MEDIA: Al Hurra struggling for ratings
Alvin Snyder

November 28, 2005

Al Hurra needs a facelift. The ratings of America`s Arabic TV channel are flat among Iraqi audiences, the administration of US President George W. Bush is turning elsewhere to reach Arab and Muslim publics abroad and the US Congress is poised to debate Al Hurra`s future.

As a result Al Hurra appears to be seeking a harder edge to its programs in an effort to attract viewers and to make the channel a more popular platform for the discussion of US foreign policies. A recent public opinion poll confirmed that such changes must be made if Al Hurra hopes to survive in such a competitive market.

Ipsos Stat, an independent Middle East market research company, shows that Al Hurra is making a lackluster showing in head-to-head competition of channels available in Iraq.

The most popular TV channel in Iraq remains Al Iraqiya, with 46 percent of viewership in the country. Al Iraqiya is the former state-run network that is now funded by the Pentagon and has been managed with the help of US consultants. The channel, which has held the top ratings position for the past two years, has the advantage of being available in Iraq through a regular, old-style TV rooftop antenna without the need for a satellite dish.

In second place at 41 percent is Al Arabiya. Bankrolled by the Saudi government, it is by far the strongest pan-Arab satellite news channel in Iraq, followed by the local, privately funded Al Sharkiya with 39 percent. That channel features such popular programs as home rebuilding (which the station helps to fund), and an Iraqi-centric, Saturday Night Live-esque satire show.

The next most popular news channel in Iraq is Al Jazeera at 23 percent, whose relatively poor showing is because there is an `official government ban` on the channel and `many Iraqis dislike Al Jazeera because they do not like its coverage or resent its allegedly pro-Saddam coverage [before and after] the war`, according to Marc Lynch in his Abu Aardvark blog.

Next are the two Middle East Broadcasting Corporation`s news, information and entertainment channels, at 20 percent and 19 percent.

Eventually, you will find Al Hurra in eleventh place with 14 percent viewership. The US government-funded effort has both a pan-Arab satellite channel and a channel specifically targeted for Iraq.

The facts about this struggling network are not lost on the Bush administration.

Lynch said that he recently saw `a CENTCOM [US Central Command] spokesman on Al Jazeera to talk about the allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Iraq, and both Bush and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have given exclusive interviews to Al Arabiya recently`.

Karen Hughes, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, recently said that more Bush administration spokespersons would appear on higher-rated Arabic channels since the goal is to reach the largest audience possible. Although Al Hurra can expect the same access, US policymakers` decision to work with the competition shows that they understand that the network does not reach some of the most coveted viewers.

Al Hurra`s struggles may stem from the soft nature of some of its acquired programs. Among the most popular on the network are `Inside the Actor`s Studio` from Bravo, `Hollywood Couples` and `Cinemagazine`, which appear mostly during daytime and cater to stay-at-home women. Some news and discussion programs reach these midday viewers, but a network`s competitiveness is primarily gauged by its ability to hold a prime time audience. That is when most Iraqi men come home from work, and, as the poll shows, Al Hurra isn`t exactly captivating them. However, programming that should appeal to this critical demographic is on the way.

Al Hurra has signed a one-year agreement with BBC Worldwide for a package of 45 documentaries, news and current affairs programming to bolster its schedule. Boston`s public television affiliate also sold the network episodes of its `Frontline` series, including `Rumsfeld`s War`, an examination of the charge that the US Army `is on the verge of being broken` and the man considered responsible.

The network is even developing its own talk show called `Inside Washington`, which will look at how decisions are made in the nation`s capital. Former Al Hurra critic Robert Satloff is slated to host the potentially contentious show, which should ensure good, illuminating discussion.

These are positive first steps, but the Bush administration must realize that to lift Al Hurra in the ratings battle, news and documentary broadcasts must confront and air out the White House`s more politically sensitive issues. If they desire a return on investment in international broadcasting, programming will need to be controversial to create the buzz that has been missing from it.

For instance, the network should show a slam-bang discussion following the broadcast of `Rumsfeld`s War` that offers both sides of the war issue. It is a hot topic that can draw viewers, but it would also be an opportunity for Al Hurra to build the credibility that Middle East audiences say it lacks.

If those in charge do not want to take the risk, they will need to be content with being in eleventh place in the war of ideas and serve up another rerun of `Hollywood Couples`.

CPD senior fellow Alvin Snyder reports on issues in international broadcasting for the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy. This article first appeared in CPD