Al Jazeera: the tour

After my quick trip to the studio, this morning, I returned for the official tour of Al Jazeera a few hours later. The people there are very proud of their new facilities, and as a gadget geek, I can't help being impressed. Basically, Al Jazeera used to be run out of a small pre-fab facility, the tight, cramped quarters that were filmed in Control Room. But now, they have a new state-of-the-art studio with multiple newsdesks, with the journalists, producers etc. working right behind the camera: basically, when Leila Shoeb was delivering the news this morning, yours truly, Abu Aardvark and about 10 others were standing right behind her, out of focus on the live broadcast. Quite neat, and something they decided to do to give a more dynamic style compared to the old closed studio rooms. I suspect that alongside with the new jingles and graphics, this was a reaction to the more polished look Al Arabiya had when it launched about two years ago.

The PR man giving the tour was gushing about all this new technology. Some of it is extremely cool: for instance, they are in the process of digitizing all their aired footage since they started in 1996. They have enough digital tape storage for at least ten years of content, and eventually it might become accessible through the web. So if you're wondering about how Nasser liked his cheese sandwiches, you'll be able to search for the relevant Heikal show, and presto! Nasserist cheese sandwiches. Brillant. (Pitch to Al Jazeera: let Heikal host an equivalent of the BBC's Ready Steady Cook, but only with food Nasser ate.)

One room we visited was entirely covered in blue. It turns out this is where they shoot a lot of the talk shows, simply super-imposing the background afterwards. This is the same technique that is now common in Hollywood. After he explained this, the PR man told us: "This is also the room where we bring in Osama Bin Laden to do his recordings. He just stands there, and we drop in a cave background behind him, and we say we have a new tape."

They are a bit less self-deprecating at Al Jazeera International, which held a press conference today in which they repeatedly refused to answer the main question being asked: are they going to be an Arab channel in English, or an international one like CNN International and BBC World claim they are? Nigel Parsons, the man running the show, avoided answering the question directly, but I suspect the second answer is more likely -- if only because there doesn't seem to be that many Arabs at the senior or editorial levels of the channel. But considering how little information there is, I may be wrong. Key concepts including "revolutionizing television" and the regionalization of content production.

They also introduced a rather bizarre prototype of a gadget they want to spread throughout the Middle East, notably in universities. It's called Al Minbar Al Hurr and essentially looks like a Doctor Who Tardis rebranded by Al Jazeera. It's a booth with a camera that records anyone who drops in for 30 seconds. The recording is then run on Al Jazeera's Live channel, presumably after being screened by editors. Bizarre, gimmicky, yet strangely compelling.

Best moment: Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor of Al Quds Al Arabi, wondered why so many of the star anchors of the new channel were old people. This especially applied to David Frost, lately of the BBC, who gave this reply:
The good news is that the old people are the same age as Paul McCartney, who is still very much liked by the young.
It sort of speaks for itself.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.