Digital Broadcast Middle East travelled to Bahrain in December for the launch of Alarab News, a new channel that aims to enhance the quality of reportage in the region, as well as the technology itself being utilised by the broadcast sector in the Middle East. Digital Broadcast Middle East was given the exclusive opportunity to talk to both Fahad Alsukait, chairman and CEO of Alarab News, and Jamal Khashoggi, general manager and editor-in-chief, about their plans for the region.
Digital Broadcast: How much has been invested in the studio infrastructure?
Fahad Alsukait, chairman and CEO of Alarab News: I can’t say the exact amount for confidentiality reasons, but I can say that for the news studio alone it is in excess of tens of millions of dollars. What made it more difficult is that we have designed and built the studio to fit within an existing mall, so we had a significant space limitation to overcome. This added more complexity into the process of designing the studio.
Does the fact that AlArab News is a start-up give it an advantage to some extent as it can invest in the latest technologies from the start, without being hindered by legacy technology?
Fahad: There are two elements to our advantage over other news broadcasters. First of all, yes we can invest in the latest technology to maximise our reach around the world and streamline the transmission of our content through various mediums. But, at the same time this modern technology also helps us maintain a very tight cost-control model that we can sustain indefinitely. We are an extremely technology-heavy broadcasters – we’re the only news channel in the Middle East that is using the Mosart robotic camera system. In the studio itself during recording, there are no cameramen and production crew on the floor itself, it’s all robotic. This allows us to run Alarab News with a much smaller staff load than other major news channels, we’ll have a starting headcount of around 300 people when we launch this year. This is unheard of in terms of news channels around the world, even channels much smaller than Al Arab News will have more than 300 employees.
Jamal Khashoggi, general manager and editor-in-chief of Alarab News: What added to the challenge for us is that there are a limited number of people in the Arab World who are expert in these technologies, we’re creating a talent pool for Mosart for example and actually raising the standards of the broadcast industry in the Middle East.
What will set Alarab News’ studio apart from other news broadcasters in the region?
Jamal: We have been extremely effective in maximising the use of space, we’re talking about a very confined area, because we’re the only news channel broadcasting from within a shopping mall. So the Mosart system is important here because it eliminates the need to have a crew moving the cameras, swinging them around, running with them, audio controllers, lighting etc. Now we don’t need all the space needed for that because it’s all automated.
You mentioned that there were 300 people working for Alarab News, how many of them will be located here at the headquarters at the World Trade Centre?
Jamal: Around 200 or so will be based here in Bahrain, the rest will be located around the Middle East and wider Arab World. None of this is certain, though, because we will see how the channel evolves during the first year.
Have you invested in a fleet of outside broadcast trucks?
Fahad: As part of our mission to run the channel as efficiently as possible we have not invested in outside broadcast vans, but we have secured agreements with various service providers of this type around the region and will use them when needed. We also have a strategic partnership with Bloomberg that will allow us unrivalled global coverage of business and global events.
Are there any investments or developments in the coming year or so that you can hint at?
Fahad: We’ve made the bulk of our investment in 2014 setting up the channel, but we’re now looking into developing external studios because our current location is already operating at full capacity. We will need secondary locations to enhance our coverage of regional events, but our biggest investment will be in content production and the introduction of new programs and eventually more channels.
Is it fair to say that you will be taking a more human approach to news reporting in the region, focusing on the people rather than the government and politics?
Jamal: Very much so, but it is a lot more difficult. Alarab will be launching with journalists that have extensive experience in the region working with our competitors and so it’s been difficult to distinguish our product. We saw this when we first began developing pilot shows and news reports, we came across as very similar to other news broadcasters in the region. We’ve now found our own voice, however, and we’ll continue to set ourselves apart from other news channels as we move forward. Finding a unique angle to a story, or finding stories that haven’t been covered, is an ongoing challenge.
Fahad: The main problem with news reporting in this region is the fact that most major news channels focusing on the Arab World seem to have lost their independence. They’re government backed and when you watch the news that they cover, and the way in which they cover it, it becomes clear that there is an agenda. Another aspect will be the relevance of stories to our viewers. We don’t feel that the average Arab viewer cares enough about ISIS in Iraq or another violent revolution in North Africa to warrant the extended coverage that our competitors provide.
But Alarab News is itself owned and funded by Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal?
Fahad: Yes, but the prince has been very clear that he wants a total disconnect between the owners and management of the news channel, he’s very concerned that Alarab News should be totally independent.
What arrangement do you have for the actual transmission of your content?
Fahad: We have agreements with the major MENA satellite providers, such as Arabsat, NileSat, we also have agreements with other distribution providers for IP delivery to mobile phones, tablets and connected TVs. Our primary market is the Arab World, so we won’t be broadcasting globally, but we will strive to reach the Arab diaspora across the globe through online streaming. It makes no financial sense to rent transponder capacity on a satellite targeting Latin America, for example, when only a few thousand Arabs live there.