Nile TV Sends SOS to Local Cable, Satellite Television Firms

The exposure is limited, the competition is stiff and rumors of dismissals and even impending closure are mounting. The staff at the Egyptian broadcasting authority's Hebrew-language channel are worried.

"Our colleagues in the French and English department told the minister in charge that no one in Israel watches us. They think `we're stealing the show from them,' they wanted to swallow up the Hebrew broadcasting slot, to get our airtime," says one journalist at the state-run channel, Nile TV (called "Arutz Hanilus," in Hebrew).

The channel, which broadcasts two hours a day, features news reports about Israel and the Middle East, historical items about sites in the Arab world, newspaper surveys and commentary, and speeches by President Hosni Mubarak with excellent simultaneous translation into Hebrew.

Nile TV's employees - approximately 20 reporters (anchors and editors) and dozens of technical workers - fear layoffs and closure of the channel, and it seems there is some basis for their worries. "We aren't a welfare office. We want to see results from the broadcasts. Either work - or leave," the channel's director general has told its employees.

At the office of the Egyptian information minister, Dr. Mamduh Baltagi, they do indeed want to see results - in the ratings charts.

Dr. Hassan Ali Hassan, chairman of the foreign-language channel and supervisor of its television broadcasts, thinks the rumors of Nile TV's impending closure are exaggerated. According to him, the Hebrew channel is now looking into how it can reach more Israeli viewers. The major problem is a technical one: The broadcasts are relayed via satellite. To receive them, one must install a private satellite dish, which is not such a common practice in Israel.

To overcome this problem, the Egyptian embassy recently approached Israel's Hot cable television company and the Yes satellite television company. Both companies say the matter is being investigated and that their representatives are in contact with Egyptian engineers to work on the technical means for relaying the channel's broadcasts. However, it is clear that economics, and not the technical problem, will be the deciding factor in the case of Nile TV.

The channel's contact with local companies three years after it went on the air is a result of the new atmosphere prevailing in the region in general and in the relations between Israel and Egypt in particular. Today the channel's managers face considerations beyond immediate profit.

"We're trying to explain to viewers how we see events in the region and to explain Egyptian civilization and culture to them," says Dr. Hassan.

In Cairo, it is hoped that exposure to the channel among Israeli viewers will enable a focused discussion of regional issues, including input of all kinds.

"The media plays an important role in bringing the peoples of the region closer to each other," says a journalist who works at the channel. "They show the Israeli public how the Arab side sees the situation."

This view of the situation is presented in fluent Hebrew; staff at the channel is very sensitive to Israeli criticism that the Hebrew used on the channel is biblical and not current. "For whoever loves the Hebrew language, it's a lifelong investment. In four years of university studies, it's impossible to acquire the language, and that's why we're careful to monitor Israeli radio and television broadcasts and printed media," explains Hassan, who rejects the charge that occasionally arises in Israel that Nile TV is primarily a propaganda station.

"We aren't like the broadcasts on the Egyptian propaganda channel from the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, known as Kol Hara'am," he says. "We deal in public relations and information."

At the same time - and in the wake of a directive from senior officials - Nile TV employees refrained for years from hosting the Israeli most accessible to them: the spokesman of the Israeli embassy in Cairo. He was invited to the station's studios for the first time only a few weeks ago.