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Lebanon's Future TV to launch new 24-hour news channel

Lebanon's crowded television market and unstable political arena will have to make room for a new actor - Future TV's new 24-hour news channel. The station's management says business considerations sparked the new venture, but industry analysts argue that the news channel has almost no chance at profitability.

Future TV's leaders make no pretense that the station will be politically neutral, but they say they had planned the news channel since the summer 2006 war with Israel wrecked their advertising revenue and before the country's political groups polarized into two feuding camps.

The news channel should go on the air in April, maybe by the end of March, Future TV chairman Nadim Munla told The Daily Star on Wednesday.

Future TV will invest slightly more than $10 million to start the channel, which will broadcast from 1,700-square-meter studios near Future TV's headquarters on Spears Street, said CFO Fayez Bizri.

Programming will have two distinct features: news from Lebanon and segments to promote "better European-Arab understanding," Munla said. The station will cover regional and international news, but it will depend on agencies for content rather than gather its own material. The prime-time line-up will offer shows on youth, women, economic issues and documentaries, as well as investigative journalism.

"We are not competing with Al-Arabiyya and Al-Jazeera," Munla said. "This is mostly Lebanese news, rather than pan-Arab. That's our niche. We're not pushing to have our own offices and correspondents all over the world. That's why our marginal costs and our total costs are very minimal."

Future TV belongs to the Hariri Group, the multi-billion-dollar business empire founded by assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and as such the station's news programming has not hidden its support for the government, which includes the Hariri-founded Future Movement. Munla admits Future's news comes with a bias, but he said the station will continue to offer ample airtime to Hizbullah and other opposition groups.

"A good amount of time is given to the opposition - compare that to [Hizbullah-backed broadcaster] Al-Manar," Munla said. "We are not neutral. Our view is out there. We have been very loud - I don't need a 24-hour channel to do that.

"I cannot be not sensitive to what's going on in my country. You cannot claim utter neutrality in a period where your country is going through major changes. It's naive. It doesn't happen anywhere in the world."

However, clinging to one side of Lebanon's political divide will rob Future of potential viewers and undercut the stated economic rationale for the station, said Lawrence Pintak, director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at the American University of Cairo.

"If Future is nothing but a mouthpiece for the Hariri movement, then it's going to have a rather narrow [market]," he said.

Future's management said purely economic concerns drove the founding of the news channel - the 2006 war and its aftermath cost Future about 25 percent of its projected ad revenue for the year - and a new station offers an economical way to recoup lost income, because more than 80 percent of the news channel's costs are already accounted for by the original station's budget.

Munla bristled at the notion that the channel would be merely a propaganda tool and not a sound business venture.

"That's utter garbage," he said. "Future TV has been one of the most successful televisions in the Arab world. In two years, we should be able to cover our marginal costs."

Arab news channels such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya, however, are notorious money-losers. The hundreds of satellite channels in Arabic that have cropped up in recent years often lack economic logic - the region's per-capita ad spending lags dramatically behind the West and the Far East.

"The odds on it making money are pretty slim to none. Everyone agrees news channels are not making money," said Pintak.

Beirut 18-01-2007
Redaction
The Daily Star



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