Abu Dhabi: CNN, Sky News Arabia Take Different Approaches to Serving News Junkies

Abu Dhabi Media Zone - P 2012

Abu Dhabi Media Zone - P 2012

In competition with the likes of Al Jazeera, one offers a U.S. perspective on the news, the other promises to provide "New Horizons" for Arabic speakers.

ABU DHABI - CNN's bureau here is one of the news network's four global production centers - in addition to the Atlanta headquarters, London and Hong Kong.

Established in 2009, it produces the hour-long Global Exchange live program for CNN International every day and the two long-running feature shows on and from the region, Inside the Middle East and Marketplace Middle East.

Bureau chief Phil O'Sullivan, who moved here from Hong Kong less than a year ago, has a staff of around 25. "It is smaller than Hong Kong, but I came here to make this operation bigger," he says. "I'd like us to grow."

Abu Dhabi itself is rarely in the news, but the emirate is a safe and well-placed jumping off point to reach other countries in the Middle East that may make news, including Afghanistan. For example, it played a key role during the Arab Spring coverage last year. CNN also coordinates its seven regional bureau from here.

The CNN bureau otherwise feeds breaking news and featurey reports to the network. This week, for example, a CNN team attended a session with Sesame Workshop CEO Melvin Ming at the third annual Abu Dhabi Media Summit. He addressed the gathering via satellite feed from New York as he was stuck there amid the controversy over Mitt Romney's threat to cut funding for Big Bird and friends in case he becomes president, and President Obama's use of the character in an ad without Sesame's approval.

And Global Exchange, launched late last year, is the daily hour-long business news show focused on emerging markets that airs from here. "It is unusual to have a U.S. show broadcast from an emerging market," said O'Sullivan. "It was good timing when we launched it, because emerging markets have become so important."

In the other direction, the English-language CNN also brings the Gulf region news from all over the globe. "The network does do quite well in this part of the world," O'Sullivan said. "We are a U.S. network, and people are quite interested in getting the U.S. perspective."

This summer, CNN presented the latest Essential Media Services Middle East survey, which is often used here and showed that it is the most watched international channel in the region. With a monthly audience reach of 33.4 percent, it was well ahead of nearest English-language competitor, Al Jazeera English, which drew 15.5 percent.

When looking at weekly reach, the channel also ranked ahead of Al Jazeera English and BBC World News.

"CNN is also the number one cross-platform international commercial network, reaching 41.5 percent per month of the EMS Middle East universe when combining TV and online," the network said in unveiling the data.

Industry observers say Al Jazeera is strongly associated with its home Quatar and its perspective, which may not always appeal to all viewers.

But it is a crowded field in the news space in the region. At the writer's Abu Dhabi hotel CNN was available as the third channel on the dial, followed by the BBC, Euro News, Fox News, Al Arrabiya News, Al Jazeera Arabic and CNBC Arabiya. Sky News Arabia was the last available network.

Sky News Arabia launched in May as a joint venture of U.K. pay TV giant BSkyB's Sky News and the Abu Dhabi Media Investment. It just launched an advertising campaign using the tag line promise "A New Horizon."

"Our aim has been to create an impartial and independent breaking news channel for the Arab world across multiple platforms," said Nart Bouran, head of Sky News Arabia, at the channel's launch. "Sky News Arabia will offer the [Middle East and North Africa] region a fresh approach to television news with an independent editorial mandate at the heart of everything we do."

The network also says it is the first Arabic-language news channel in the region to air 24-hour news without set programs and fully in HD.

With a focus on truly independent reporting, it gives opposing points of views the same amount of on-air time and even appointed an editorial advisory committee "to ensure that the channel remains unbiased and balanced." It is this different approach that led to the "New Horizon" slogan.

And it is focusing efforts on integrating tweets and other social media into news gathering and reporting and gauging its early performance by the social media feedback and the number of followers it gets. "There's nothing to really figure out" about social media, Nart Bouran, head of Sky News Arabia, told the Abu Dhabi Media Summit in a panel discussion this week. "It's a fact of life now."

He also emphasized that he is telling his staff to avoid potential pitfalls of the digital age and social media. "You can get into trouble very, very quickly," he said. "You can not let your guard down for a single second."

A noticeable amount of young people sit in the network's newsroom here, underlining its goal of being young, quick and different. A yellow ticker with latest news crawls along the bottom of the TV screen as a business reporter goes on air holding an iPad in front of a video wall that shows latest stock trends.

Sky News Arabia's editorial focus: Arab news from the Arab world to the Arab world. And that increasingly includes Arabs in Europe and the U.S. With that focus on stories that matter to Arabs, discussions about racism laws in Europe and what the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections could mean for U.S. foreign policy are topics for the network.

But with a household reach of only over 50 million, Sky News Arabia has more growth upside ahead.

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai