x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Sky News Arabia raring to go out live to the world

Sky News Arabia, a 24-hour TV station based in Abu Dhabi, is scheduled to go on air early next month. Now in full-on rehearsals, its staff is ironing out the final glitches and preparing for the big day.

Majed Al Faresi, a news presenter for Sky News Arabia, does a mock on-air session in Abu Dhabi. Sammy Dallal / The National
Majed Al Faresi, a news presenter for Sky News Arabia, does a mock on-air session in Abu Dhabi. Sammy Dallal / The National

The Sky News Arabia studio in Abu Dhabi is abuzz with activity as employees grapple with the relentless demands of 24-hour television.

Presenters scurry from makeup rooms to the brightly lit set, as editors piece together the stories of the day from the station's network of 12 bureaux.

Energy is high, which is perhaps surprising. For Sky News Arabia does not hit the airwaves until May 6 - and is currently in round-the-clock rehearsals.

Yet despite the Arabic-language channel's output reaching hundreds, rather than millions of people, staff there are working as if it is going out to the masses.

Nart Bouran, the head of Sky News Arabia, says the station is on track to go live next month.

"I'm actually very surprised at how few technical glitches we have at this stage," he says. "People come and visit us and they look at our output, and they say 'is this really going on, is this happening now? You're ready to go?'. And yes, we are."

At a 24-hour rolling-news station, there is no start or end to the working day. But a key event at Sky News Arabia is the 9am editorial meeting, when much of the planning is done.

Mr Bouran chairs the gathering with about 15 others crammed into his glass-walled office. The meeting will be a feature of the running of the station when it goes live, just as in rehearsals.

"The morning meeting sets the agenda for the day," Mr Bouran says. "There are always healthy, heated discussions that take place between departments … That kind of constructive tension sometimes is very important."

Sky News Arabia is part of a joint venture between Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation, a private investment company owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Minister of Presidential Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister, and the British company BSkyB, which owns the Sky News brand.

Mr Bouran says the station can achieve commercial success and insists it will be editorially impartial.

"Everybody's committed to establishing the highest standard editorially and journalistically. That's what will make us successful," he says.

At the 9am planning meeting, the ceasefire in Syria is deemed the top story of the day. Given the difficulty of reporting from the country, editors are on the lookout for eyewitness accounts.

The story is close to the heart of the news presenter Alma Intabli, who is from the Syrian port town of Latakia. Not that she can let this show. Ms Intabli, 28, is quick to underline the neutrality required of TV-news presenters.

"At the end of the day, I'm a journalist, and I'm a presenter. So I have to be balanced," she says. "If I'm anti-regime, or pro-regime, I must not show anything. It's kind of difficult to control yourself. But at the end of the day, we are used to this, and this is our job."

Ms Intabli usually works seven-hour shifts, including four hours on air. She sometimes presents bulletins starting at 1am, but today is due to go on at the more sociable hour of 3pm.

Half an hour before Ms Intabli enters the studio, she is at her desk, researching the top stories. Events in Syria, Egypt and Iran are dominating the news today - as on many other days.

But despite all Ms Intabli's research, she knows the running order could change - with just seconds' notice - to make way for breaking news, the linchpin of the Sky brand.

Yasser Thabet, the head of output at Sky News Arabia, is one of the people who can change the news agenda at the press of a button.

He sits in his office monitoring world events as well as what rival stations are doing.

"Being fast is one of the most important things," Mr Thabet says of his job.

The daily news is displayed on his computer screen, with news items flashing blue when they are read out on air.

But this running order can be scrapped at any moment. "If there is breaking news, we will throw it from the window," says Mr Thabet. "You have to respond easily and effectively to any urgent or breaking news. You don't need to Google - you don't have time. You have to use the best data bank, which is your mind."

Mr Thabet, 48, is from Egypt. He has lived in the UAE for five years, and worked on all four rival Arabic-language news stations - Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera, BBC Arabic and the US-funded Alhurra.

One of the things he does is to ensure that questions asked by presenters are kept short - as part of his policy of "no boredom".

Such guidelines must be taken on board by Ms Intabli, who is sitting in the studio just before 3pm, ready for her broadcast.

Syria is still the top story - an item that has already made it to the Sky News Arabia website, which was switched on earlier this year.

In a few weeks' time, live satellite broadcasts will be beamed beyond the TV monitor-adorned walls of Sky News Arabia's HQ and into 50 million homes across the region.

Mr Bouran says that he is ready for this - especially given some of the stories the station has already been covering, such as the situation in Syria.

"We had a live signal coming out of the Turkish-Syrian border when [Kofi] Annan was there," says Mr Bouran. "When you are doing rehearsals, and you're doing very well on the stories … you say 'I wish I was on air'."


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