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BBC launches Arabic TV service in challenge to Al Jazeera

By Agencies


The British Broadcasting Corporation launches its new Arabic-language cable and satellite television channel on Tuesday, in its second attempt to enter the Middle East market.

BBC Arabic Television is the corporation's first publicly funded international television service and comes 11 years after a foray into the Middle East market ended in failure over editorial disagreements with the channel's Saudi backers.

The new channel faces intense competition from the region's top channel, Qatar-based Al Jazeera, and Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, which recently celebrated its fifth birthday.

It will initially be on air for 12 hours per day before switching to a 24-hour operation later this year.

The venture -- initially costing $37.7 million aims to provide the Middle East's only "tri-media" (TV, radio and online) service by building on the BBC's existing Arabic radio and internet services.

To pay for the channel, the BBC axed more than 200 jobs in 10 mainly eastern European language services under a radical overhaul of World Service radio.

The new television channel "will reflect the breadth of the Arab audience's interests," BBC Arabic head Hosam El Sokkari said, announcing the launch this month.

He claimed it would better serve Arab audiences than Al Jazeera.

"It can be their ears and eyes -- not just in the countries where people live, but throughout the region and around the rest of the world," he said.

Salah Negm, the news editor for BBC Arabic, told the BBC website: "There are only two reliable 24-hour news channels in the region and the perception is that they are representing certain points of views and certain governments.

"For a viewer in the Middle East, they have to watch the two stations and draw their own conclusions. I think the BBC can come along and immediately offer a service that the audience know and can trust."

BBC Arabic Television will be free-to-air for anyone with a satellite or cable connection in North Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf.

The director of BBC World Service, Nigel Chapman, said coverage was being boosted in the Middle East because satellite news channels had re-shaped the media landscape there.

"There is no doubt that television is now the dominant medium for consuming news in the region," he said.

"Without a BBC news presence in Arabic on television, we run the risk of always being second to other television sources, despite the quality of our radio and new media offers."

Chapman said he hoped to attract 20 million viewers per week by 2010 and 35 million users per week for all three services.

Unlike BBC television, which is funded by a yearly licence fee from all domestic users, BBC World Service broadcasting receives a direct grant from the government, although it maintains editorial independence. (AFP)