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Reinventing America Abroad, Getting off the Government Dime

Jun 23, 2005


It's time to reinvent U.S. government international broadcasting - again. But this time, let's get it right and privatize this operation.

The campaign to sell America abroad in a coordinated fashion began in 1953, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the U.S. Information Agency (USIA). He was particularly dismayed that so many Europeans were too young to realize how much the Marshall Plan had done to rebuild the war-devastated continent. "Western Europe," said Eisenhower, "was rapidly being re-built, modernized industrially, and restored to prosperity, but European governments did little to inform their own people about the steps we were taking to help them."

Through its wide range of overseas information programs, the independent foreign affairs agency did a spectacular job of promoting American interests abroad for many decades. Then, in 1994, bureaucratic "reinvention" intervened and the International Broadcasting Act established a Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to oversee the USIA's Voice of America (VOA), Radio and TV Martí, and Worldnet television, as well as two surrogate international broadcast services -- Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia.

The State Department in 1998 subsumed the rest of the former USIA, which was sent packing in a deal between the White House and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Chairman, Senator Jesse Helms (R., North Carolina). Chairman Helms was bent on eliminating what he considered to be wasteful duplication among U.S. foreign affairs agencies, and unless the White House played ball, he would continue to block a vote on the Clinton-endorsed Chemical Weapons Convention.

While the reinvention of the U.S. government's international broadcasting operations may have looked sound to those who worked up the plan in the 1990s, it has not passed the test of time. Today's Senate Foreign Relations Committee now admits that what may have looked okay on paper in the 1990s turned out post 9/11 to be a bum idea.

So says Mark Helmke, Senior Professional Staff Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The fault lies with us," he says, referring to the creation of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. He calls the BBG "a confusing federal agency of multiple public and quasi-private entities run by political appointees of both parties... It's not working."

I'll second that, based on personal experience.

In the 1980s, a full decade prior to government "reinvention" of U.S. public diplomacy, the USIA had established a worldwide satellite TV channel that provided a full schedule of news, interactive interviews, sports, information and music programming in multiple languages, including Arabic. The program service was carried throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Australia, and New Zealand, and to some 300 U.S. non-military facilities abroad, including U.S. embassies, missions, and library/cultural centers worldwide. I was the director of that international channel, called Worldnet, which the Washington Post in a page one article called the "Jewel in the Crown" of President Reagan's international public diplomacy effort.

Worldnet fell into a black hole somewhere between the BBG and the State Department during the reinvention process of the 1990s, and it no longer exists. Following 9/11, there was a lag of several years before the BBG's Arabic-language satellite TV channel, Alhurra would begin broadcasting to the Middle East. It is still not available in Europe and elsewhere. Worldnet, had it not disappeared, could have provided this timely link worldwide.

Worldnet also had the potential to become a financially independent operation.

In the mid-1980s, at the zenith of Worldnet's Cold War broadcasts, BBC executives keen on starting their own international commercial TV channel visited us several times in Washington, DC, to observe our operation. I also was invited to consult at BBC headquarters in London, and did so.

Today, the commercially-supported BBC Worldwide has flourished, announcing just last week record sales of $261 million, a 50% increase over last year.

The BBC's World Service Television, a satellite-delivered international commercial operation, launched in 1991, costs the British taxpayer nothing. Similar privatized systems are also flourishing by being attentive to commercial marketplace forces and shaking loose from their own government bureaucracies. Through a holding company, the French government owns popular and profitable commercial broadcast properties, including TV and Radio Monte Carlo, which promote French interests.

The time has come for U.S. international broadcasting to enter the commercial marketplace, where others like it have made their own way.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Mark Helmke says that the U.S. government's Middle East broadcasting entities, TV Alhurra and Radio Sawa, should "eventually get off the government dime." This is a sound idea.

Norman Pattiz, who spearheaded Sawa and Alhurra, said in a Wall Street Journal article this week that the services are extremely popular in the Middle East. He cites A.C. Nielsen audience surveys that have Alhurra watched at least once a week by 12% of viewers in Egypt and 24% in Saudi Arabia, two of the largest commercial markets in the Middle East. Mr. Pattiz says that tens of millions of viewers are reached daily in 22 countries by Alhurra and Sawa combined.

What this suggests to me is that these broadcast services are commercially viable, and can go it alone, without government financial support, amounting to some $150 million per year. They would also enjoy more credibility with audiences abroad if the umbilical cord to government is cut. A business plan containing an exit strategy from government financing should be a top priority.

Let the marketplace prevail in the next reinvention of U.S. public diplomacy. It's the American way.


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Private sector international

Private sector international broadcasting is best, for credibility reasons. But U.S. international broadcasting in languages other than English probably does not have much profit potential. For U.S. international television in English, CNN International is already doing that.

BBC Worldwide is the BBC's commercial arm, selling magazines, videos, entertainment television programs, etc. It has nothing to do with BBC World Service. BBC World, the global English news channel, was separated from BBC Worldwide in 2002.

The recent Review of the BBC's Royal Charter ("Green Paper"), by the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport, included this passage: "The BBC�s global television outlet � BBC World � has so far failed to generate sufficient revenue from advertising to cover its costs and continues to experience some difficulty in competing against other providers � local, regional and international."

As for television channels to the Arab World, there seem to be too many of them serving too few viewers, confounding prospects for profit. See the paper by Jihad Fakhreddine in the Spring Summer 2005 Transnational Broadcasting Studies --


It is true that competition

It is true that competition for audience share is intense among the many Arabic language TV satellite news channels, but the marketplace of ideas is not limited to TV in the Arabic-language.

The controversial Al Jazeera satellite channel from Qatar is looking toward greener pastures with the debut of its new English-language channel early next year, and it also has a business plan for a children�s channel. And Russia plans to launch a 24-hour English-language satellite news channel by the end of this year.

I heard the same view in the mid-1980s that CNN is already broadcasting globally in English, and there is no room for America to duplicate this. That�s why the USIA�s global TV network, Worldnet, was put out to pasture, perhaps one reason why our worldwide public diplomacy effort lags today. America surely could have put its own TV satellite channel to good use after 9/11, but it had none to communicate with audiences in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere. Today, the Russians and al Jazeera are to fill the English language TV public diplomacy breach, with others likely to follow.

Strangely, but not surprisingly, America is odd man out in its native language.

I also pointed out that the BBC�s international commercial operation is flourishing, with sales up more than 50% from last year, and that the BBC�s international World Service TV news channel is a commercial operation that costs the British taxpayer nothing, unlike the U.S. government�s broadcast entities.

If the Brits can do this, why can�t we?

The debate over the proper

The debate over the proper role of a government controlled braodcasting outlet deserves serious debate. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is to be commended for its commitment to establish a credible news outlet in America's interests abroad. I joined the State Dept. as DAS, Bureau of Public Affairs directly from USIA. We were able to assert our authority over elements at BBG who wanted to sever all ties to the State Dept. In the last two years of the Clinton-Gore Administration, we established the American Embassy Television Network and began to build out the Department's broadcasting capabilities to professional broadcasting standards. The current Administration has lost valuable years for AETN by not providing policy leadership in public diplomacy. The role USIA played during the Cold War was a vital one. That needs to be revised and evaluated to meet modern challenges. We cannot waste any more time.

Aljazeera is famously

Aljazeera is famously unprofitable (1). It'll be quite a turnaround for it to start making money in its Arabic and English variations. The "Russia Today" channel will be state funded (2). France's planned CFII will sell advertising, but it needed European Commission approval for the French government subsidy that will be its real source of funding.

"The BBC's international commercial operation is flourishing, with sales up more than 50% from last year."

That would be BBC Worldwide, which exports magazines, television program, videos, computer games, etc., and operates a few overseas entertainment television channels, such as BBC Prime. Perhaps US international broadcasting could be profitable if it goes all-entertainment and drops those pesky newscasts. Even so, BBC Worldwide's television channels earned only $7.3 million profit in the past fiscal year. That would not support much of an international broadcasting effort. (3)

"The BBC's international World Service TV news channel is a commercial operation that costs the British taxpayer nothing."

That's "BBC World," which was separated from BBC Worldwide in 2002 and is now aligned with BBC World Service (radio). BBC World was, in theory, supposed to become self funding. But quoting again from the 2005 BBC Charter Review: 'The BBC's global television outlet - BBC World - has so far failed to generate sufficient revenue from advertising to cover its costs and continues to experience some difficulty in competing against other providers - local, regional and international' (4). That means BBC World is getting a subsidy from somewhere, or hiding its debit behind some other credit.

The revived BBC Arabic television channel will be funded by the UK Foreign Office (5). In fact, World Service radio may have to drop some of its European language service to free up the money for this Arabic channel.

"If the Brits can do this, why can't we?"

But as is amply documented, the Brits *can't* do it. And this despite the fact that BBC's global newsgathering is concentrated in one organization, whereas that of US international broadcasting is divided among entities that *compete among themselves.* Furthermore, the Brits, unlike the Americans, understand that international broadcasting and public diplomacy are two separate activities. For these reasons, BBC has the largest audience of any international broadcaster, even though Britain spends less on international broadcasting than the United States. This makes UK international broadcasting efficient, but not profitable.

International broadcasting is best when it is privately funded and free of links to a national government. But international broadcasts in languages such as Burmese, Hausa, Creole, etc., let alone English, have very little chance to make money. Hence the need for government funding


(1) See, for example,12084,1410161,00.html


(3) See BBC Worldwide annula report at



That �famously unprofitable�

That �famously unprofitable� Arabic satellite channel al Jazeera (because it is blackballed in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the biggest Middle East commercial markets), has begun preliminary talks with cable channels in the U.S. in preparation for its planned U.S. English-language commercial service launch early next year, according to Daily Variety.
Al Jazeera will seek commercial advertising with no holds barred, in the free marketplace of America. And so a �turnaround� for Al Jazeera's bottom line may not be as difficult as some might think, even with all those pesky newscasts. I recall when Howard Cossell, Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, and others at ABC Sports had a good laugh when something called ESPN from Bristol, Connecticut challenged Monday Night Football, but today it's no joke. One must admit that al Jazeera also has that vision thing, and I wouldn�t take lightly its chances of succeeding in the U.S. commercial TV news market, where U.S. government broadcasters by law are not permitted to compete.
Regarding the veracity of the rest of my piece, I rest my case.
My thanks to Dr. Kim Elliott, one of the great authorities on international broadcasting, for taking the time to read some of my material, and to comment on one of them here.

Alvin Snyder


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