The arrival of Sky News Arabia is good news for the UAE and good news for a news-hungry region
Sky News is a chance for a news-hungry region to change
In the Arab region's crowded television sphere, where over 500 satellite channels carry out round-the-clock transmissions, is there any room for new broadcasters? At Sunday's launch of the new Sky News Arabia (SNA) channel in Abu Dhabi, the answer to this question was affirmative: there is room, and plenty of it, if the intent is to genuinely develop the television news industry.
At the launch, I got the impression that the project was about bringing a new culture of television journalism to the region, one that promotes broadcast news both as a force of constructive public engagement and as a business investment. As a 50/50 joint partnership between Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation and the UK's British Sky Broadcasting, Sky News Arabia is meant to serve as an example of how global journalism standards can be exercised by regional journalists to contribute to public opinion, while succeeding as a commercial venture.
SNA's goals, as articulated by its chairman Sultan Al Jaber and other officials, suggest that it will take journalistic standards, promising media professionals and state-of-the-art technologies to bring changes to the region's news market.
But as the experience of satellite television in the region suggests, it will take more than editorial independence, human resources and technology to stimulate growth in the region's television news market. Newcomers in the congested broadcast sphere need to practise principled journalism within a viable business model, while at the same time engaging national media priorities.
We all realise how challenging the task of reporting the Arab world's political, social and economic issues can be. In the context of the unrest in countries such as Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, there is a rising sense of frustration with how satellite television broadcasters are handling developments on the ground.
For Sky News Arabia, these deficiencies could be an opportunity for a new culture of broadcast journalism to emerge. SNA's website already features this evolving journalistic tradition, and so does its balanced deployment of correspondents.
Of course, high journalistic standards in a region long steered by state-mandated communication policies will be sustainable only if professional television journalists are recruited and nurtured.
The channel's staff reflects a strong track record of experience in the region's media. These men and women are responsible not only for handling day-to-day technical and editorial assignments, but also for addressing viewers' cultural concerns.
Sky News Arabia's production and distribution schemes are designed to give it a competitive edge to establish a foothold in the market. During the past decade, media convergence was defining communications industries in North America and Europe, but in the Arab world this remains a rather abstract and academic issue.
What counts at the end of the day is how broadcasters convert their professional, human and technological assets into revenue. There are still good prospects for the region's television news market despite the beating it has taken as a result of the global economic downturn and the political turmoil.
According to the 2012 Arab Media Outlook report issued last week by Dubai Press Club and Deloitte, advertising spending in the Arab world is expected to reach $4.9 billion (Dh18 billion) this year and to grow by 6.7 per cent annually to reach $5.95 billion by 2016.
Sky News Arabia will compete for these advertising dirhams with heavyweights such as MBC, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.
This British Sky Broadcasting partnership with Abu Dhabi underscores a perception of the UAE as an emerging television news hub.
Muhammad Ayish, a former professor of communication at the University of Sharjah, is now a media researcher and commentator based in Canada
Editor's note: Rob Long's Hollywood watch has moved to Saturday