Tuesday, March 11, 2008

BBC Arabic Relaunch Signals New Era for BBC World Service

As some of you know, I am making a video documentary to capture the shifts in international broadcasting as it switches from analogue to digital. Today marks the relaunch of BBC Arabic TV and I've compiled a short video report from the footage showing the thinking behind the BBC's shift in resources, putting more emphasis on video and new media services. Currently about 13 million people listen to BBC Arabic every week (their figures, measured independently), while there are an estimated 1 million unique users to www.bbcarabic.com, which also relaunches with more embedded video today.

The BBC's Global News Division has learned from the previous attempt to start TV to this region. A commercial model for independent journalism is probably impossible for Middle East and North Africa for the time being. Infact, BBC Arabic now has an advantage over its international English language family of services. BBC World is a "commercial" operation, along with the international facing pages of BBCnews.com, World Service radio remains funded through a public grant-in-aid from the UK foreign office. That explains why there is little or no cross promotion of radio on TV and vice-versa. The World service English language web pages, despite a recent redesign, also seem to me to be increasingly divorced from what other parts of the BBC's international pages are up to. That's a shame since it remains an outfit which does more than most to provide creative, impartial news, current affairs and features. BBC World service English appears to promote two "camps" ....the promos at the top and bottom of the hour direct you to bbc.worldservice.com - the grant-in-aid funded site. But I hear announcements around the news bulletins refer to bbcnews.com, which is being financed by ad banners.

Perhaps today marks the most visible shift of emphasis in BBC's international operations. BBC's Arabic service was the first foreign language radio department to start in 1938 (in response to the start of Arabic broadcasts from Bari in Mussolini's Italy). Seventy years later, the BBC World Service is re-examining what it does on all media platforms. The challenge is that almost every country is at a different stage of its media development - partly dependent on local legislation. On April 1st 2008, for instance, BBC World Service to Latin America (www.bbcmundo.com) will reduce its Spanish language radio output by around 75%, shifting more resources into online and adding TV/video reportages to what it does.

The only exception to this shift seems to be the "Have Your Say" programme, which as well as a radio incarnation from Monday-Friday, has also had a combined radio, TV and on-line version on Sundays at 1404. Not for much longer...that tri-media series stops at the end of March 2008. Perhaps BBC Arabic will have more success - they look as though they are trying to use BBC webcam technology to encourage those with web access to express their opinions.

I noted that at the BBC press conference to launch BBC Arabic, some of the journalists from Arabic media confused the term "impartial" believing the BBC was not going to do any investigative reporting for fear of taking sides. Now that the TV is publicly funded, I would expect the opposite - that it will open up controversial subjects for discussion.

No-one can yet comment on the quality of the new service. The audience will judge the station by how well it handles difficult issues in a fair and balanced way, especially when news stories involve British government interests - or Prince Harry fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. That doesn't necessarily mean BBC Arabic TV will be "popular" as a result. But it is important that audiences in the Arabic speaking world now have access to it. They should consider publicizing its availablity on the Hotbird satellite to viewers in Europe, but especially look to ways to extend the coverage to reach Arabic-speaking audiences in the US Mid-West and parts of Canada. They could easily beat the US Al Hurrah TV at their own game.
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