Saudi Arabia could be around two years away from having a free, content-rich alternative to satellite TV, similar in many respects to the UK’s Freeview. Despite just about every home in the Kingdom owning a satellite dish – or dishes – and most of the major satellite channels being financed by Saudi cash, the government would like to see greater control over what’s available to viewers in the region.
Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture & Information has already rolled out the technical infrastructure to offer what is called ‘digital terrestrial TV’, but only a few government channels are currently available on the platform. That could all change with the passing of a new Broadcast Act, which would specify what kinds of content could be carried on the platform and what the conditions of carriage would be.
“What will be available are some selected, socially acceptable channels from the region and maybe some foreign programmes,” Dr Riyadh Najm, assistant deputy minister for engineering, KSA Ministry of Culture & Information, told a Middle East trade magazine. “In order to do this, we will need to have [in place] what we call the Broadcast Act, which is now under evaluation by the government, which will outline how we will allow private channels to be broadcast locally and terrestrially.”
The Ministry’s goal is said to be to offer around 30 channels, which would cover the main content areas and would be suitable for family viewing. Dr Najm said the intention is not to pressure satellite TV companies, but to offer an alternative that is free and acceptable to the country’s population. “The majority of people want programmes that are socially acceptable, that are good for the family and at the same time provide reasonable entertainment,” explained Dr Najm. “Then, you don’t need to go to satellite, you just go to digital terrestrial.”
The Ministry, he confirmed, has looked at Freeview and feels such an approach could work in Saudi Arabia. “I’m very impressed with the model in the UK and how successful it became. At the end of the day, most people do not watch 200 channels every day,” said Dr Najm. To receive the service, homes need an antenna and a terrestrial receiver, which come as standard with some new plasmas and LCD TVs.
However, this is not the first time the strictly conservative nation has attempted to control incoming satellite TV signals. More than 10 years ago a Saudi-backed MMDS scheme, SaraVision, was created to distribute TV signals, but internal rivalries between various ministries scuppered the plan. Meanwhile, ART, MBC, Orbit , LBC, and many of the individual Arab-language channels, are financed by Saudi wealth.