Today Is Like No Other

Raziqueh Hussain
Filed on April 9, 2010

Some five years ago, the United States sent out a broadcast signal version of a Valentine’s Day greeting card to win Arab hearts and minds. No Hallmark greeting like ‘You are on my mind’, but rather this greeting came in the form of a US government-funded Arabic language network.

Alhurra was launched on February 14, 2004. Five years and a month later on March 8, 2009, Alhurra launched its groundbreaking news programme, Al Youm (Today), based on the successful American network morning programme, NBC’s The Today Show.

Al Youm broadcasts simultaneously from five countries in three continents bringing together the United States and all areas of the Middle East (the Gulf, North Africa and the Levant). The three-hour programme is broadcast live simultaneously from its Dubai Media City office, as well as bureaus in Cairo, Beirut, Jerusalem and the channel’s headquarters in Springfield, Virginia. Anchors and guests in each of the five studios debate issues live, giving the show a different pace and tone than traditional news programmes.

Every successful television programme has quality staff behind its product. The key to a successful news programme, whether it’s The Today Show or Al Youm, is its executive producer. As executive producer of Al Youm, Fran Mires focuses on producing the best quality live television that she can. Commenting on the show, she says, “This allows viewers to see how issues not only affect the people in their country, but those who live in the countries around them. During the week of its anniversary this year (March), Al Youm examined the impact of terrorism in the Middle East and the US, including an examination of whether or not Yemen has become the new staging ground for Al Qaeda and the use of social networking sites for terrorist recruitment efforts. Other themes on the show have included the global economic crisis, the impact of the internet, child labour laws and cultural diversity and development.”

Mires approaches Al Youm as an independent veteran television producer with a successful background in Spanish-language international programming for the Telemundo Network. She also produced the news magazine show Real Life for NBC. Mires is not a Middle East expert, but an expert in international programming. She earned a master’s degree in journalism from the Medill School at Northwestern University in 1987. Her philosophy of journalism is simple. She tells her 130 staff members in five countries that the Al Youm objective is “one-on-one journalism”. It’s a journalistic principles concept: “If they all just stick with the facts, then we’re all going to be okay. Who, what, when, where, and why,” she reveals.

Although Alhurra tried to find a regional expert to run the show, they couldn’t find anyone who had Mires’ credentials in producing successful television magazine programmes. Despite her initial lack of Middle East credentials, Mires says that she simply switched her successful production formula on Hispanic television to Arabic television. “The perfect me would have been an Arabic me. But that doesn’t matter because we are all doing our jobs and no one has any secret agendas. We are all here to tell the truth and that’s honestly speaking,” she says.

It took nine trips during a period of 16 months to find the top staff that she considers crucial to quality programming. She personally interviewed every one of the 130 staff members, “from the cameraman to the anchor”. “At the end of the day, it’s your skill. The 130 in five countries is what the show is all about. The audience has responded to the human interest stories, talking about families, children and health. These are the stories that impact the everyday lives of our viewers,” she says.

In its first year on the air, Al Youm anchor Engy Anwar became one of the first women to broadcast live from the Hajj. The programme also made its mark following President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world, when it provided non-stop coverage including reaction from all over the Middle East, the US and Asia. The daily three-hour programme reports on stories not commonly seen on other Arabic networks, such as the father of a Palestinian child that died in a car accident, who decided to give his son’s organs to both Jewish and Arab children; a three-part series on illegal organ trading in Egypt; or the plight of Sudanese refugees living in Lebanon.

What makes Al Youm different from Alhurra’s other programmes is that it’s an in-region television programme. “Only one of its bureaus is in the US (Washington, DC); the other four bureaus are all from the Middle East. This creates an intimate regional feel to the programme. It’s not a matter of having Springfield, Virginia, staff produce a programme that covers the Middle East from afar. That’s what is important because they know the region and understand its issues,” she adds.

A point of great pride for Mires is that not once has the live feed gone blank, quite an accomplishment for a live programme with five bureaus. “It’s a frightening thought. It’s like you take 100 years to think and put it on for four hours. Thankfully, the journalists are bright, educated and intelligent people so they take charge if anything goes wrong and anyway, I believe in not just trusting ‘facts’, they need to be verified,” she says.

“It’s an achievement for me as much as being a mother to my 19-year-old and 13-year-old kids. Al Youm’s viewers are rooting for the show. Along with praising its uniqueness and originality, they have come to express their approval of it through Al Youm’s Facebook group, proving that the show has lifted Alhurra’s standing in the eyes of the public in an impressively short time,” she smiles.

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