‘TV on demand’ all the rage in West Bank

21 May 2006 - The Abu Kmail family sat in their modest living room in the heart of Hebron city watching their favourite local TV station - their only pastime on a quiet evening, free of Israeli raids.

The documentary being shown did not quite appeal to the taste of the two teenage sons, who wanted to watch an action movie instead. The father, municipal health inspector Awni Abu Kmail, quickly dialed a number and spoke briefly on the phone. Suddenly, the documentary was interrupted and an action movie began instead.

Palestinians, especially in the West Bank, may well be the first Middle Easterners to implement the concept of ‘TV-on-demand’, which is steadily gaining ground in Western countries.

However, the difference is that Palestinians do not have large TV networks or cable companies. Here, the service depends on how well you know the owner of the local TV station broadcasting in your area. And the station can vary between a whole floor in an apartment building, to a small apartment working with home-video technology.

The Abu Kmails say they would not be surprised if their favourite soap opera is suddenly interrupted and replaced with a movie or soccer match, because some other friend of the manager decides they would rather watch something else.

“It’s indeed TV-on-demand, but it works collectively. People watch what certain individuals feel like watching,” said Abu Kmail with a chuckle.

Over the past decade, the Palestinian Information Ministry has given permits to 32 local TV and 38 local radio stations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Some of these stations, especially in the Gaza Strip, lack the objectivity that West Bank channels try to project. Only one recently-opened local TV station currently operates in Gaza, and it is owned by the Islamist movement Hamas.

Most of Gaza’s radio stations are owned or operated by certain political groups, and Palestinians know that. For example, Al Aqsa Radio is owned by Hamas, Al Shabab (Youth) Radio is owned by Fatah, Al Quds Radio is owned by Islamic Jihad, and Alwan (Colors) Radio is owned by a certain security service, and run by a security officer of the same service.

The factional affiliation of these stations has become so intense lately that it has reached the extent of boycotting the news of certain political parties. Such is the case with Al Ummal (Workers) Radio in Gaza, whose director Riziq Al Bayari has given an order to not include any news about the new Hamas-led Palestinian government, its ministers or its Prime Minister Ismail Haniya.

Al Bayari explained that he made this decision to protest against the government’s refusal to recognise the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Nowadays, most private stations in the Palestinian territories are fighting the battle of obtaining permanent operating permits, which are issued by the Palestinian Information Ministry following the fulfillment of a series of very harsh conditions, according to station owners.

The toughest of these conditions is the annual frequency rental fee, which varies between $3,000 and $15,000. Over the past 10 years, these stations had not once paid rental fees for their frequencies.

Some of the TV channels had managed to operate smoothly without paying the frequency rental fee, providing a very modest salary (about $300 per month) to a single operator, whose task is just to switch video cassettes and tune in to certain satellite news channels to copy their news bulletin to the channel’s frequency.

Local stations do not have better technology, but the financial abilities of each station appear in the area its transmission covers, the amount of equipment it has, the space allocated to its single studio and the quality of video cameras used.

Also, and despite the ministry’s condition that each station produce at least 40% of its daily transmission, a more careful examination reveals that in the most committed of those stations that publish their daily schedule in the local newspapers, only one or two shows are actually produced, while the rest are copied from other channels.

Most of these self-produced shows discuss issues that are not relevant to the current situation in the Palestinian territories, focusing rather on such issues as fashion, childcare and cooking, while the rest consist of copying ‘blockbuster’ shows from satellite channels, and benefiting from the local sponsorships of these shows.

According to Deputy Information Minister and Palestinian poet Al Motawakkel Taha, the law that his ministry is currently working on will deal with the illegal copying from satellite channels, and will lead to the creation of more specialised and professional local TV stations that can fulfill the required technical conditions.

“The ministry will not give permanent permits to all the private stations in Palestine, and will cluster the small ones into more specialised stations,” Taha said.

Furthermore, Samir Qumsiya, chairman of the Union of Private Stations in Palestine, admits that the technical ability of local TV stations varies from one station to another, but the best ones mostly give generous air time to the station manager’s friends or leaders of his political group, who do not shy away from paying a good sum of money to have their political or social seminar covered live by the station.

“This is one of the most important sources of funding for the station,” Qumsiya explained, “followed by commercials, which are mostly aired for a cheap price, except those aired at the same time on a number of private stations.”

He noted that these stations do not have enough financial resources or equipment to follow the relevant copyright rules in broadcasting movies, TV series and sports matches, but they did manage, for example, to obtain Al Jazeera satellite channel’s consent to broadcast its news bulletins for free.

Though Qumsiya admitted that most of the local TV stations are not professional in their coverage of events, he believes they have played a vital role in discussing delicate issues that government-owned stations do not dare touch, such as corruption, security chaos and the latest elections.

Qumsiya maintained that private TV stations have been, and continue to be, important for Palestinians, as they provide breaking news from the community to the locals, such as an Israeli incursion or the assassination of a prominent militant. This has made these channels susceptible to the Israeli military’s wrath, and also to the wrath of some Palestinian officials.

In addition, private stations care about their own local affairs: “One station actually asked people to search for a missing farmer’s donkey,” recalled Qumsiya, laughing.

Yasser Abu Moailek is a freelance journalist and producer working in Gaza Strip. He freelances for several news agencies and publications around the world, with feature stories and news relating to the political, social, economic and cultural issues in the Palestinian territories. He is a correspondent for Arab Media Watch.