The growing number of foreign Arabic language satellite TV channels is being described as "an ocean of channels" filling the waves of the region, and as "noisy markets".

Almost every foreign country with a certain level of leverage in the region has its own television channel targeting Arab countries. The US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Turkey come at the top of the list. They are all vying for an Arab audience.

The interest in the Arab region, which is mainly due to historical relations, also received a boost in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. More countries have joined others and built media bridges with the Arab world by launching their own television channels.

"The Middle East is one of the most important regions in the world from the point of view of the global economy and security. Russia has always had strong historical relations with the region," said Alexander Nazarov, director of the Rusiya Al Yawm (Russia Today) channel, which was launched in 2007.

"After the Russian domestic turmoil of the '90s subsided, Russia refocused on rebuilding economic, political and cultural ties with peoples and countries in the [Arab] region," he said in an online interview with Gulf News.

"The French journalistic school is a famous one," said Ahmad Al Keiy, France 24 Arabic channel's deputy director, which was launched in 2006 with a few hours of transmission and later became 24 hours.

"France 24 is a news channel which aims to cover international news with a French vision and perspective," he told Gulf News in a telephonic interview.

The BBC prides itself on being a pioneer in media presence in the Arab region. Its Arabic language radio goes back to 1938.

"The connection between the western world and the region varies between friendship and animosity," commented Hassan Muawad, former head of news programmes and correspondents network at the BBC.

"It is a strong relationship, whether being positive or negative."

Western realisation of the Arab region's importance has deepened in the aftermath of the events of 9/11.

"They [the west] realised that their message did not reach properly in the Arab world through embassies and other official institutions. So they found out that the only way to speak to Arabs was through the media, so they launched their own media outlets to pass on their perspective to Arabs," Muawad, who is currently a programme presenter at the Al Arabiya pan-Arab satellite channel, told Gulf News.

Apart from radio, the BBC was also the first western country to bring television to the region. However, two years after its launch, BBC television was shut down in 1996, only to be re-launched in 2008.

But by that time, the foreign media had already started to mushroom in the region. In 2004 the US-government funded Al Hurra television was launched to enhance the badly hit image of America. The success of the channel in achieving its goal is still debatable after nearly eight years, and the channel does not have a high viewership. In 2005, the Arabic service of Germany's Deutsche Welle was launched with a few hours of transmission daily which was increased later.

In 2006, France decided to join the group by launching its television services simultaneously in three languages, Arabic, English and French on France 24. A year later, Russia Today joined in. China and Turkey launched their Arabic television channels in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

Traditional audience

Asked whether there is enough space for the increase in the number of channels, Mohammad Goneim, former Voice of America TV coordinator for the Near East and South Asia, said there is "a traditional audience" for some foreign outlets that go back many years. Following certain media was "inherited generation after generation".

"These [western] outlets," added Goneim, "continue to have their own listeners and viewers, though they vary according to news developments. When there are important happenings, more and more people are tuning in to these channels. Otherwise, people will tune in to local media outlets for local issues," said Goneim.

Satellites have played a major role in the growth of television networks, both Arab and non-Arab channels, explained Goneim.

According to a report by the Arab Advisors Group, the number of free to air (FTA) satellite channels targeting the region continues to grow. From 280 in 2007, the number has grown to 538 in 2011 (on Arabsat, Nielsat and Noorsat).

"The increasing number of television sets coincided with growing attention to television transmission," Goneim noted.

"It is up to the audience to say," replied Al Keiy, when asked about the ability of Arab audiences to absorb all the foreign channels.

"When you have 30 million viewers watching France 24, this means there is a demand," Al Keiy said.

"Thirty million viewers is not a small number for a channel that is still considered relatively new."

Interestingly, "you don't need more news, you need a new perspective" was a slogan raised during the French media campaign to promote France 24, which is a fully-owned subsidiary of Audiovisuel Exterieur de la France.

Some of the foreign media broadcasting in Arabic is either partially or fully subsidised by their governments. Some others are publicly funded.

Viewership varies from one media to another. Nazarov, noted that according to a 2010 sudy, Rusiya Al Yawm has more than 5 million viewers in Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, the UAE, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The audience for BBC Arabic television, which comes at the top of foreign media in terms of viewership, rose to 24.5 million in 2011 from 13.5 million a year before.

The political weight of the broadcasting foreign countries, coupled with the available abilities put in the service of a TV channel are among the determining factors in attracting audiences or driving them away.

High journalistic standards and professionalism in presenting news play a crucial role as well, noted veteran media specialists. Successful channels are those that succeed in building a foundation of trust and respect between the channel and the audience.

During the recent French presidential elections, many viewers tuned in to France 24 for its special coverage.

"Sometimes, there are certain events in the same country itself that attract Arabic viewers, such as the French presidential elections, where people tuned in to France," Muawad said.

Other historical and strong cultural relations also have a role.

For example, BBC enjoys a respectable reputation in many countries, mainly those that were part of the British empire or under a British mandate.

Arabs in the North African countries tune in to France 24 due to historical and cultural ties.

In response to a question whether they give priorities to certain countries or regions, Al Keiy said, "We speak to the Arab viewer wherever he or she is, even if this viewer lives in Europe or in America, or in the Levant or Northern Africa."

Meanwhile, Arabs, who are described generally as politically-oriented viewers and have a strong appetite for several media sources, settle on watching certain outlets after making their own choices.

Critical development

"The ordinary viewer, normally, watches all channels before deciding which one to follow ... especially after a critical development or a major event. The viewer likes to watch more than one channel," said Muawad.

"People in general don't trust the local media," and that is why they listen and watch the foreign media, said Goneim.

"Even the [Arabic] private media is monitored and is careful. It can be closed down," if it takes a line which is away from the official line, Goneim added.

However, all media outlets, whether local, official, private, foreign or international, have their own policy. "They need to explain this policy and make it closer to the Arab people," noted Goneim.

The foreign media is facing competition from Arab-owned satellite channels, such as the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera and the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, based in Doha and Dubai respectively. But for officials in foreign networks, broadcasting from abroad has its own advantages.

"There are several Arab TV news channels which are very strong, professional and well financed," noted Nazarov.

"Indeed they are strong competitors to Rusiya Al Yaum. But very often they are subject to political pressures exerted either by their governments or other influential forces in the region.

"In that sense we have an advantage — by broadcasting from the outside we can present a more comprehensive and a more balanced view on regional matters."