Orbit’s Star loss turns into “golden opportunity”

By | November 7, 2001 | Feature

Chris Forrester Editor

The Middle East pay-TV platform Orbit is preparing around eight new channels for its line-up and will introduce them over the next few months. At the same time, Star TV’s Star Select bundle of channels, currently part of the Orbit bouquet, will shift to Arab Radio & Television’s (ART’s) Arab Digital Distribution (ADD) bouquet by mid-January. It is thought that Orbit will subsequently add the new channels once these frequencies become available.

However, it is also becoming clear that Star Select’s shift to ADD (see Interspace IS726) has not met with everyone’s approval at Star TV but was forced on the broadcaster. According to one insider close to the negotiations, “it is a disaster for Star. Star wanted to stay with Orbit but Prince Alwaleed [bin Talal] wanted them in the ART bouquet.” While the source’s sentiments cannot be argued with, it is also known that that Star talked to the rival Showtime platform a year ago about switching out of Orbit. Moreover, the source said it was likely that in time Star Select would again be talking to Orbit about carriage.

Interspace (in Issue 715) has nevertheless predicted that Prince Alwaleed would be a catalyst for change, with his significant investments in both News Corp and ART (of which he owns around a third), making ART/ADD the logical vehicle for News Corp’s Sky Global expansion over the Middle East. It seems clear that despite Rupert Murdoch’s problems with securing DirecTV as the missing North American part of his global jigsaw, he is still determined to proceed with his plans for the rest of Sky Global and sees the Middle East as a key element in that scheme.

The Star Select bouquet now includes Star World, Star Movies, Fox Sports,

Sky News, Viva Cinema, Ch [V] Music and Fox Kids, as well as National Geographic, Adventure One, History Channel and Granada’s UKTV channel from the UK. Star’s plans talk of further language localisation of the Star Movies and National Geographic channels.

Orbit’s first ‘new’ channel is to be CNBC, which Interspace understands was asked to leave the Showtime bouquet. Indeed, CNBC’s US feed to Showtime was subject to numerous breakdowns and technical snafus. According to Showtime, “when CNBC joined us they promised improvements to the signal and content over time that simply has not happened. We terminated it on November 1.”

Commenting on the fact that CNBC will now be shown exclusively by Orbit, a senior Orbit insider said: “Our new channels will allow Orbit again to move aggressively forward. They represent a golden opportunity for Orbit. We are heavily investing in new production for these channels and our existing channels, which all viewers acknowledge as being the best available in the Middle East.” Orbit also spoke about looking closely at the CNBC relationship, and were aware of CNBC’s general wish to seek an Arabic language partner for their own localisation plans.

Besides CNBC, the line-up will include two new Arabic-language movie/entertainment channels, two new English-language film channels and an English-language documentary channel. Although Orbit also talked of extra news material, they were reluctant to be drawn on specifics. All the entertainment channels will nevertheless be quick to exploit the new Sagem Mediaguard/Mediahighway box now in distribution, as well as include an increasing number of simulcast English and Arabic sound tracks.

Showtime added eight new channels earlier this year and on November 1 replaced CNBC with CNNfn, AOL-Time Warner’s financial and business news channel. CNNfn is expected to shortly metamorphose into CNN Money and will be helped by local CNNI news inserts from CNN’s regional news bureaux in Cairo, Jerusalem and Beirut, along with their new Dubai bureau, now confirmed to be opening in January 2002.


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