By Michael Ireland
NICOSIA, CYPRUS (NOVEMBER 6, 2000) -- Despite political tensions in the Middle East, broadcasters from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus gathered in Lebanon, October 26 - 28, to discuss the future of Christian broadcasting in the region. Some 80 or so partners and associates of SAT-7, a dynamic television service for the Christians of the Middle East and North Africa, met last week at the beautiful Al Bustan Hotel in Beit Meri, Lebanon.
According to the group's website, SAT-7's programs "are culturally sensitive, appropriate to the religious and political background of the region, and provide an attractive alternative to both local broadcasts and Western channels."
The website states that "SAT-7's initial two-hour per-week service started in 1996 and has been enthusiastically received by viewers right across the region. Transmissions have now increased to a daily broadcast covering 28 hours per week.
It adds:"SAT-7 is a unique form of witness that makes the Christian message available in millions of homes. This ministry has also effectively deepened mutual understanding between the different communities of the region and enhanced the quality of life for many people."
A recent press release from SAT-7 says that "the satellite television service for the Christians of the Middle East and North Africa, has now been on air for about 41/2 years, but only as a daily service since April this year. SAT-7's 32 corporate partners, which include well-known international agencies such as the United Bible Societies and Campus Crusade for Christ, have all seen the unique contribution of satellite TV in expanding their respective ministries across the region. Twenty-three partners and associates were represented at this year's meetings."
"NETWORK 2000" was the fifth annual general meeting of the SAT-7 partners and associates since the partnership was formed in November 1995, but it was the first to be held in Lebanon, according to the release.
The release said: "The present round of unrest in the West Bank and Gaza began just a couple of weeks before the meetings and, with its potential to plunge the region once again into conflict, some 20 Partners or supporters heeded US State Department advice to avoid travel to the area at this time. For the 80 people from 18 different countries who did not cancel their plans, Network 2000 proved to be both informative and inspiring."
"These were the best partnership meetings yet," commented Lucien Accad, Chairman of the Europe and Middle East Region of the United Bible Societies.
The meetings included an annual report by Terence Ascott, the SAT-7 chief executive officer, as well as country reports from SAT-7 directors in Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus, UK, USA and Denmark (representing the Nordic countries).
"This has been yet another exciting year of growth for SAT-7," said Ascott in his report. "SAT-7 staff in the region has doubled to 64 in the past 18 months. SAT-7's broadcast schedule both moved to daily broadcasts and to a better evening time slot in April and, in addition, SAT-7 launched a parallel digital TV service, to provide Christian programming to the new and fast growing generation of satellite viewers in the region who only have digital receivers," he said.
Fears that the expanded hours in 2000 would lead to the broadcasts relying more on dubbed programming or dropping standards proved to be unfounded, according to the press release.
Over 65% of SAT-7's output this year has been locally made programming and "the quality of the programs have also increased dramatically," several observers commented.
Robert McLeish, a retired BBC executive and management consultant from the UK, led the partners through a new look at strategic alliances, their partnership with SAT-7 and with each other, the release said.
Panel presentations looked at "How television might look in the next 5-10 years" by John Rogers and Patrick Tayah, SAT-7, a possible "Seminary of the Air" for theological education extension programs by Rev. Dr Wafik Wahba, Tyndale Theological Seminary, "Key issues in audience relations" by Terence Ascott, and "World Prayer Movements focusing on the 10-40 Window" by Beverly Pegues, Window International.
The creativity of SAT-7's committed production team in Lebanon was shown in the way video was used at NETWORK 2000 -- to illustrate reports and issues, and enhance the visibility of speakers.
An amusing "candid camera" style video report on the conference was shown at the closing banquet, where guests were also entertained by two of Lebanon's best-known Christian soloists, Salpy and Ayman. Henri Aoun of Life Agape gave the closing address, which included a call to renewed faith, and faithfulness, in both ministry and personal life, according to the release to the media.
A two-day meeting of the SAT-7 International Board preceded the partnership meetings. Among the subjects discussed were SAT-7's plans and budgets for 2001, and how SAT-7 will work with others to see Christian television broadcasts started in Turkish, Farsi and other languages of the Middle East and North Africa.
The Partnership meetings were followed by a one-day workshop for TV production partners, where policy and goals for future SAT-7 programming were discussed.
THE GROWING INFLUENCE OF TV
SAT 7's website estimates that more than 90% of the population served by SAT-7 already have access to television.
"Even the poorest, including those who live virtually on the street, seem to have at least a black & white set. A television is a priority purchase for any family and, for most, their only source of information and entertainment, the website states.
It continues: "An increasing proportion of this audience can tune to Arab, European and Asian satellite TV services. Viewers in some Middle Eastern cities today may choose between more than 80 different channels, including CNN, MTV, NBC, BBC, MBC, ART and ORBIT. Many of these satellite television channels are in Arabic but none of them carry any Christian programs.
"The price of satellite receiving equipment falls by the month and within 2 years a basic receiver could cost less than the equivalent of $100! Dish sizes will also have been reduced to the point where all attempts to ban their ownership will be futile. It is projected that, in common with the general population, most Christian Middle Easterners will have access to satellite programming by the turn of the century.
"Many now feel that this new era in broadcast television presents the Church with the greatest single opportunity in the history of Christian witness in the Middle East," the website adds.