Nothing but static

In Communicate, Journalism, Published journalism, Television on November 22, 2010 at 11:08 pm

Mohamed Alayyan invested millions into ATV, Jordan’s first private TV station. Why, after years of delay, was it shut down on the very day of its planned launch?

Originally published in Communicate, October 2007

It was supposed to be a signal of the long-awaited liberalization of media in Jordan. But ATV isn’t broadcasting any Ramadan specials this year. In fact, as this magazine went to press two years after the station’s planned debut, ATV still hadn’t broadcast anything.

Jordan’s long-awaited first private TV station, ATV will miss regional broadcasting’s most profitable month due to a government shutdown on the day it was due to launch, sparked by wrangling over licensing, paperwork and debt.

Now Amman’s media scene is awash with rumors and speculation over the reasons for the delay and the fate of a station that was originally supposed to launch in late 2005.

The station’s frustrated owner, Mohamed Alayyan, says his losses are hurting him and he is ready to sell. “I cannot take this any more, this damage,” says Alayyan, a 33-year-old entrepreneur who broke ground by publishing Jordan’s first private daily, Al Ghad. “I am bleeding badly.”

Although he says rumors about the government buying ATV are unfounded, Alayyan says, “If I have a good buyer at a good price I will sell it definitely. … Right now several big investors have contacted me – I’d rather keep their names till the deal is done – and hopefully they will be able to launch it.”

Mohanned Khatib, managing director of ATV, is a former anchorman at Al Arabiya who was hired by Alayyan to head up the new station. After telling Communicate in 2006 that the station was expecting to launch “sometime around the end of the year” – last year, that is – Khatib says he is now dealing with bureaucrats who offer nothing but “excuses” when it comes to the station’s aborted launch.

“It was supposed to officially launch on Aug. 1,” says Khatib. “However, we were delayed by the Audio-Visual Commission [AVC], which regulates all TV and radio stations in Jordan. And we received several letters from them. Some excuses – I would say invalid excuses – but we have to abide by the rules.”

Speaking of the two-year delay, Khatib says, “Most of it started with the technical issues – licensing and frequencies and all that. But then it developed further, going into our content and other things,” adding that the regulator has begun demanding paperwork ATV had already submitted “several times.”

It’s enough to make one suspect that politics, and an official antipathy toward private broadcasters, are behind the delay. Alayyan refuses to be drawn into speculation about a political motive, but says the station’s novelty plays a part.

“I think [the problems] are because we are new, and this has never happened before,” he says. “But this is a huge step backwards for independent media.”

Hussain Banihani, general director of the government’s AVC, tells Communicate the regulator is blocking the satellite broadcast due to Alayyan’s unpaid debts.

ATV owes money to state-owned Jordan TV according to a deal whereby the new station was to take over frequencies and infrastructure for its terrestrial broadcast, and to another government body, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), for the right to use those terrestrial frequencies. Yet the ATV terrestrial broadcast never got off the ground due to various technical issues.

“They have money to pay to Jordan TV and to the TRC here in Jordan for the frequencies and so on,” says Banihani. “Let them pay the money and they will be on air right now.”

Alayyan admits he has yet to hand over the money, which amounts to 3.5 million Jordanian dinars ($4.9 million), but says this should not be the concern of the AVC, which is supposed to regulate only the satellite broadcast. “Just because [the AVC] is the government doesn’t mean they have the right to collect [the money],” says Alayyan. “That’s a different contract. We are not disputing the issue of the terrestrial. There’re lots of technical issues with regard to the terrestrial that need ironing out.”
“We signed the contract with Jordan TV but never took the service,” he adds. “We never aired anything [and] they never took down their channel for us to use, and yet they started counting on us for money.”

In fact, Alayyan claims Jordan TV never paid for those terrestrial frequencies either, and he is hesitant about paying up in case ATV gets lumbered with Jordan TV’s existing debt. “When you buy a car, you don’t want to buy one with any debts, do you?” he asks.

One thing is certain: ATV won’t be seeing much return on its investment in programming for Ramadan this year. For the peak season, Khatib says the station had invested around 2.5 million Jordanian dinars ($3.5 million) in content.

The absence from the airwaves during Ramadan has cost the company dearly. “We had prepared a very expensive grid especially for Ramadan. … The premiums for Ramadan are very high, and you can buy this stuff for maybe a quarter of the price after Ramadan. It was a major disaster for us,” says Khatib.

As well as looking forward to a new avenue for advertisers during the holy month, media buyers were anticipating the new lease of life ATV would give to Jordan’s stagnant television scene.

Media planners have long said a private local TV station would fill an important gap in the country’s media market, especially for local advertisers keen to reach a Jordanian audience without having to resort to pricey pan-Arab satellite broadcasters or print media.

“We were all eagerly waiting for ATV,” says Jöelle Jammal, managing director of ad agency Promoseven Jordan. “It will push Jordan TV to make some changes and some refurbishment to the whole operation,” she says, adding ATV’s proposed grid was a big change from the dominant state-owned broadcaster’s more staid slate of programs.

What could have been a breath of fresh air has brought an odor of disappointment to the noses of Jordan’s media. “I think the whole thing is unfortunate,” Khatib says. “I think it’s confusing to some, and I think it reflects badly on our country.”


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