09:56 GMT on 11 March 2008: the opening shots were of a flight up the Thames past familiar London landmarks, arriving at BBC Broadcasting House for a glimpse of the new multimedia production studios. On the hour, presenter Fida Bassil read the headlines and BBC Arabic television was on the air with its ﬁrst news programme.
Seventy years after making its ﬁrst radio broadcasts, BBC Arabic had become the most comprehensive multimedia service to the Arab world, with news and information now available on television, radio, the internet, mobiles and handheld devices.
Initially broadcasting for 12 hours a day, extending to 24/7 later in 2008, the TV channel is freely available to any household, from North Africa across to the Middle East and the Gulf, with a satellite connection. Live output, which is streamed through the relaunched website bbcarabic.com, can be viewed anywhere in the world.
Launching the channel is a key part of BBC World Service’s strategy for 2010 and is seen as essential for future success in the Arab world, where television increasingly is the medium of choice for news.
The BBC is a widely respected source. In surveys, 85% of those asked said they would watch the news service. It is hoped that some 35 million people will be using BBC Arabic in ﬁve years’ time across all platforms.
"It was great to launch Arabic TV in this anniversary year because it is such a powerful statement about BBC World Service’s future," says Jerry Timmins, Head of Africa and Middle East Region. "It is the ﬁrst step in the major new strategy of saying that the BBC internationally has to use the medium of choice for its audiences, whether that is radio, television or online."
With news headlines every 15 minutes and a full summary every half hour, BBC Arabic television combines the BBC’s global newsgathering resources with on-the-spot reporting. Its network of Arabic-speaking reporters and correspondents spans the Middle East as well as London, Washington and other world capitals.
"There is a need in this market for BBC values," says Hosam El Sokkari, Head of BBC Arabic. "We give a global take on news that is objective and balanced. Our journalists do not promote a particular agenda. We are there to help people make sense of the story, to help different parties to explain their position, to help people to understand and engage."
New developments in interactivity have increased opportunities for audiences to contribute, comment on events and engage with decision-makers. The live interactive debating forum Nuqtat Hewar (Debating Point) is featured three days a week, fulﬁlling a commitment to bring a new dimension to debate in the region. Already popular on radio and online, the show has been adapted for television with a new multimedia format, enabling people to contribute using webcams and 3G mobile phones as well as via email.
"At no time have people in the Arab world felt the need to communicate more than they do now," says Hosam El Sokkari. "We are offering them an opportunity to take part using all these different technologies. Across this very large region – where sometimes geographical and political barriers are high – everyone needs an opportunity to express their views."
"BBC Arabic broadens the news agenda for audiences in the region, reflecting the breadth of their interests."
BBC Arabic immediately stood out in the market by offering a wider news agenda and greater depth. On the day of the TV launch, as Saudi Arabia and Qatar announced a thaw in relations, BBC Arabic analysed the origin of the rift between the two countries and the issues in dispute. "Audiences had to come to the BBC to understand exactly what the problem was because other media were only talking about reconciliation and brotherhood," says Hosam El Sokkari.
Another story that signalled a different approach was the BBC’s international poll, which revealed that support for tough international action against Iran over its nuclear programme had fallen. "It is our job to be objective and report events as they happen without fear or favour, and audiences tell us that kind of reporting stands out," says Jerry Timmins. "The difference is being noticed in the region already."
Nuqtat Hewar, (Debating Point) presented by Samir Farah, leads the interactive programming for BBC Arabic
In the ﬁrst few weeks, BBC Arabic television debated stories ranging from an eight-year-old Yemeni’s marriage annulment to growing social unrest in Egypt and the trial of Iraq’s former deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz.
"We are reporting more than just conflict and politics," says Hosam El Sokkari. "BBC Arabic broadens the news agenda for audiences in the region, reflecting the breadth of their interests."
Initial feedback from an audience panel of BBC online users towards the TV channel was broadly positive. Most felt it was likely they would continue to use it and recommend it to others.
BBC Arabic television is funded through the BBC World Service Grant-in-Aid. A commercially backed Arabic channel was closed in 1996 after editorial disagreements with the subsidiary of a Saudi Arabian company that had ﬁnanced it.
Less than four months before the launch of the new television service, BBC Arabic bade farewell to the studios on the fourth floor at Bush House they had occupied for much of the service's 70-year history. The move was completed without disruption to the 24/7 radio and online operations.
Newsroom of the future
In the Arabic newsroom at the BBC’s new W1 News Centre, staff working on radio, television and online content sit side by side using dual-language keyboards and large IT screens that can show up to 16 Arabic television channels. There are no longer any audio or video tapes, just digital ﬁles that can be shared at the click of a mouse. "The technology is integrated so that you can move content between any of the major platforms seamlessly," explains Technology Programme Director Bob Gentry. "Because it is ﬁle-based, you can maximise collaborative working, with journalists editing footage at their own desktop. It’s very flexible and fast."
Around 180 new staff, many recruited from the Middle East, had to be introduced to the new ways of working. The outcome is regarded as a great success. "It is for me one of the best projects and the best results there has ever been," says Project Manager Elwyn Evans. "The launch went very well – the channel immediately had assurance and conﬁdence and looked as if it had been there forever."