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Fri 1 Jun 2007 12:00 AM

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Sea View

After seeing the launch of several business, news and entertainment channels, the Middle East is now witnessing a surge in the number of thematic TV channels. Digital Studio takes a look at Bahry TV and Marine Biz TV, two new channels that were launched last month for marine lovers.

The TV boom in the Middle East is not over despite skeptics predicting a dip for the last six months. In fact, twenty-seven new channels have been issued licenses to go on air from Fujairah this year and of these, seven are scheduled to begin broadcasting as early as this month. And if the new trend in launching thematic channels is any indication, the Middle East can hope to see an even bigger boom in free-to-air TV. Already last month, we have seen the launch of two new channels dedicated to marine life and maritime affairs.

Bahry TV, a Kuwait-based channel went on air last month as did Marine Biz TV, a channel funded by Aries Marine, a UAE-based ship design and consultancy firm. Both channels plan to cover everything from marine life and the shipping industry to coastal living, spear fishing, water sports, sea resorts and related cuisine and entertainment. However, their core topics might be slightly different with Bahry TV being more of a lifestyle channel and Marine Biz TV, which has been put together by a group of naval engineers, focusing more on the shipping industry, training programmes and related exhibitions.

While in most places, you will see a car parked outside a home, here (Kuwait), you are likely to see two cars and a boat outside homes.

Bahry TV, which is owned by two Kuwaiti brothers and Kuwait's Bayan Investment Company, is part of the Bahry Media Network, which includes a newspaper and a web site that is also dedicated to the same theme. Nafisi Al Nafisi, chairman and managing director of Bahry Media Network, sums up all that the TV channel is likely to cover in terms of content: "Bahry TV will cover all sea activities such as boat and yacht manufacturing companies, boat shows, competitions and champions. It will also offer programmes about sea, fishing, diving and marine tourism, in addition to other documentary programmes."

Heading the channel is Mubarek Jasim Bouresli, general manager of Bahry TV. "This channel is designed for those who belong to the sea," says Bouresli.

According to Bouresli, Bahry TV will do very well in the Gulf, particularly Kuwait. "The Kuwaitis are well known for their love of the sea. This is the biggest market for boats. Kuwaitis own 70% of the boats in the Gulf region. It's a huge passion and fishing is a favourite pastime. There are more than 30,000 boats in Kuwait. While in most places, you will see a car parked outside a home, here, you are likely to see two cars and a boat outside homes. We believe this channel will be as successful as our magazine. We have seen the business in this field and there is a lot of scope for this channel," claims Bouresli.

The TV channel, which broadcasts out of Kuwait, currently operates a six-hour grid and then repeats the content. It broadcasts primarily in English but also has the odd Arabic content.

Bahry TV has already invested more than US $50,000 in putting together a small facility in Kuwait to run the channel. More capital will be invested in acquiring and producing original content. "We have signed a deal with Ocean World Productions, a Dubai-based production house, to produce 120 hours of documentaries, underwater series and fillers," says Bouresli. "It is very important for everyone living here to know that the sea is precious and must be treated well. Especially, after the Iraqi invasion in 91, a lot of oil was spilt into the sea and destroyed marine life. We hope our channel will create greater awareness about the sea and what is required to protect it," he adds.

Bouresli, however, is quick to add that the channel will not just cover underwater life. "It is meant to show the fun side of it also. We are in contact with production and distribution companies from several countries including the UK, Australia, Canada, Spain, the US, Singapore and even French Polynesia to ensure that we have exciting content related to water sports, real estate and so on. We haven't just relied on local content," explains Bouresli.

The company initially planned to have an in-house studio as well but later decided against it as all of its production takes place outdoors. "It didn't make sense to have a studio at this stage as we shoot all of the action outside," he says.

Bahry TV has invested in Sony HDV camcorders, an Edius NLE station, as well as Macs and PCs. "We have ensured that we have a PC and Mac-based environment so that technology does not become a hindrance to us producing good work," explains Bouresli.

Presently, Bahry has been cautious with its investments. The channel is currently manned by seven people and as the channel grows, Bouresli hopes the network will also grow and expand. "This is a free-to-air channel. Our footprint on Nilesat and Arabsat reaches from Algeria and Iran to the South Mediterranean. But we eventually hope to cover the rest of the world," he adds.

Marine Biz TV, by comparison, has invested in more people but kept its costs down by operating out of India. Although owned by a Sharjah-based firm, the channel's main production and editing facility is based in Cochin, a major sea port located in the South of India.

Unlike Bahry and Nautica, Marine Biz has been launched by a team of engineers, who claim that their prime objective is to share advances in shipping technology as well as conduct training courses, share shipping safety measures and cover shipping conferences worldwide.

"We are not an entertainment channel; we are an information channel," says Sohan Roy, a naval architect and certified film director. Roy is also the managing director of Marine Biz TV and CEO of Aries Marine. "About 90% of the global trade moves by sea and there have been phenomenal development in the methods employed and technologies used in various maritime activities from offshore drilling to super tanker construction. However, the best ideas, activities and developments taking place in the maritime world have never been instantly accessible to the people in the industry. This is the prime reason for the creation of Marine Biz TV. We hope this channel will provide viewers with a unique insight into this world," he adds.

The company hopes to target one million decision makers within a year. Roy claims he has all the statistics on paper. "There are 50,000 ships across the world and each ship has a captain and a chief engineer and an additional engineer. These are the most influential decision makers on the ship and it is these people we are targeting. Plus there are 100,000 decision makers in the naval defence; 100,000 in oil and gas, 50,000 in the fishing industry, plus another 50,000 in academic institutions, and so on," he says.

Whether all of these statistics will help the channel plan a successful survival strategy is not certain. However, what is interesting is the way the company utilises the internet and TV in a complementary fashion to reach out to its target audiences.

On the one hand, the channel hopes to be a single point of contact for all maritime activities and information worldwide while also serving as a market place for maritime buyers and sellers. Complementing the channel is

, which will offer specialised training and safety courses as well as other services.

The channel has already tied up with a couple of major academic institutes and offered to give students free passwords to the web site, which will contain video clippings and information to complement their education.

Even to maintain a 12-hour grid, you need an average of 8,700 half-hour programmes, and for each programme, you need a minimum investment of US $5,000.

Marine Biz TV hopes to have programmes that will become a mandatory part of a shipping institute's curriculum. At the same time, it offers companies the opportunity to minimise training expenses by offering specialised programmes on the channel at specific times.

The channel has contracted organisations such as Walport in the US and production firms in the UK to produce for it in excess of 4000 programmes that will include primarily training material, safety measures while building ships and also a few marine life documentaries.

"It will take us a couple of years to identify the real need of the industry," says Roy. "But as we have more details about which programmes are more popular, when they are visiting the web site and so on, we will be able to identify more clearly the need of the industry and tailor our programmes to support them," he adds.

Roy himself is an engineer but has dabbled in filmmaking in the past. Marine Biz TV is thought to be his brainchild. "I believe I am the link between the engineering team and the TV world. I have made a couple of movies but went back to my first calling. However, seeing the huge gap in the media, I thought we could use this medium to bring this community closer," he says.

Roy reckons he will need a minimum investment of US $50 million to sail safely through the first year. The channel will initially operate a 12-hour grid and then repeat the content. "Even to maintain a 12-hour grid, you need an average of 8,700 half-hour programmes. For each programme, you need a minimum investment of US $5000. There is, of course, no upper limit. Unlike other channels, marine-related programmes are relatively more expensive as they have to be shot on vessels or from choppers or you need underwater equipment. All of this is more expensive than shooting on the ground," says Roy.

Marine Biz hopes to invest at least US $40 million in the first year for production plus another US $10 million for distribution. If a cable operator with only 25% coverage in a region currently charges about US $15,000 a month for distribution, Roy reckons he will need significant capital to distribute his content worldwide. He hopes, however, that the content will become so appealing that distributors offer to carry the channel for free eventually. "For now, we have to pay for our channel to be distributed across different platforms but we hope our viewers will appreciate our content so much that distributors begin to look at our channel as a value addition," he explains.

In the meantime, Marine Biz is actively rallying for more support from marine community members, the shipping agents' association and academic institutes to ensure that it has the industry on its side.

The channel already has about 40 people working at its base in Cochin, and hopes to have a support team of 20 people in the UAE. Roy claims that it is now the official channel for more than 50 exhibitions worldwide, and that it has already covered 20 exhibitions since its launch.

Like Bahry TV, Marine Biz TV is also primarily using Sony HDV cameras but broadcasts in SD. "HD is not a reality here just yet," says Roy. "I personally believe that IPTV is the future and as it matures and bandwidth becomes less of an issue, I believe HD will begin to gain more ground. Until then, we want to make sure that we work on both platforms to ensure that we can appeal to all viewers," he adds.

Once the channel is in full swing, Marine Biz TV has grand plans to launch an international maritime university in the UAE that holds all kinds of related courses under one umbrella. "Currently, there is no such integrated university anywhere in the world," explains Roy. Secondly, the company hopes it will be ready to host the biggest maritime exhibition in Dubai in 2009.

Both Bahry and Marine Biz TV claim that the other is no competition for them. Although Marine Biz TV claims that it will focus on shipping, its lineup of programmes includes all of the topics that Bahry TV also plans to cover including international exhibitions, boat shows, coastal living, product launches, company profiles, programmes on ship management, latest development in the maritime sector, programmes on repair and service of ships, review of magazines and journals, interviews of corporate heads and personalities, maritime recruitment, training and entertainment programmes, water sports, exploration and expeditions, tourism, cruising, yachting, maritime museums as well as marine myths and mysteries.

Bahry TV maintains that it has the upper hand in the region as it already has a web site and an established readership. "We have been in the industry for five years with the Bahry magazine," says Rashid Ghadour, production manager at Bahry TV. "We know what the industry wants by now and are ready to offer it to them. Already, we have purchased about 700 shows. We are aiming to do about 300 hours of in-house production," he adds.

Marine Biz TV contends that local channels are only looking at a regional footprint. "We have positioned ourselves as a global maritime channel with the vision of improving the shipping industry. Marine Biz TV will broadcast over Asia, Europe, Australia and Africa for now and will cover North and South America from August 1st 2007. We also have the strong support of the international maritime community. Additionally, as part of our second phase, we plan to telecast Marine Biz TV in eight different languages," says Roy.

In a couple of years, it might be worthwhile to see how these channels have evolved and where they are heading in terms of content. Both channels have been keen to get their content right first and then, pay attention to the technology they are using. For now, suffice to say that the launch of thematic channels seems to be the current trend. More sectors are now mulling the potential of launching similar thematic channels. For broadcast vendors, this, of course, makes the Middle East an even more attractive place to sell their wares.

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