Muslim TV Network in the Making
By Kari Lynn Dean
Wired News
 

When Mohamed Alaoui's 4-year-old twins grow up, he wants them to see themselves on television. Well, maybe not themselves, exactly, but people who look like them -- everyday American Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism. "The only thing you really see about my culture is very negative," said Alaoui, a native of Morocco who lives in Arlington, Texas. "I don't want my kids to think that every person in the Muslim religion is a terrorist." About 6 million to 8 million Muslims currently reside in the United States, yet pop culture images of them are scant beyond the nightly news reports chronicling the war on terrorism and Hollywood portrayals of Islamic extremists blowing up buses in Brooklyn. There isn't a single recurring Muslim character, for example, on a sitcom or drama.

Alaoui and some 1,500 other American Muslims like him are eager to change that -- so eager that they're willing to pay $10 a month for a fledgling cable television network that doesn't even exist yet. Mo Hassan, a New York banker and ex-Procter & Gamble marketer, and Omar Amanat, founder of the Tradescape Internet brokerage, are betting that many more people will do the same. The founders of the new Bridges TV network hope that by delivering 10,000 "pre-subscribers" they will convince major cable companies to take on the first nationwide English-language Muslim television channel in the United States by the summer of 2004.

Hassan and Amanat say they plan to offer programming that resonates with the real-life experiences of moderate American Muslims. "American Muslim life is, for the most part, quite similar to mainstream American life," said Hassan. "But for an American-born Muslim kid growing up in America, there are virtually no realistic portrayals of Muslims in dramas, sitcoms, soap operas or talk shows." Despite backing by celebrities like Muhammad Ali and early interest from viewers and investors, Bridges TV has its skeptics. Mostapha Saout, president of multicultural advertising agency Allied Media, is one of them.

"Muslim and Arab Americans are concentrated in the top 20 cities, which are already saturated with cable stations," Saout said. "And those 10,000 subscribers -- when you break it down per cable station nationwide -- it's not that many." Saout said that most ethnically focused cable stations are subsidized by established networks or overseas governments, so being a startup just adds to Bridges TV's list of challenges. Al-Jazeera, the Arabic news network, was launched in 1996 with funding from the government of Qatar. An estimated 150,000 viewers see the channel in the United States. "You see Al-Jazeera carried only on a few cable networks," Saout said. "It should have been easier for them given that they are established, but it takes really deep pockets." Bridges currently has $1 million in seed capital and expects to raise another $5 million once it amasses 10,000 subscribers. In addition, Amanat has an established fund-raising network from his days at Tradescape, which he recently sold to Etrade (ET) for $280 million.

Brian Dietz of the National Cable & Television Association said even offering 10,000 pre-subscribers, in a country with 70 million cable subscribers, is not likely to make Bridges TV a national cable player from the get-go. "Every network's goal is to launch a nationwide station, but it's a matter of launching one city or region at a time," said Dietz. "Cable companies offer different programming for different regions that have different ethnicities. (Stations) are not carried nationwide; they are carried regionally." Dietz also cited support by potential advertisers and compelling programming -- two components the Bridges Network says it is ready to offer -- as keys to any cable station's success. The American Muslim population is growing at about 6 percent annually, according to the 1996 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. For Bridges TV, this population translates to a burgeoning niche market for advertisers.

Bridges TV's founders said they hope to help the Muslim community gain acceptance and increased understanding through the forum of media, as Telemundo and Black Entertainment Television have for Hispanics and blacks living in America. As for programming, Amanat plans to do the usual focus groups to get a feel for what appeals to Bridges TV's audience. Some potential ideas include a cooking show featuring recipes consistent with Muslim dietary habits, a talk show addressing the issues of working American Muslim women, and a children's show casting American Muslim children. Skeptics like Saout are less concerned with programming potential and more about whether cable companies will buy into the project.

"When you approach the cable stations and tell them anything except Hispanic or African-American, they don't really know what you are talking about," he said. "They already have this whole host of stereotypes in their mind, and they may have in their mind something extreme." Of course, it's just those kinds of images that Hassan hopes to change. "Most American Muslims do not identify with these stereotypes," said Hassan. "They have no links to terrorism. Rather, their greatest worries in life may be about such things as their children's health, paying their taxes by the deadline, who will win American Idol or socializing with friends."

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