MBC officials claim their channel, Al Arabiya, slated to go live between Feb. 15 and 20, will have a non-sensationalist approach and should be perceived by the Western world as more balanced than Al Jazeera.
The channel is backed by MBC, Lebanon's Hariri Group, and other investors from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf states. Content will be produced by newly formed Middle East News, with a staff of about 400. "People in this region are lacking a credible source of news," said MBC Operations Director Assad Abu al Jadail. "Jazeera made the breakthrough [in news] but you don't always know the agenda" of Al Jazeera.
Part of Arabiya's long-term aim is to promote stability and democracy in the region, he said.
Ad-agency executives in the Middle East are eager to see Arabiya but said MBC hasn't told them much yet. They said MBC should do well financially because it has a powerful ad-sales operation and has developed a good reputation for fairness with its flagship MBC channel, which runs general entertainment and an hour per day of news programs.
Mr. Jadail said no major ad contracts have been signed yet but that the network is seeing interest from advertisers. Advertisers on MBC include Procter & Gamble Co., Unilever's Lipton, PepsiCo and Volkswagen. The State Department said it has no plans to run its advertising campaign promoting the U.S. as an Arab-friendly nation on Al Arabiya.
Roy Haddad, CEO of WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson/TMI Beirut, said MBC should appeal to multinational and Saudi Arabian advertisers that don't want to support Al Jazeera. "The whole objective is to counteract the sensational approach of Jazeera."
war wild card
One wild card is the pending war with Iraq. While observers believe a war could mean high ratings for news coverage on Al Arabiya, it's hard to tell whether U.S. marketers will avoid advertising on the station in the event of war. However, multinational advertisers often have local ad offices that may continue buying ad time in the region.
MBC was founded 11 years ago by Saudi Sheikh Waleed Al Ibrahim and other Saudi investors. Michel Costandi, business development director, claimed MBC will be self-sustaining in advertising in the first 12 months, an ambitious goal.
After three years of recession, Middle East advertising spending totals only about $1 billion, said Tarek Nour, chairman of TN Communications, Cairo, part of Interpublic Group of Cos. Among the satellite channels, MBC captures the most ads, followed by Lebanon's Future TV and Lebanese Broadcasting Corp., then Al Jazeera. Although Al Jazeera's owner, the Emir of Qatar, said when he started the station in 1996 that it needs to become self-supporting, advertisers have been wary. "It's clear they are having a problem in attracting advertising," Mr. Haddad said.
At Al Jazeera headquarters in Qatar, executives said they were too busy to comment.
Arabiya's all-news format will include sports, business, commentaries, panel discussions and hourly bulletins, with an emphasis on news of particular interest in the Arab world.
contributing: ira teinowitz