Tucked inside the port of Jaffa, an Israeli news channel is cutting its teeth in the saturated international news market. From a hq with views of the Mediterranean, i24 news’s ambitious programming is in French, Arabic and English.
Israel’s media has played an oversized role in the country’s history – part a confirmation of the rebirth of the Hebrew language, part an example of Israel’s democratic institutions. But established Israeli media organisations have recently been on a frantic search for new revenue models at home. That’s why i24 (the “i” stands for “international” – not Israel) is ignoring the domestic Hebrew-speaking audience and looking to the world.
While i24 is not receiving funding from the Israeli government, the network is capitalising on the widespread desire in the country to entrench an Israeli perspective in the international news cycle. The station could not have chosen a better time to lead a counter-revolution in the region’s television news coverage. Instability in the Middle East following the Arab revolutions, renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and aggressive cultural initiatives in Tel Aviv, give i24 and its cast of fresh-faced Israeli journalists excellent material to craft an Israeli perspective for an international audience. But who will listen?
Inside i24’s headquarters of darkened glass, three studios for the trilingual transmissions are at the centre of the editorial floor. Reporters sit at their computer screens, monitoring feeds.
But it is surprising, given the depth of Israel’s design industry, that there is nothing new about i24 news’s presentation. If you were to borrow elements from the leading global television news networks, mix them together with a heavy blue tint and add Hebrew accents, something akin to i24’s on-screen branding would emerge.
The station offers five daily half-hour news magazine shows covering economics, politics, technology, culture and media in addition to 24-hour news programming. Between segments, futuristic spinning globes gyrate to the sound of fidgety theme music. There is a noticeable absence of any sort of advertising.
“It is about time we heard another voice from the Middle East,” says Frank Melloul, the Swiss-born ceo of i24 and former French diplomat. “I am very happy about the launch because the international buzz is showing that we need to have this channel.” In Israel, Melloul is something of an unknown, but he is familiar in Parisian political circles. Melloul made his name as a spokesman for former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin. Communications mogul Patrick Drahi is the main backer of Melloul’s jump into the Israeli media landscape, and the primary shareholder of the largest Israeli cable TV provider hot.
i24 has followed the Al Jazeera English model of launching online before migrating to traditional television providers – its service here began in July. However, without the vast financial backing that Qatar provides Al Jazeera, this is where the comparisons between the two networks end.
The channel is expanding to satellite networks in South Asia, Africa and Europe. By early 2014, i24 intends to spread its tentacles to the US. It will likely face few obstacles in getting airtime there due to the warm attitude Americans have for Israel – but market trends suggest the network won’t be realising its projected goal of reaching 300 million viewers worldwide anytime soon.
Since debuting online, Frank Melloul has hired a staff of 250, including 11 dedicated foreign correspondents and 160 Israel-based journalists from the US, Portugal, South Africa, France and Belgium. None of the talent signed are big names. Despite the surge in signings, the scale of a major news network eludes i24’s current operations.
Arabic-language editors face particular challenges given the station’s location in Jaffa, the former cultural and economic engine of Palestine before Israel’s takeover in 1948. Despite having some experienced journalists from Egypt and Palestinian and Druze communities, editors are ready to acknowledge the difficulty in finding talent. The network has not been able to develop any real base of Muslim journalists in the Middle East and i24 is hesitant to disclose how many Arabic-speaking viewers they have attracted online.
Despite this, there is pride on the editorial floor about working for Israel’s first international news outlet. But there is a certain tension about how to label the station. “We are not an Israeli station. We are a European channel registered in Luxembourg, broadcasting from Israel with studios in Paris,” says Melloul.
“Yes, i24 is from Israel but it doesn’t mean that it is an Israeli channel,” says Hicham Faird, an Egyptian Arabic news editor at i24 from Egypt. As a PR attaché keeps a stern watch, he delicately articulates the balanced coverage the network sees itself providing. “I tell Arabs that don’t want to come on an Israeli channel not to be afraid and say what they want. We don’t have any agenda – Israeli or Arabic – we reflect the facts.” However, i24 so far displays a strongly Israeli outlook when it comes to news from the region.
There is another unusual twist to i24’s news coverage. Most Israeli journalists start their careers as spokespeople for the Israeli military. Keren Kersh, the chief editor of the English language daily news magazine programmes and a seasoned hand at Israel’s television news circuit, began his media career in exactly this way.
“From being a spokesman you get the understanding of the difference of being a spokesman and being a journalist. It is not at all the same thing,” says Kersh. “It is not what I am trying to do here; I am trying to tell the broader story.” The ability of Melloul’s team to tell such stories from multiple angles will indeed determine whether the network will fall into the trap of preaching state-sanctioned opinion so often associated with satellite news channels.
Opening a news channel in the midst of the digital takeover is a tall order for any network but i24 hopes it can move beyond the intense coverage of Israel in the international arena to provide an Israeli perspective free of the tropes that define the modern Middle East. Breath is bated, then, while commentators ask the real question: Will it work?
Noam Sheizaf is an Israeli journalist at Maariv and editor-in-chief of +972 Magazine, a seasoned viewer of Middle-Eastern media ventures. “What strikes me about i24 news is that it marks a new development in Israeli media. We have not seen something of this scale here. But it is hard to know where they will be politically because everyone here has a bias,” he says. “The media here is talking about i24 news primarily because of the employment opportunities they are offering journalists. In reality, I don’t know if the Israeli public is going to pay any attention at all.”
Is newness enough? “Having a bunch of Israelis broadcasting international news in English with Hebrew accents has not happened before,” says Sheizaf. “It’s clear this is about the prestige and influence of the people funding the station because there are better business options for investing the start up capital that i24 has been given. No one knows where this influence will be exercised and to what end.” As free of speech as it is free-to-air, or a dais for a particular viewpoint? The region just might switch over and see.
Al Jazeera: Welcome to America
And what about Doha’s glossy new launch? Al Jazeera America was launched on 20 August, initially to 49 million US households. Monocle’s Washington correspondent Sasha Issenberg tuned in to its first fortnight.
It was Andy Card, George W Bush’s chief of staff, who famously said, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” The product Card was blithely trying to sell, in the summer of 2002, turned out to be the US’s least popular export of the new century: the Iraq War. A decade of US entanglements in the Middle East – and the news they created – has finally produced a Middle Eastern product worthy of import.
Al Jazeera America was introduced in another August, just as the US was edging into another entanglement in the Middle East, this time a confrontation with Syria over claims of chemical-weapons use. It turned out to be a fortuitous time for a network that proposed to differentiate itself from cable competitors with a more probing interest in the wider world. (Unlike Al Jazeera’s football-centric network, which rebranded as BeIN Sport to obscure its origin before American viewers, the news channel is not bashful about its regional roots, deploying its Arabic-calligraphed logo prominently.)
While CNN, MSNBC and Fox News defaulted to viewing the crisis through the lens of the debate among Washington policymakers, Al Jazeera analysts batted around the motives of Syrian players usually resigned to supporting-actor status in American broadcast accounts. Among US outlets, only The New York Times and National Public Radio can match the worldliness of AJAM, as it wants to be known. But the new channel already seems to cover more ground, putting its far-flung bureau network to work on important foreign stories entirely ignored by television rivals.
Those pieces, from the falling rupee’s impact on Indian exporters to a report on the Australian election from a swing Sydney district, are broken up by occasional light features. But even these are freighted with seriousness: one half-hour ended with a report on a Chicago “hip-hopera”: Othello remixed in rap verse as performed at a Chicago prison.
Those interchangeable run-on hours of daytime television are more successful than the shows built around established personalities poached from elsewhere. At CNN, Ali Velshi was a patient explainer of complex economic issues. AJAM has given him his own showcase, the breakfast business show Real Money, and Velshi, perhaps the young network’s biggest news star, seems to have assumed, as if by reflex, the high-energy breathless patois of the American cable host.
From the Middle East to the world: the competition
- Abu Dhabi TV, UAE
The National newspaper has carved out a place for itself in the saturated market of Middle Eastern journalism over the past five years. Wholly owned by Abu Dhabi Media Company – which has a vast empire spanning National Geographic Abu Dhabi, entertainment and sports channels, and radio – it is supported by the government of the United Arab Emirates and is one of 10 media outlets operated by the small Gulf country. Abu Dhabi TV, which first established itself during the 2003 Iraq war, is the conglomerate’s main news channel. With an uncharacteristic inward gaze, the station focuses on news from the Emirates and leaves the international scene to The National.
- Al Mayadeen, Lebanon
Politics is never far away from just about anything in the Middle East, especially TV news. The latest effort at 24-hour Arabic television news is certainly no exception to this rule. Based in Beirut, the hazily funded Al Mayadeen carries fast-paced coverage throughout the day from a team of correspondents throughout the region, with studios in Tunisia, Cairo and Tehran.
The channel is a clear response to Qatar’s Al Jazeera and Saudi-owned Al Arabiya. Al Mayadeen has been accused of close connections with the militant group Hezbollah but regardless of political affiliations, it is the most serious attempt to break the dominance that Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya maintain over the Arabic news market.
- CBC, Egypt
Since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, a total of 16 new Egyptian channels have obtained licences to broadcast in Egypt and via satellite to the Arab world. CBC (Capital Broadcasting Center) is typical of the new wave of channels; acerbic, satirical and staunchly opposition. After its launch in July 2011, the network landed Bassem Youssef’s widely popular satire news programme based on the American Daily Show. The network has become a household name throughout the Arab world. It’s popularity even landed CEO Mohamed al-Amin on a no fly list for a brief period of time. Egypt’s recently deposed president Mohammed Morsi also clearly found the station’s tone an irritation.
What you need to start a Middle East news network
Journalists and producers: Big-name correspondents boost a network’s reputation, but they are not a necessity. A diverse and global staff capable of quickly processing breaking news is, however, essential.
Studio location: Whether a glass building in the middle of the Gulf, a tower in London or modernist building on the edge of the Mediterranean, a studio’s location must give the network a sense of authority.
Editorial floor: Today’s leading networks employ an open editorial floor plan which affords the viewer a quick behind-the-scenes peek into the newsroom as the camera pans out between segments.
Reach: If you want to be taken seriously in the current interconnected news climate, you have to be reaching a global audience, beaming into international homes around the planet.
Fixers: A journalist is only as good as his or her fixer. Best to invest heavily in these local go-getters that know just who to get for key interviews and have their ear trained to the word on the street.
Studio cameras: Advances in broadcast quality mean that staying on top of the latest visual technology is a must. Japanese outfit Ikegami Tsushinki make some of the best studio cameras in the business.