x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

CNN's Prism casts light on capital

The inaugural broadcast from the CNN studios in Abu Dhabi was more than just another television programme. For some, it meant the end of months of planning and building. For others, it was the realisation of a quest to make the UAE a global news hub.

A behind-the-camera look in the CNN studios in Abu Dhabi as it prepared to launch its first show, Prism.
A behind-the-camera look in the CNN studios in Abu Dhabi as it prepared to launch its first show, Prism.

Minutes before Abu Dhabi stepped onto the world stage as the fourth global broadcasting hub of CNN, the only signs that history was about to be made were a bouquet of congratulatory flowers in the newsroom and a breathless tension throughout the studio. Stan Grant, the Australian anchor of the half-hour news programme, Prism, stood at his desk at the small set at the end of the newsroom and received a final touch-up of makeup as the digital clock beside him ticked down to five minutes to showtime.

At the five-minute mark, Byron Harmon, the senior executive producer of programming who had come out from the CNN US headquarters to launch the new show, cut the silence with a nod to the Atlanta roots of the broadcaster: "Break a leg, brother!" he shouted across the newsroom and gave a thumbs-up before silence descended. Seconds later, Mr Grant's face appeared on the bank of screens in the darkened production center above the small and somewhat startling logo of CNN Abu Dhabi.

For those in the room, the logo represented the culmination of a year of public planning, months of construction and two weeks of rehearsals. For those watching in the network offices in Abu Dhabi, London and Atlanta, where the deal was made, it meant something far larger: the continued success of the CNN International strategy of global expansion and the true beginning of an Abu Dhabi role as a global media hub. Both are signs of a shifting world order in which the Middle East not only makes the news, but also funds it.

The reasons that the new Abu Dhabi media zone, twofour54, would want CNN as a founding partner are obvious. Started by Ted Turner nearly 30 years ago as the first global 24-hour news network, CNN today reaches more than 93 million US households in its domestic incarnation and more than 200 million homes internationally. Its success in covering the first Gulf War, when it was the only broadcaster to have reporters inside Iraq during the first hours of bombing, earned the cable broadcaster higher ratings than the free-to-air networks in the US. It was so dominant in international markets that it is widely credited as inspiration for the founding of the broadcaster Al Jazeera in Qatar.

The CNN brand has great power in the region, to the point that Dubai Media City puts its letters boldly on the top of one of its buildings, commonly called "the CNN building", despite the fact that the broadcaster has a modest staff there that primarily works on the CNN Arabic-language website. For Abu Dhabi, which before the founding of its media zone was seen as the quiet older brother of the more media-friendly Dubai, attracting a major CNN studio with 25 employees plus a sales staff of five was the clearest indication of the media ambitions of the emirate.

More interesting - and to many of the reporters asking questions at its launch press conference at Emirates Palace, puzzling - was why CNN would want to enter into this marriage. After all, the UAE ranked 86th out of 175 nations in the latest World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Frontiers, and CNN already had a longstanding presence up the road in Dubai. Tony Maddox, the former BBC executive who runs CNN International, was asked that question many times, in many ways, during the launch.

"It's a good place for us to work out of," he said. "It's a good place for people to live and work. We've got great transport infrastructure and great broadcast infrastructure. Also, we've got great partners here. So this is in no way a slight to any other location that we didn't go to. In many ways, it's a thumbs-up for Abu Dhabi and the UAE, where we had a good business relationship in the past."

In short, there are two dimensions, one visible, one less so. The visible one is that the UAE is a dream location for newsgatherers: a short flight from many of the major world conflicts, stable enough to invest in a state-of-the-art broadcast studio and wealthy enough to provide a fertile field of advertisers. The less visible one is the nature of the partnership between twofour54, the Abu Dhabi media zone, and CNN International.

When asked whether CNN was paying rent at its glowing, space-age offices at the media zone campus near Khalifa Park, Mr Maddox replied: "We're investing substantially. We are paying our way here. I speak as someone who has been involved in a lot of high-level discussions at very high levels in Atlanta, justifying the levels of expenditure that we have here." Indeed, when Mr Maddox came out to Abu Dhabi in October of last year to announce CNN International's plans at the launch of twofour54, there was only a hint in the wobbling international markets of the painful year that lay ahead for all media. For CNN's US channel, this pain was compounded by the decline from a ratings high of election coverage from last year.

The latest figures by the Nielsen ratings agency show that CNN/US has drawn an average of 932,000 viewers in prime time this year, down by a quarter compared to the same point last year. On its home turf, the US broadcaster is facing tough competition from an increasingly polarised cable news landscape, with Fox News to its political right and MSNBC providing a counterweight on the left. In elections in the US this month, it lost out to both rivals in the ratings battle.

CNN International has always been a different story. While reporting restrictions at Time Warner, which owns CNN, prevented Mr Maddox from giving specifics, he told the UK newspaper The Telegraph in July this year that CNN had delivered double-digit percentage increases in profit for each of the past five years and that CNN International had been profitable since its inception in 1985. There is every evidence that the Middle East in general and the Gulf market in particular will play a growing role in fuelling that profitability. While CNN will continue to work with its partner, Media International Services, which sells its regional advertising out of Dubai, the presence of a permanent CNN ad sales staff in Abu Dhabi is new.

Their modern red chairs and glass-lined offices, overlooking what will soon be a gleaming office park at the south end of Abu Dhabi Island, are evidence of network plans to raise its sales presence. "You have to be closer to your consumer and your clients," said Rani Raad, the CNN International senior vice president for sales in the region. "We believe this will make us understand the region even better and deliver to the region a service that is more in line with what they've been looking for."

Watching the channel for a while already reveals a host of Gulf advertisers, including the Dubai International Financial Centre, Etihad Airways, Emirates Airline, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and the Qatar Financial Centre. Just last month, the Abu Dhabi Government investment company Mubadala signed on as the sponsor of a new programme called Revealed, to be produced out of London. The afternoon before the debut broadcast of Prism, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, paid a visit to the CNN studios to unveil a plaque indicating his blessing.

A few hours later in the same room, Prism went on the air, with its main feature piece examining whether the Egyptian government was "democracy or dynasty". At one point, Mr Grant, in an interview with a human rights activist in Cairo, asked the question: "Do the conditions just not exist in this region for democracy to exist?" CNN International faces that same query often in many of the places from which it reports around the world. When asked whether CNN would be bound by the UAE's media law, which at the moment still allows journalists to be jailed, Tom Fenton, the managing editor for the Middle East, brushed the question aside.

"We operate in places where the freedom of press is effectively banned and the UAE is not one of those," he said. "I'm not going to say there are not laws. I would never presume to say that we are going to come into a country and break the law - We are not here looking to make mischief or cause trouble. We are here looking to do serious journalism, serious programming." But the subtext of the question asked by Mr Grant is that by the very presence of CNN and its ability to ask the question, at least one of the conditions for democracy, freedom of speech, exists to some extent.

The fact that CNN would not just be tolerated but enthusiastically welcomed says a lot about the kind of place Abu Dhabi is, and the kind of place that it wants to become. CNN has been recognised before as a force for freedom. In 1997, it won the Liberty Medal, awarded by the US National Constitution Center to those who have shown determination in bringing about the benefits of liberty. In accepting the award previously given to Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr Turner explained the CNN International philosophy.

"My idea was, we're just going to give people the facts," he said. "We didn't have to show liberty and democracy as good, and socialism and totalitarianism as bad. If we just showed both the way they were - clearly everybody's going to choose liberty and democracy." khagey@thenational.ae