
“But our plan is to build a model HD production facility with one TV studio, one radio studio and corresponding editing facilities in each of the other seven main provinces as well including Tawuk, Hail, Jazan, Baha, Najran, Arar and Joaf. We have already awarded a contract for a TV centre in Tawuk, Hail and Jazan two months ago and we will do the same for the others.”
Dr. Najm is very clear about where the broadcaster is heading. Having started his career as an engineer at Saudi TV in 1980 and having gradually worked in several key technical and media positions in radio and television at the MOCI before reaching his current position, he understands both sides of the business.
He has been one of the primary forces behind the silent technical revolution at Saudi TV and as president of the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU) and chairperson of the HDTV Arab Group, he has also played a key role in encouraging Middle East broadcasters to adopt a universal HD standard in the region rather than pursuing different formats.
Saudi TV itself has adopted 720p.
“Our aim is to work in 720P with a migration path to 1080p in the future and this is what we have recommended to other broadcasters as well. The network that we build within the studio, therefore, is ready for 1080p but the equipment is all 720p. We believe this format is ideal because there is tried and tested equipment across the whole chain that is 720P. We do not entertain continuous change of formats within the studio with some in 720p and others in 1080i or 1080p. I don’t think 1080p is ready as a full chain or maybe it is, but some parts of it are still subject to testing so we did not want to risk going with it,” explains Dr. Najm.
In the last couple of years, all investments have been geared towards a gradual migration to HD, at least with regards to production, says Dr. Najm. In some cases, the focus has been to migrate from analogue to digital.
“One of our main projects has been to transfer our TV operations from SD to HD at least in the production facilities. We don’t purchase anything that is not HD anymore unless we are making some minor SD upgrades in existing facilities. When we made this decision three years ago, we needed to refurbish the analogue studios within the cities in Medina and Kassim so these are our first fully-equipped HD studios,” Dr. Najm says.
The big digital production facility in Jeddah, however, was planned prior to the HD era and, therefore, its studios, although state-of-the-art, are SD, he adds.
Likewise, the two main facilities located in the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina to cover the live broadcasts of the prayers held there, were renovated and equipped earlier this year with HD equipment.
The Dammam production facility is perhaps the newest with key kit such as Hitachi HD cameras, Snell switchers and a range of Harris equipment for the control room.
“This facility will be inaugurated officially after Eid. It is a model facility, where we have two studios, production facilities and editing facilties that are fully equipped with HD equipment,” explains Dr. Najm.
On the radio side as well, several projects are ongoing or still to be awarded.
The radio studios are being migrated from analogue to digital formats with the aim of moving to an entirely tapeless environment.
“We took the decision to migrate four years ago. Presently, we are renovating the radio facility in Riyadh, where we have 15 radio studios. From here, we run all our radio channels — one of which is dedicated to the Quran, while there are others that develop programmes for our Arab listeners. We also have a multi-lingual channel for our English, French and Urdu listeners,” explains Dr. Riyadh.
NETIA is part of the new installation at Radio Riyadh, which incorporates 15 on-air and recording studios, along with extra studios for backup in case of an emergency. The installation includes 65 editing workstations and six archiving workstations.
The entire interface for the Radio-Assist system from NETIA at Radio Riyadh is in Arabic.
A similar full-fledged radio production facility is being built in Jeddah as well.
“This is a brand new facility and we expect it to be operational next year,” says Dr. Najm.
In addition to all of these projects, several isolated radio sites have also been recently built or being planned across the Kingdom in cities such as Dammam, Kassim, Abha, Mecca and Medina.
In several cases, TV and radio facilities will share some of the transmission equipment to drive efficiencies, he explains.
The technical reform in Saudi Radio and TV has not been without its challenges, admits Dr. Najm, although employees in radio have warmed to the technology faster than in TV.
“The operators in our radio facilities have embraced the change more openly. In TV, we find big resistance to adopting a tapeless environment. People don’t want to work with NLE; they prefer to work with tapes. Convincing operators to migrate to the new workflow has been difficult,” he explains.
In addition, the medium of operation has also been a significant issue in the organisation, where more than 95% of the employees are Saudi nationals and communication is primarily in Arabic.
“Unfortunately most of the IT operating systems are English based and many of our operators do not speak English. Now, it is becoming easier to get an Arabic interface and we insist the names of the programmes, titles and so on should be in Arabic. Many manufacturers claim they support Arabic but sometimes, we see that the support is quite superficial,” explains Dr. Najm.
Saudi Arabia is also well known as the first country in the Middle East to roll out digital terrestrial television, one of the country’s key investment projects.
“In 2006, we started with digital terrestrial television and so far, we have covered about 45 sites,” explains Dr. Najm.
“Our main objective was to include all the TV channels on terrestrial. We might continue with analogue for at least another three years but after that, we will go only with digital terrestrial,” he adds.
The changes in Saudi TV, however, are not confined to technical operations. Big changes are also in the offing for the MOCI’s Radio and TV division.
“We are in the process of corporatising radio and TV,” reveals Dr Najm.
“Presently, we are limited in terms of hiring, purchasing and so on. We do not have the flexibility to compete with other local or outside broadcasters. It may not be a full-fledged private enterprise. It will still follow some of the government regulations but it will be a more flexible system of operation that will allow us to run more professionally and with commercial objectives in mind,” explains Dr. Najm.
In the meantime, changes in TV content programming are also being shaped up under the leadership of Eng. Saleh AlMughaileeth, who is the assistant deputy minister for TV Affairs at Saudi TV and also, head of the technical committee at ASBU.
AlMughaileeth, who has decades of experience working in the MOCI’s radio and TV departments, is responsible for the entire operation of the TV facility. He is keen to bring more dynamic sports content, entertainment and news to the viewers.
“We’ve just invested in two two-camera SNG vans. The idea is to be able to produce and uplink on the spot and is great for news gathering. We also have a fleet of 16 OB vans at Saudi TV and the Saudi football league is closely followed here. There’s a lot we can do and we’re moving forward with more dynamic content,” explains AlMughaileeth.
A combination of technical and corporate reform with a much-needed content shakeup sounds like the ideal recipe for success at Saudi TV and radio. In addition, the technical model Saudi Arabia’s MOCI is pursuing for its radio and TV facilities is an efficient model that other regional broadcasters would do well to observe.
However, high-quality content is still the key factor that drives the success of any broadcaster and how far Saudi TV will be willing to go to provide better entertainment to its viewers is a question to be reckoned with.
Manufacturers involved in key broadcast projects in Saudi Arabia
- Thomson Grassvalley
Some major deals in KSA
- Dammam production facility - US $26 million
- Jeddah digital radio facility - $31.5 million
- TV centres in Tawuk, Hail and Jazan - $33.5 million
- Refurbishing radio studios at Riyadh - $7.5 million
- Archival project – $30 million
Dr. Riyadh Najm
Assistant Deputy Minister For Engineering
Ministry of Culture & Information, Saudi Arabia
Key positions presently held by Dr. Najm, an electrical engineer with a PhD in telecommunications from Liverpool University, UK.
- President of Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU) since January 2009.
- Chairman of the committee in charge of laying out AV and Broadcast regulations in KSA since 2007.
- Chairman of HDTV Arab Group since 2006.
- Chairman of the Technical Committee, World Broadcasting Unions since 2002.
Eng. Saleh AlMughaileeth
Assistant deputy minister for TV Affairs.
Head of the technical committee at ASBU since 2006.