FRONTLINE/WORLD . News War . Interview With Wissam Chahine, Creative Producer for Orbit TV Productions in Lebanon | PBS
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Interview With Wissam Chahine, Creative Producer for Orbit TV Productions in Lebanon

Wissam Chahine is a producer, director and writer for the Orbit Radio and TV Network in Beirut. The network was launched from Italy in 1992 by members of the Saudi royal family, who had been educated in Britain and wanted to bring a new spirit of openness to coverage of their homeland. In late 2006, Chahine came to the United States on a State Department media fellowship. During his visit, he spoke with FRONTLINE/World's senior interactive producer, Jackie Bennion, about the changing face of news and entertainment in the Middle East and how different concentrations of media have found natural homes in the region. He also talked about why Lebanon is such an important incubator for pan-Arab programming.

Jackie Bennion: It's interesting that Orbit was started by members of the Saudi royal family. Can you tell me how that happened?

Wissam Chahine: The Saudi owners, who are educated and sophisticated people, lived between the Arab world and Europe, and were studying at universities in England. They had a vision to make professional media in the Arab world. That was the original vision for Orbit. It started in Rome, Italy, 15 or 16 years ago, because the laws of broadcasting were more open there, and they wanted to widen the scope of Arabic channels worldwide. Today, Orbit provides all kinds of channels for the whole family and their interests -- movie channels, sport channels, the Internet also. We have millions of subscribers all over the world. In Egypt alone, we reach more than 6 million household viewers.

How did the arrival of satellite TV change things in the Middle East?

chahine

We each used to live in his own country. We knew nothing about our neighbors, what was going on. Satellite television opened up the gates to knowing what's going on, especially when the satellite channels started to show links live from where hot issues were taking place.

The Middle East does not represent one unique cultural entity. Rather, it's a wide mixture of diversities, from cultural to religious. Covering all these aspects of the Middle East could not happen without the aid of satellite TV and the Internet. As a consequence, satellite TV is not only changing the way news is delivered but also the perception of what news is and the way journalists do their jobs. Satellite TV helps provide societies with information that strengthens freedom, democracy and human rights.

When did this all start to happen?

From a historical angle, it started in December 1990, when the Egyptian Satellite Channel started transmission. Nile TV International was the second Egyptian satellite channel. The main objective of this network was to promote the image of Egypt in Europe and to attract tourism.

One year after the introduction of the Egyptian Satellite Channel, Saudi Arabia launched the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), which is a privately owned network. Saudi Arabia is the heart of the Islamic world, and therefore religious programming has a special importance on official Saudi television programming and dominates a good part of the broadcast schedule.

And what did the arrival of Al Jazeera change?

Al Jazeera was the first one to enter the market and really make an impact. In 1995, Qatar started to introduce the first Arab satellite channel dedicated to news and public affairs. The Al Jazeera satellite channel stunned Arab governments and audiences by showing free-ranging political debates, including live phone-in debates. Almost overnight, it created a new forum for freedom of expression in the region.

Lebanon also played its part. In 1996, two Lebanese stations, Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) and Future, started satellite delivery to the Middle East. With their relaxed and informal approach, and LBC's uninhibited game shows, these channels had an instant impact on viewing patterns in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.

Maybe in Lebanon it was better, because we had more freedom; we can talk about so many things. Talking about news -- before Al Jazeera, a TV presenter had papers in his hands, and he just narrated the news. Now, you know what is going on here and there.

What do you mean by here and there?

You have news covering political figures, what presidents and prime ministers are doing. You hear what people are saying in the streets. There is commentary about political issues, economic issues. When Al Jazeera started this kind of coverage, it was the start of having reporters on the ground, in hot spots, conducting phone-ins, having correspondents in the main capitals of the world.

Before Al Jazeera came along, how much information about the rest of the world was reaching Arab viewers?

I am not saying we didn't know anything about what was going on in the world, but we didn't know it in this kind of detail, with this sort of broad coverage -- where a reporter is given the independence to report what he sees without borders.

By "without borders," you mean without censorship?

Yes, without censorship. A reporter on the ground can say what he wants to say, express what he sees on the ground. Before that, there was classic censorship, where you feel that watching something is like buying something.

Like it was packaged?

Yes, packaged. With Al Jazeera, they were watching, for example, CNN, ABC, NBC, BBC, and wondering if they had the courage to start this kind of coverage, or the money to invest in news and put reporters everywhere. But news became a hot issue and made people in the Middle East feel that it's a good market to invest in. So let's go for it.

It was the competition between the different stations that pushed the classical model of the government institutes or state-run corporations to pay attention to the news, and it went from one or two hours of news coverage a day to 24-hour breaking-news coverage.

Why do you think the time was right for Al Jazeera?

The first time the Al Jazeera channel was launched, it was a brand-new idea that aroused interest in Arab viewers. Also, from 1996 to 2000, it was unique, with no real competitors.

I think Afghanistan was a turning point for Al Jazeera; it put it on the map. The whole world after 9/11 was watching what was going on there. Suddenly, you're talking about millions of people watching. And once the giant comes out of the small can, you can't put him back inside again. Al Jazeera opened up a platform in the Middle East to ask some big questions about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Suddenly people found the courage to ask these taboo questions.

I think, if you assess this objectively, Al Jazeera was the one who capitalized on that moment. They also opened up the gates for competition, for a certain quality, to make programs at a certain level.

How did satellite TV change the newspaper market in the Middle East?

The newspapers were the leaders in the political market through their connections, their correspondents, their experience. Many of them had been around for 75 or 100 years. When breaking live news started, the newspapers had to compete -- deal more with big names and analysis and improve the quality of their coverage. But they did it in their own way. They went for more depth. If you're watching breaking news all the time, you get bored with the cycle, and you need to come to a place where you can analyze and decide what is happening.

The competition was good for both newspapers and TV. And they began to share experts. Journalists who had been writing for 50 years, nobody knew who they were, but suddenly, after one month on TV news shows, they turned into stars. The good analysts are booked solid on two or three stations. Some of them, you can see on the same day, moving from one channel to another.

Did this become a two-way debate at this point?

Yes. It made the people more engaged in politics. The advantage was that the decision makers couldn't do as they pleased anymore; they were more accountable and accessible to their public. People could participate and ask questions.

What about the negative effects?

Well, you are talking about a lot of investment in media because a media revolution was happening. But sometimes I think we are investing in new media and television and satellite, even in newspapers and magazines, more than we are investing in schools for children and in hospitals.

The other disadvantage is that the discussion is always about conflict and politics. What about education, what about economics? What about the future? We are only half a society, just living every minute, from crisis to crisis. When you are always in the hot spot, nothing is stable, so it becomes impossible to create a vibrant society where change is possible.

So satellite news has been less productive for society?

Less productive because you are constantly afraid of what's going on, and small issues can be turned into very big issues. All this affects the people who are just working to build their business, trying to improve the economy, trying to survive. And it also creates a market to influence the spread of propaganda about so many things.

Is that true of Lebanon, where you work?

In Lebanon, we're talking about a market of approximately 4 million people. If you are talking about a channel being independent, you need revenue, and that means advertising.

In Lebanon, there are six to eight media companies competing for the same small pie. And instead of having a good, well-managed media, you have a small amount of money to operate a weak seven or eight channels, instead of two or three good channels. I'm talking about this experience because of how it affects the satellite channels. There is a lot more choice, but how has it affected the quality?

What are Lebanon's media strengths?

Lebanon is open, liberal and diverse. A long time ago, Lebanon was known as a lifestyle place, because Beirut was like Paris for Middle Eastern Arabs. This gave Beirut and the Lebanese a chance to present their up-to-date lifestyles and views, especially when talking about women's issues. We talk about everything from cooking to fashion design. Lebanese media has become number one in covering these sorts of lifestyle issues.

So if other Arab countries want to make variety shows or lifestyle programs, Lebanon is the address.

What about other media concentrations in the Middle East? Is there a

Hollywood equivalent?

Egypt was known as the capital of cinema. Everyone in the industry worked there. But for a variety of reasons -- video innovation, DVD innovation, home cinema -- it's been in a long decline. Instead of making hundreds of films a year, as they did in the heyday, they make perhaps 10 or 15 films in the whole year. A lot of movie investment has gone to other places. When there is war in the region, there are problems; it hurts production and distribution.

Also, second to Lebanon in lifestyle and an open society, there is Syria. You have talented people at the university there studying theater. Those graduates start to work making television drama. And when the Egyptian filmmakers were sleeping or afraid there was no money, Syria was building up its drama production to distribute across the Middle East. The Syrians are known for their historical dramas and love stories. Egyptian productions are now about half dramas and half talk shows. That's because the Egyptians have the right personalities for talk-show hosts. They love to talk. So most of the very nice talk shows are done by Egyptians and Lebanese.

So Lebanon, Egypt and Syria are the three main centers for entertainment production?

Yes, I would say.

But if you are talking now about the news, it's done in the Gulf, using Gulf State investment: Qatar or Saudi Arabia or the Emirates. The news is the best market for them, because they can't recreate the Lebanese lifestyle experience -- they don't have that kind of variety in their society. They can't do drama because they don't have the same experience as the Syrians or Egyptians do. So, the news is their game. And they bring presenters, reporters and journalists from across the Arab world to work at these stations.

It's fascinating how different regions have their particular niches. How does it all come together as a viewing experience?

Let me give you an example. Many of the morning shows are produced in Lebanon, by Future Television or Orbit Productions or others. And the first comments about them come from the Arabian journalists in the Gulf. They are conservative, and many critics write, saying, "How can our families watch this?" Because, you see, the young ladies wear full makeup; they are in modern dress; they talk about modern issues. The conservatives also complain that too many men are watching these attractive female anchors from Lebanon. But, really, the Arab world wants to see this television; they want to see the anchors; and they want to see this different society.

Are there other issues that don't translate across a pan-Arab market?

In each Arabian country, there is a certain accent. It used to be that the Egyptian accent was the only one understood in all the Arab countries because of the cinema, because they have been making cinema for a hundred years. But after satellite TV arrived, the Lebanese language became widely listened to and is understood now in all the Arab countries. More artists, singers and filmmakers come to Lebanon to start their own studios, to make their own songs. Even if you are a singer and living in Morocco, and you want to launch your new CD, you have to come to Lebanon and start from here to launch your CD. This is a place of launching.

Getting back to the region's news coverage, can you give me your sense of what the leading stations represent to their audiences?

I can talk about what they reflect about their population or their viewers. Al Manar [Hezbollah's channel], as an example, is considered by its audience as committed to reflecting the point of view of its political party. Al Hurra [funded by the U.S. State Department] is well done, but it hasn't so many viewers because it's not black or white, and not authentic.

Do you mean Al Hurra doesn't take a strong enough stance one way or the other?

Al Hurra has a very classical type of coverage, and it's not in the market in a big way, OK? It's not pulsing. It is viewed suspiciously. And the suspicion is a reality because Al Hurra presents itself for what it is. I don't think this prevents people from watching it, if they know what and who it is. If there is an Israeli station showing Arabic news, people watch that also, to see what is being said.

But I'm not an expert in politics or the political issues. I can't judge these stations on what they represent, because I don't have the political experience to talk about them intelligently. I'm talking about them from my personal experience as a consumer. Al Jazeera is very popular with the masses. But selective viewers are not watching Al Jazeera that often. The masses like Jazeera's style -- it's popular in all the Arab countries, particularly among those people who are living in small villages. For Al Manar, they reflect a religious and political direction, so they have their own vision, and they stick to that vision.

And what is that vision?

According to their broadcasts, they adopt direct hostility toward Israel. They believe that they are the soul of resistance in the Middle East. So all their programs are centered on this issue. And they don't do it in a propaganda way; they do it accurately, openly: "We represent this, and we do it like this." Some people do not support Al Manar, but also they don't say they are liars, you see?

So, you are saying they are at least transparent?

They have their own loyal audience, who believe in them. I am saying that they announce that they are serving what they believe, OK. Not all of the people agree with them, but many people take them into consideration.

You have spent some time in the United States visiting different media outlets, particularly public media in this country, as part of the fellowship. What do you think Arab media can learn from Western media and vice versa?

I think we need more accuracy and to respect the values of freedom of journalism, so that we can talk about everything freely. It's an issue now, but it's going to get better with time. Also, we have to learn to listen to each other and to listen to others. As long as you are not listening to others, you are not opening your arms and ears to what others say, and you may fall into a misunderstanding. And I think most of the problems facing this part of the world are caused by misunderstandings.

From the Western media, we can learn better accuracy and professionalism. It's been very important for me here to see the accuracy of each piece and how each word is attributed and the number of versions created to get it right -- the first screening, second screening and third screening of a TV news documentary -- and how deep people go here in the details and their access to information. These high standards are very important, and I hope that I will take this with me back home.

How is it different from public television in Lebanon?

Lebanese public television has problems with money and politics; it's having a hard time. But that doesn't mean we have to give up and say that public work is for public television and not for commercial television. Public work must be in the personality of every human being, because you are talking about life. You can make show business media because you can make money, but, as you mature, you begin to ask what things are important for your children, for your family, for the next generation. You have to make something more in life. And that's very important.

I was very impressed by my experience here in public media. It put new blood in me to be a fighter and a defender of the rights of humanity, of the good things in life.