DOHA // Since hitting the airwaves in September 2005, Al Jazeera Children's Channel has broadcast thousands of hours of animated, talk and game shows in classical Arabic. It has also earned a fistful of awards and started to put a modern and distinctly Arab face on children's programming in the region.
"We have planted the seed of change," said Mahmoud Bouneb, the network's executive general manager. "We have planted the seed of hope for a better tomorrow, but also for a better Arab citizen." Mr Bouneb recalls first hearing of the Qatari First Lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned's idea for an educational, entertaining and locally produced Arabic language children's channel, in 2002. "I thought it was, not a joke, but let's say a fantasy, in the Arab world," he remembers thinking at the time. "I always thought that children's television was a very serious business and we in the Arab world have no experience with it."
Seven years ago, locally produced programming for children was practically non-existent. Arabic-language children's television meant dubbed versions of Bugs Bunny and Yu-Gi-Oh! Though he had never been involved in children's television, in early 2003 Mr Bouneb left his job working for the chairman of the board at Al Jazeera News to become the new network's executive general manager. For more than two years he worked with producers, programmers and consultants from the Paris-based LaGardere Group to develop an identity for Al Jazeera Children's Channel.
"I remember the first thing we discussed was, 'Are we going to let children debate freely on this channel?'" he said. "My answer from Day One was yes, because in Arabic culture we don't have a tradition of listening to the children ... I said 'Let's listen to the children, we would be amazed by what we hear.' Today, children's voices dominate JCC programming, in shows such as Nadra Ala, a weekly debate show, and Ad Darb, a popular, fast-moving game show.
At the station's Education City headquarters, on the edge of Doha, the walls and furniture are painted in bright, child-friendly colours, such as orange and sky blue. Cheerful staffers watch over a steady stream of visiting youngsters and a wide variety of in-house productions keep three top-of-the-line studios in near-constant use. JCC, which also has offices in Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Paris and Kuala Lumpur, produces about 60 per cent of its programming. That content reaches 45 to 50 million households across the Arab world and Europe.
A year ago, the station split into two channels - Baraem TV, aimed at three to six-year-olds, and the original Al Jazeera Children's Channel, for seven to 15-year-olds. Baraem's animated series Nan and Lili has been honoured repeatedly, including earning a certificate of merit at last year's International Communications, Video and Interactive Media Competition and, last month, the CINE Golden Eagle Award from a US consortium for innovative TV and cinema. Competitors such as Nickelodeon Arabic and MBC-3 have in recent years begun to produce in-house game shows and other edutainment programming much like that seen on JCC.
JCC has produced or co-produced more than 50 films. Still Alive in Gaza, a feature documentary about Palestinian youth that JCC co-produced, will screen at the Berlin International Film Festival next month. JCC also offers special programming for Ramadan and a show on the Quran, but does not allow religious ideals to dominate. "Islam is part of our daily life, it's our religion, and it should be integrated into our content," said Mr Bouneb. "But we are not a dogmatic channel."
Nor is JCC a commercial venture. Its US$100 million (Dh367m) annual budget is provided mostly by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. Even with minimal marketing, the network has made an impact. Hatem Samman, a director of Booz and Company's Ideation Center, a Dubai-based think tank, said: ""Everything that contributes to the compounding of knowledge in the region is a positive."
Yet he questioned the breadth of the station's influence. "How do you compete with sources from the West and the US in particular?" asked Mr Samman, pointing out that his own children mostly watched English-language stations such as the Disney channel. "You need to have a comparative advantage. One way to do that is if you cannot beat them, you join them, with joint ventures and the like." Thus, JCC's two main objectives are more in-house content and greater reach. It has signed partnership agreements with production firms in the UK, Canada and Japan, among others. An animated show about the Arabic hero Salahaddin and Richard the Lionheart, co-produced with a Malaysian firm, will begin airing this summer.
Within two years, Mr Bouneb hopes to create an English-language version of Baraem and move into the North American market. Later this month, JCC will launch a video-on-demand platform on its website, where visitors will be able to access detailed programming information and watch their favourite shows at any time. Mr Bouneb wants "to increase the local flavour, the local identity", in JCC's programming. "We are just a television channel which is trying to bring beauty into the lives of the Arabic children," he said, "to make a difference in their lives and to give them a better future."