By Peter Feuilherade
This article first appeared in the November 2010 issue of The Middle East magazine (London).
Saudi Arabia has announced plans to launch a free digital terrestrial TV (DTT) platform for domestic audiences, along the lines of Britain's Freeview service.
The service, due to launch in 2012, will offer "selected, socially acceptable channels" from the region, and possibly some foreign programmes, according to a Saudi deputy minister.
A domestic DTT service could offer an alternative to what some Saudi commentators see as the escalating penetration of "undesirable" content into the Kingdom's households via the internet, satellite TV and mobile devices such as the BlackBerry.
This comes against the backdrop of major changes in the Saudi broadcasting sector. Measures are under way to transform state-run Saudi TV to operate on a "corporatised" or semi-commercial basis. More private TV and radio channels are in the pipeline too.
Explosion of choice
Saudi viewers, like the rest of the Middle East and North Africa audience, have access to about 500 satellite TV channels in Arabic, in addition to nine TV and radio channels from the government-run domestic service.
As well as the leading pan-Arab channels, the foreign stations on which they can watch news and current affairs programmes in Arabic include the BBC, the US government-funded Al-Hurra, France 24, Russia Today, Germany’s Deutsche Welle, Japan’s NHK World, China’s CCTV and Iran’s Al-Alam.
In mid-2010, Saudi media magnate Prince Walid Bin-Talal announced plans to launch a new 24-hour TV news channel in partnership with Rupert Murdoch's Fox network, to focus on the Arab world.
And Sky News - which like Fox News is owned partly by Murdoch's News Corporation empire - also plans to launch an Arabic-language news channel in the region in 2011.
"Alternative, acceptable" TV programmes
The Saudi government is currently evaluating a "Broadcast Act" which would specify how private channels would be broadcast locally and terrestrially, and what kind of content the future DTT platform would carry.
Dr Riyadh Najm, assistant deputy minister for engineering in the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information, said in an interview with a Middle East broadcasting industry website in September 2010: "The majority of people want programmes that are socially acceptable, that are good for the family and at the same time provide reasonable entertainment.
"Then, you don’t need to go to satellite, you just go to digital terrestrial."
The Ministry’s goal was to offer around 30 channels, which would cover the main content areas and would be suitable for family viewing.
Dr Najm said the intention was "not to pressure satellite TV companies, but to offer an alternative that is free and acceptable to the country’s population".
Although the Kingdom has the technical infrastructure in place for a DTT service, only a few government channels are currently available on the platform.
The proposed Saudi service has been compared to the UK's Freeview, which offers around 50 channels from a combination of public service broadcasters, free-to-air commercial operators and satellite operators. Viewers pay a one-off fee of about 50 dollars for a set-top box, but then receive the channels for free.
UK-based broadcasting analyst Chris Forrester noted this was not the first time that Saudi Arabia had attempted to control incoming satellite TV signals. "More than 10 years ago a Saudi-backed MMDS [multichannel multipoint distribution system] scheme, SaraVision, was created to distribute TV signals, but internal rivalries between various ministries scuppered the plan," he recalled.
Saudi Arabia has evolved into a leading media and broadcasting market in the Middle East.
It is the Gulf's biggest market, and has its highest GDP and second highest advertising spend, which is expected to grow by 10 per cent annually until 2013.
The Kingdom has 8.5 million internet users. It is the second most connected country in the Arab world, in terms of total penetration of household main phone lines, mobile phones and internet use, according to the Amman-based Arab Advisors Group.
As well as licences being offered for five private FM radio stations, licences for private satellite TV stations are in the pipeline.
The Ministry of Culture and Information also intends in due course to privatise its nine channels, in order to circumvent restrictive regulatory conditions currently impeding the sector, and to permit Saudi TV to generate revenue and operate at a profit. But although the idea of commercialisation was mooted some years ago, the Ministry is still in talks with other government bodies.
Said Bacho, managing director of the Middle East division of the US transmitter and equipment manufacturer Harris Broadcast, said in an interview with the Arabian Business website that the Saudi private broadcasting sector had only emerged recently: "It will grow but it won't necessarily overshadow the government operations, which are very large. However, many people did not expect Saudi TV to grow as fast as it has, so perhaps the private sector will surprise some people too."
"Morality" in mass media
The impact of unregulated mass media on Saudi society is increasingly being debated in the Kingdom.
At the end of September 2010, the Shoura Council (Consultative Assembly), the 150-strong legislative body appointed by King Abdullah, decided "to further study ways to ensure a sense of morality can remain in the Kingdom's mass media", the Saudi English-language Arab News reported.
"The council is aware of the imminent danger of the multimedia and mass media ... and their implications on the cultural, social and economic life of people in the Kingdom," said Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz Al-Yahya, the council's assistant secretary-general.
The Shoura members suggested "creating a central body to codify the moral and social content of the mass media, which includes mobile phones, TVs, the internet, radio and other electronic devices that can be misused."
Separately, Saudi Arabia is mulling the idea of setting up an official television channel and radio station for accredited Muslim scholars to issue fatwas, or religious decrees.
The TV channel would be part of the Kingdom's efforts to stop unauthorised clerics issuing unorthodox fatwas. In August 2010, King Abdullah ruled that only royally approved clerics would be allowed to issue fatwas.