Saudi billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s recent $98 million purchase of a 49% share in the satellite broadcasting arm of leading Lebanese television station LBC International has provided a welcome, if modest, boost to Lebanon’s satellite television sector. The industry has been struggling to compete with cash-laden Gulf channels like market leader MBC and Abu Dhabi TV – both backed financially by their respective governments – and to overcome the roughly $30 million, or 20%, loss in 2003 television advertising revenues caused, according to LBC Chairman Pierre Daher, by the war in Iraq and the bombings in Riyadh.
“The move has reinforced the position of LBC as a potential leader in the region,” stated Daher. “Walid bin Talal did not make this jump into LBC just because he felt like it. It was carefully planned. He thinks LBC has potential,” said Daher, who discounted the suggestion that bin Talal, who bought the stake in LBCSAT – valued at $200 million – from Arab Radio and Television (ART) chairman Sheikh Saleh Kamel, might wish to exert editorial pressure on the station. Meanwhile, other Lebanese stations are hoping the development signals a trend that will allow them to forge similar strategic, financially rewarding partnerships.
Not everyone, however, is optimistic. “Lebanon’s satellite television channels have serious problems,” remarked one media professional. “LBC and Future were very good satellite TV stations until the Gulf people decided to invest more in their TV stations. Now you have private stations like LBC and Future competing with MBC, which is funded by the Saudi government, with Abu Dhabi TV, backed by its government, and with al-Jazeera. They can’t compete.” He said annual satellite television budgets had in some instances, in the Gulf, quadrupled in two years, from about $25 million, to $100 million. Lebanese channels, although just as creative and aptly managed, have been left financially adrift in the wake.
The bin Talal move has at least consolidated LBC’s position at the head of the Lebanese satellite television sector. Future TV remains hot on its heels. “It’s mainly LBC and Future that are making money,” said the chairman and general manager of NBN, Nasser Safieddine. “Apart from them, I don’t think any Lebanese station is making serious income from the satellite market.”
Of bin Talal’s foray into LBC, he said: “All of us in the Lebanese media welcome this. A boost for any Lebanese station is a boost for the whole sector,” he said, before adding, “NBN is looking for a strategic partner. We are not ashamed to say this. Because competing, as we do today, with stations that have budgets that are 10, 15, 20 times as big as ours is useless.”
Bin Talal’s establishment of the 24-hour music channel, Rotana – backed by a music production company, and using the old Lebanese MTV infrastructure – has also been hailed as a smart business move that also benefits Lebanon’s satellite TV sector. “Rotana is different. It is a complete organization. It takes care of music production television programming. I think that very soon they will be the leaders of music television in the Arab world,” said one media executive. “And it’s good for Lebanon. It’s money coming in.” “People get fed up with news. They want something different,” added another. “It’s a good move,” agreed Safieddine. “It’s easier to market music and songs than educational programs.”
LBCI has been sub-contracted by the American Harris Corp, which has won a $96 million contract to refurbish Iraq’s official media to train Iraqi anchorpersons.
Still, old habits prevail. The weekly LBC political satire show Bass Mat Watan was suspended at the end of last month by the National Audiovisual Media Council (NAMC) after it played a practical joke that, according to the government body, “harmed the image and authority of the state, and shook the country’s stability”. At the end of 2003, New TV owner Tahseen Khayyat was arrested on charges of treason. All agreed the move constituted a politically motivated attack on the media. Khayyat was released 25 hours later and the charges were dropped. “On the face of it, it looks that way,” remarked Walid Azzi, publisher of ArabAd. “It’s not very reassuring,” noted another newspaper executive. “It was harassment.” Safieddine said he felt Khayyat should not have been arrested, but, interestingly, defended self-censorship as a “wonderful thing.”
Lebanon’s print media, for their part, are reeling under a double scourge: miserable circulation figures and worryingly low advertising expenditures, which observers say dropped by 25% last year. Although the market is characterized by an abundance of publications, especially magazines, most are unable to survive without continual financial top-ups. A vicious circle has, in effect, been created: no one wants to advertise in a publication that doesn’t sell. But publications need advertising revenue to expand circulation. Currently, only 16% to 17% of media-related advertising budgets are spent on the print sector, claimed one publisher. This is due, in great part, to the fact that “no magazine sells more than 3,000 copies and no newspaper reaches more than 10,000 readers,” asserted ARABAD publisher Azzi. However, publishers constantly inflate readership figures – sometimes by as much as 50% to 60%. The tendency has become more pronounced, Azzi lamented, as journalistically below-par, spit-and-stick magazines mushroom and compete. “Spitting and sticking is very easy to do, but it’s not journalism,” he said. “You need quality, in-depth journalism and innovation to get a magazine rolling and to get advertising.”
In the struggling print media, An Nahar leads the pack both in terms of quality and advertising revenues, observers agreed. “It’s run by master professionals and has acquired a great deal of integrity. This is why it gets the lion’s share of advertising,” said Azzi. A one-page ad in An Naharcosts between $8,000 and $14,000.
However, even An Nahar is feeling the financial pinch, particularly as its has just bought back, for a considerable, undisclosed sum, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s 34.5% stake in the paper. In the shadow of An Nahar follow As Safir and L’Orient le Jour, and then the Daily Star. The latter two need to be developed, said Azzi, adding that the Daily Star in particular must not make the mistake of thinking it can rest on its laurels because it is the only English-language paper in town. Daily Star Executive Editor Rami Khouri is attempting to ensure that does not happen. The regional Daily Star is undergoing expansion-oriented change, he said. It is now being printed in Lebanon, Kuwait and Qatar and is being sold in 11 countries. “We’re becoming a truly regional paper in terms of our coverage and distribution. We’re making serious ongoing changes in content,” said Khouri, adding that the regional Daily Star aims to become the leading English-language Middle East newspaper with analysis, commentary, insight and interpretation. The Daily Star is not placing as much emphasis on straight news because it believes readers obtain this from other, local papers or from electronic media. To this end, it has developed a still-expanding network of about 150 contributors from around the world.
Meanwhile, the new newspaper Al Balad has elicited mixed reactions and prognoses. “It’s still early to judge,” remarked a cautious Azzi, although he commended the paper’s marketing efforts. Striking a more positive note, NBN General Manager Safieddine said: “I think it’s a very intelligent move. I think they moved into the market in an intelligent way.” An Nahar editor Tueni said he hoped the Al Balad would succeed because competition was good for the market but added that he did not regard the paper as a direct competitor of either An Nahar or As Safir because it’s profile was different: less political and serious. “I haven’t had any reaction,” said LBC Chairman Daher. “It’s new. But I read a paper for politics. Until now, I haven’t seen an editorial line in Al Balad. The rest is nice, but I am not sure I would by a paper for the rest.” Al Balad is currently sorting out a dispute with the Order of the Press, which has accused it of ‘dumping’ its copies at a price forbidden by applicable laws. A newspaper comprising more than 24 pages cannot be sold for less than LL2,000 – Al Balad is selling for LL1,000.
A spokesperson for Al Balad said that after meeting with Order of the Press representatives the newspaper realized it had a stark choice: raise the price or diminish the number of pages. “We will not diminish the number of pages,” the representative stated clearly, “because that would change the nature of Al Balad.”
Industry insiders have suggested that pressure was brought to bear on Al Balad over the pricing issue because of the paper’s apparent support for An Nahar editor Gebran Tueni in his dispute with Nabih Berri. Tueni had implied in an editorial that Berri was involved in the Union des Transports Africains, the company that owned the plane that crashed off Cotonou, Benin, on Christmas day. The idea was, the insiders said, that a ‘rebel’ Al Balad should be tamed – made to understand that, in the view of the Order of the Press, a new newspaper must refrain from siding with the ‘wrong’ party in disagreements involving important politicians.
Would that the industry watchdogs be always so lynx-eyed in their patrolling of the sector. Although there is widespread acknowledgement that the orders have helped defend freedom of the press in Lebanon, many media professionals argued that the two organizations’ directors have used the bodies to bolster their personal prestige rather than to remedy the sector’s ills, and that qualified journalists are being barred entry because they are not at one with the orders’ directors. “These positions are not there to give you prestige. They are supposed to enable you to see exactly what is going on in the business, so that you can correct things,” noted one publisher, who asked not to be identified. “This is not happening.” Mohamad Baalbaki, president of the Order of the Press, denied the claims. “This is not true,” he said. “Whoever says this, doesn’t know the reality of our activities in the order” Qualified journalists had not, he said, been deliberately denied entry. But, he explained, their membership must be approved in a meeting held by an eight-member committee comprising four senior members of the boards of the Journalists and Press Orders respectively. A minimum of five board members must be in attendance for a membership application to be approved. Unfortunately, for two years, no meeting has been held because no board member from the Order of Journalists is willing to show up. “If the representatives of the other order don’t attend the committee meetings the committee cannot make a decision on memberships. Our colleagues in the other order, especially its president, Melhem Karam, don’t like to come to these committee meetings. He prefers not to expand the membership in his order. We are constantly asking him to come to a meeting where membership requests can be studied. He is always busy or traveling,” said Baalbaki. The committee last met, acknowledged Baalbaki, “about two years ago.”