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UPI Bidder Beams Western Programs to Arab World With AM-UPI

June 24, 1992

LONDON (AP) _ From a former spaghetti factory in south London, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre beams news, fashion, music and travel programs by satellite across the Arab world and to much of Europe.

The first all-Arabic television network hopes to be a ″catalyst for understanding″ in a turbulent region, said its news chief, Stephen Marney.

The network, known as MBC, bought UPI at a bankruptcy court auction for $3.95 million. Its plans were not immediately known.

MBC pays homage to Islamic conservatism - it devoted hundreds of hours to this year’s Hajj, or pilgrimage, by millions of Muslims to Mecca and Medina. It bans raunchy videos and provocative dress in concession to its audience.

But its programming in general is a departure from the ceremonial activities of government leaders and bland, heavily censored news reports that are staples of television in the Arab world.

For balance, MBC has run an interview with Israeli deputy foreign minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has opened a Jerusalem bureau.

The principal owner, Sheik Walid Al-Ibrahim, is a brother-in-law of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, who is said to have given his tacit approval for the network to broadcast to Saudi customers, despite tight government control over the airwaves.

When it began in April 1991, MBC was allowed to broadcast on a Saudi government channel, but that permit was revoked after some Saudis expressed outrage that its female anchors in London did not wear veils. Later the ban was lifted.

MBC’s satellite and cable transmissions span the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. The station estimates it has 100 million potential viewers from Dublin to Muscat, Khartoum to Stockholm.

″We are liberals and we want to open up links in the Arab world, including trade links,″ Dr. Abdallah H. Masry, a partner in the venture, said in an interview earlier this year.

″We also want to provide a link between (dispersed) Arabs and their homelands.″

Masry has estimated MBC’s satellite viewership at around 12 million, based on figures from individual governments. Another 330,000 people in Europe watch on cable, according to station spokesman Nick Hart.

The station plans to begin broadcasts to North America in mid-1993.

MBC was the only non-English language network to remain in the Afghan capital, Kabul, when rebel groups waged a bloody battle for control of the city in April and May, Hart said.

Between news bulletins, the station runs upbeat features on Paris fashion, Hollywood films and travel.

Boozy scenes are out, as well as some pop videos ″because they are sexually provocative,″ the executive features producer, Margaret Sawdon, said in March. ″Obviously that rules out much of Madonna.″

London was chosen as MBC’s base because it already is a center for a number of Arab publications, station officials said.

Half the 40 journalists in MBC’s London newsroom are Arabs from across the Middle East and North Africa.

The station hopes to break even within five years. It has started seeking advertising and program sponsorship, but investors are still footing most of the bills.

Update hourly