LONDON — `I CANNOT tell you how much we appreciate your news service," writes Raafat Assaad, an Arab living in Denmark. "It is so significant for us. Our Arabic language is rich, but even so we have trouble expressing the gratitude we feel towards MBC."
Hundreds of similar letters, some even more flowery, others more critical, arrive weekly at the modest offices of the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC), whose cramped TV studios sprawl over several houses in the London suburb of Fulham and whose far-flung transmissions are on the air for 10 hours a day.
MBC represents a significant pointer to the communications future in the Middle East, where broadcasting generally is under heavy-handed government control.
MBC is a privately owned, commercial, Arabic-language TV news service. Thanks to an array of satellites, it can reach 100 million potential viewers in the Middle East and another 5 million Arabic speakers in Europe with uncensored and unbiased international news in their own language.
MBC's main focus is the news, straight-forward reporting, along with features ranging from movies, business, sports, and fashion shows to health care, music, and dramas of all kinds (mostly soap operas). MBC recently opened an office in Jerusalem, quite a radical departure for an Arab news service.
The big question is what percentage of its potentially huge audience actually gets to see the MBC telecasts. They can be received only via satellite, which means the individual viewer needs a dish antenna. That's where Arab governments regain their usual control when it comes to mass reception.
Not only are the dishes expensive, but their importation is subject to government license. This suggests that government officials and the wealthy have access to the satellite, but the ordinary person does not - though in countries like Saudi Arabia import controls on television antennas are loosely applied.
Since advertisers seek to reach a population group that can afford to buy imported goods, MBC's focus at the moment is largely on the Gulf states.
But MBC is making inroads overall. In Kuwait and Morocco, regular newscasts now include the MBC news from London. That fits in with the network's stated aim of not only presenting Arabic culture and its achievements, but also to counter-balance the news from Egypt, which is all-pervasive over the Arabsat satellite and reflects Cairo's views.
MBC, which has a staff of about 200 - of whom only about one-third are Arabic speakers from the Middle East - is run by Ali Al-Hedeithy, a Saudi with a bachelor's degree in administration and economics from the University of Puget Sound in Washington state.
Observers assume that MBC could not exist without Saudi King Fhad's tacit approval, since Saudi financiers back the operation (the same ones who, last June, purchased United Press International for close to $4 million at a bankruptcy sale). King Fahd reportedly encouraged the formation of the TV service.
The MBC signal is beamed from London up to the European satellite Eutelsat II, which allows reception from Scandinavia to North Africa and from Ireland to Eastern Europe. The transmissions are downlinked in Naples and sent back up to the Arabsat 1-C satellite, which covers the Middle East and reaches over to India and down into Somalia and the Sudan.
MBC is currently seen on cable in the Netherlands, and negotiations are under way for it to be carried in the Paris area, where many Arabs (mostly Algerians) live. MBC plans to transmit it on cable in the United States, which has an estimated 2.5 Arabic speakers in many cities.
The news channel is not expected to show a profit for another three years. MBC's programs, which always begin and end with readings from the Koran, focus heavily on news but also attempt to widen the horizons of its Arab viewers. The "Good Health Show," for instance, focuses on food values and consumer protection. It reports on the latest medical advances and even features a weekly workout schedule with a ballerina from the Egyptian National Ballet.
The "World of Fashion" regularly reports from Milan, Paris, London, and New York and also incorporates the work of designers from the Middle East. "Pop Video" speaks to the young. "Viewer Requests" covers, among other things, letters critical of MBC programming.
"We get a few really nasty ones," acknowledges John Turner, deputy chief executive of MBC, "but they are more than balanced by those from people who enjoy and appreciate what we are trying to do."