Al Ekhbariya: Fresh (On) Air

When Al Ekhbariya was launched few years ago people thought this was MOI’s attempt to compete with Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. This did not turn out to be the case. Instead, Al Ekhbariya focused on national issues and local news stories. You would think this is the least you can expect from a government-owned television channel, but looking at the history of Ch 1 and Ch 2 it is understood why we were impressed by the local coverage of Al Ekhbariya. Ch 1 and Ch 2 were so disconnected from reality (Ch 2 has improved lately, Ch 1 still sucks).

But media junkies in the Kingdom should have realized that early on when Mohammed Al Tounsi was chosen to head the new channel. Al Tounsi, who came from the print media empire SRPC, is largely known for transforming Al Eqtisadiah from a dry economic publication to a popular newspaper mainly by featuring local issues that get no coverage in other newspapers.

I have had the pleasure to meet Al Tounsi earlier this year in his office in Riyadh, and he talked about the channel, reform and the social changes that our country is going through. We usually listen to leaders like him talk about these issues, but what about the regular men and women walking down the street? Enter So’al Al Youm (Question of the Day), a show on Al Ekhbariya where reporters go out and meet people in streets and shopping malls to ask them about their opinions in all kinds of issues.

The program is the brainchild of Al Tounsi. The idea occurred to him right after one of the terrorist attacks that hit Riyadh not a very long time after the launch of the channel. He sent a crew to record people’s direct reaction and it was a success. If you have followed the program for a long time you can observe the change in people’s attitudes. β€œAt the beginning people were afraid to appear on TV and speak out. Now when they see the the reporter and the cameraman they run to them to ask if they can participate,” Al Tounsi said.

In a country where you don’t have reliable tools to measure public opinion, a simple television program like this could help to detect trends and changes in people’s mindsets, especially on polarizing issues such job opportunities for women and misyar marriages.

Also of note on Al Ekhbariya is a show called Hazrat Al Muwaten (Dear Citizen), where you can find some of the best local reporting work on the screen. I like Buthaina Al Nassr and I like her improvised yet elegant style of work where she won’t simply settle for the comfort of a chair in an air-conditioned studio but rather would go to poor neighborhoods and smelly places like the fish market to bring stories of very normal people who truly struggle to make a living, just like the rest of us.

Buthaina, who recently left the channel and joined Al Hurra to work on a new talk show to be aired later this month, says she never watches the show after she is done working on it. β€œI put a lot of work into it and I can’t watch it after they edit many things out,” she told me.

However, Al Ekhbariya lacks an important factor for any television channel to gain a larger audience, especially a news channel. Simply put, Al Ekhbariya has no stars. I don’t mean to undermine the value of teamwork and I totally agree that the quality of the end product is more significant to viewers than the individuals involved in producing it. But on television you always need familiar faces that people can relate to, and to a large extent this is still missing from the channel. Also, there are so many talk shows on the channel but little is done to distinguish one from another, so I think they should put more work on that.

Al Ekhbariya’s arrival to the media scene of the country was groundbreaking on some regards and not-so-groundbreaking on others, but it has nevertheless introduced a long-awaited breeze of fresh air in a desert that enjoyed silence for so long. It was shocking to some, but for many of us this amount of disruption and controversy, little as it may seem, was just what we needed.