Happy birthday, BBC Arabic!

BBC Arabic celebrated its 75th birthday in January this year.
BBC, BBC Arabic, Analysis, Broadcast Business

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BBC Arabic, the oldest of the BBC’s language services, celebrated its 75th Birthday in January. Digital Studio looks back on a proud broadcasting history.

he BBC Arabic service is part of the BBC’s World Service, and BBC Arabic radio first was launched in January 3rd 1938 from London. Following on from the initial radio service, bbcarabic.com launched in 1998 and BBC Arabic Television was launched in 2008.

The channel is freely available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to anyone with a satellite dish as well as online and on mobile devices via bbcarabic.com.

The BBC’s international services attract a weekly audience of 239 million people who tune in for broadcasts in 28 different languages. Since the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring,’ BBC Arabic’s audience has grown by 17 per cent to a record high of 25.3 million adults weekly - up from 21.6 million before the chain reaction that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010.

Total weekly audiences currently stand at 7.6 million radio listeners, 20.6 million TV viewers and 1 million online users.

During this period, weekly reach across most Arab markets increased significantly with countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan doubling their weekly audience reach. The biggest increases to audiences were seen in Jordan, where the BBC Arabic TV audience doubled to a weekly reach of 25.6%, reaching 1.1 million people.

BBC Arabic has a number of offices around the Arab region, as well as in countries outside that are relevant to Arab populations, as head of news gathering, Bassam Andari, explains: “We have a presence in most Arab countries and some outside – our biggest operations are in Beirut, Jerusalem, Gaza, Ramallah and Cairo.

Outside the Arab region we also have a presence in Turkey, Washington, London and Pakistan in the form of either our own staff or freelancers we use regularly.”

Andari also reveals that BBC Arabic is in the process of streamlining its operations, but despite press reports last year claiming that the service was closing its regional bureaus, he is adamant that the latest stage in BBC Arabic’s evolution is very much one of improving the service, not restricting it.

He explains: “We’re not closing bureaus, but in areas where the BBC has more than one place of operation we’re combining them. It simply doesn’t make sense, when BBC’s UK operation has moved all its foreign language and English services into one location on Oxford Circus, to continue having separate operations in the Middle East.

We’re trying to use our resources better and our policy now is to try and recruit or deploy from London bilingual reporters who can report for both the Arabic and English services at the same time.

“One of our strongest operations in this regard is the Baghdad office where BBC Arabic correspondents cover for both the Arabic and English services. We’re working on developing this further, and its proved useful on many occasions, so scaling down the number of offices and buildings actually leads to a bigger service.”

BBC Arabic’s editor-in-chief, Faris Couri, agrees, commenting following the merger of the Baghdad bureaus (the first to merge) in 2012: “For a long time we were kind of a standalone operation, but now we are no more. It started as a cost-cutting measure. But … it will enhance cooperation. Editorially, it makes a lot of sense to have a correspondent talking in both languages from the same location.”

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Each BBC Arabic team in the region consists of a cameraman and a reporter, and such teams are currently in place in Beirut, Jerusalem, Gaza, Ramallah, Cairo, Damascus, Yemen, Islamabad, Turkey, Washington and France, with a team due to start in Sudan soon, and Andari adds that regular freelancers are in place in every other country in the region.

Unlike some news services, he says, the reporters are closely involved with the production and editing of their own stories: “At some news organizations the producer will maybe work on a story, then the reporter will add his voice piece to camera, but our reporters are quite involved with choosing shots and editing. They send the story back to London almost complete.

There’s no time for sending stories to London and letting the team there put them together, news travels too fast – particularly in the Middle East.

The reporters have their own editing equipment and they send their stories in either over the internet, or by satellite in countries where we have a bigger operation as that’s quicker. All that then needs adding in London is bits of CG or graphics and it’s ready for broadcast.”

At the same time as BBC Arabic is seeking to streamline its bureaus, it is also in the process of rolling a uniform approach to the technology used across the corporation, another area where its foreign language services previously acted as stand-alone operations and made their own way: “We used to work separately and Arabic and English services would use different gear and not feed into each other so much.

Historically language services have had less budget than the BBC’s domestic ones, partly because of the different funding model with language services funded by the Foreign Office rather than the licence fee, but that’s in the process of changing too and the corporation is trying to bring all its operations in line with the same technology.

“This is rolled out gradually, partly because of training – we may need to bring people to London to train and it can be hard to take a few days off to go to London when so much is happening in the Middle East.

The BBC technology department looks after the needs of programmes and news gathering and they advise us on the equipment we should use, then we roll it when it becomes available. This can take time too as the equipment needs to be loaded with BBC-licensed software, so it all comes from one source and is gradually rolled out to where it needs to be.”

The service also has small production facilities in its Cairo, Jerusalem and Washington offices, which are suitable for one-on-one interviews and the like, while any of its bureaus in the region can be linked to the London HQ. It’s a cut throat world in the current Arabic news market.

Established players such as BBC Arabic, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera are part of a rapidly expanding sector, with Sky News Arabia one recent big name launch, and Alarab set for an imminent launch in Bahrain, but the team at BBC Arabic seem convinced that the operation’s reputation for quality journalism along with its ongoing efficiency drive, will ensure it remains at the top table of the region’s news broadcasters.

Indeed, Couri is convinced the competition is a good thing, and seems unconcerned by the new kids on the block, concluding: “There are 538 Arabic TV channels, including [many] other news channels. And so an additional two won’t make a lot of difference. If there are others who would like to join, the more the merrier.”

BBC arabic In Figures
- 7.6M Total weekly radio listeners.
- 20.6M Total weekly television viewers.
- 1M Total weekly online users.

Kit List – BBC Arabic news teams use:
- Sony PMW 500 (tapeless)
- Sony PMW EX1R (tapeless)
- Sony DSR 450 (Mini DV Tapes – in the process of being replaced with tapeless cameras
- Mac Book Pro with Final Cut Pro 7 for editing

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