Chicago Tribune: New Network Hopes To Bridge Culture Gaps

First national Muslim TV channel, which some welcome as a voice missing from mainstream media, seeks broad appeal.

Hoping to dispel stereotypes that have stacked up since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, more than 50 private investors and almost 10,000 individual donors have poured millions of dollars into the first national television network for Muslims, which premieres Tuesday.

Bridges TV will debut through GlobeCast World TV, a national satellite provider that has signed up more than 50,000 subscribers for the new channel, 2,915 in the Chicago area. The network also will broadcast via broadband on the Internet, and Comcast cable plans to add it to the Chicago menu of premium channels next year.

Tuesday’s curtain-raiser will be the network’s original news show, “Bridges News,” hosted by former NBC news correspondent Asad Mahmood at 11 a.m. Network executives say the show will take a more in-depth approach to Middle East issues than do other networks.

But this is not the American Al Jazeera. Instead, call it Lifetime for Muslims, with a dash of CNN.

The lineup includes an Emeril-like chef who can whip up Indonesian, Middle Eastern or South Asian fare; a soap opera about an Egyptian father dealing with his daughter’s interfaith marriage; and a comedy show featuring shtick between a rabbi and a Palestinian-American.

“It is this kind of bridge-building situation that Bridges TV is all about,” said Mo Hassan, founder and CEO of Bridges TV, which is based in Buffalo. “Foreign-language channels appeal primarily to the immigrant parent, not to their U.S.-born children. The programming of those channels is all about life back home. What Bridges TV is doing is programming … focused on life here in North America.”

Bridges TV offers a glimmer of hope in a time when some Arab-American media have faced challenges, said Ray Hanania, founder of the Arab-American Journalists Association. Hanania published one of six Chicago-area newspapers for Arab-Americans that folded shortly after Sept. 11.

“We’re such a big community it’s amazing to me that we’ve gone this long without having a media that tries to reach everybody,” said Hanania, a Christian, who has produced several documentaries that will air on Bridges TV. “People look to see their reflection in societies where they live. When … you don’t see yourself on TV, you don’t hear yourself on the radio and see yourself in print … it’s almost like we don’t exist.”

It was the way Islam was presented on the radio that inspired Hassan, a Pakistani-American banker, and his wife to envision Bridges TV three years ago.

While driving to Detroit in December 2001, the couple listened as a radio host railed against Islam. Hassan’s wife longed out loud for a medium with an American Muslim sensibility that would instill pride in American-born Muslims, including children and converts.

With no background in television, Hassan left his job as chief financial officer with the bank’s blessing and a $500,000 line of credit as an affirmation of his endeavor. The rest of the money came from private investors and donors who contributed $10 a month to get the project off the ground.

“They’ve been able to see the potential of this,” Hassan said. “This is a voice waiting to get out and waiting to be heard.”

During its first two weeks of operation, the network will be free to Globecast’s 1 million subscribers. After Dec. 15, it will cost $14.99 a month.

Although many may welcome the channel as a vital voice missing from the mainstream media, scholars say it must transcend a number of obstacles to survive.

John Voll, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, said some audiences might have a hard time accepting Islam and modernity in the same package, which is exactly what the network hopes to demonstrate.

“This is the kind of current glowing around this new venture,” he said.

In addition, immigrant households, which are already satellite-oriented and tend to favor foreign-language programming, may not be attracted to an English-language channel that encourages assimilation among a variety of ethnicities.

Still, some second- and third-generation American Muslims said they are grateful for something to watch.

Ahmed Rehab, spokesman for the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said his parents, who emigrated from Egypt, watch Al Jazeera via satellite. Once Bridges TV is on cable, he might subscribe to provide options the whole family can enjoy.

“I’m not expecting a news alternative,” he said. “What I am looking for them to do is to shed light on issues seldom covered through drama and talk shows … that are not heavy to handle for the viewer.”

But Rehab argues that in order for Bridges TV to reach its ultimate goal, it must adopt a different marketing and distribution approach.

Only a small portion of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the Chicago area will be able to tune in Tuesday as Globecast subscribers. And even when Bridges TV is on cable, it is unlikely that non-Muslims will pay an extra fee for it.

Hassan hopes to expand the channel’s reach by showing advertisers the grass-roots support behind the venture, in addition to the subscribers.

One of those supporters, Junaid Ahmed, 29, of Addison said he may subscribe when the channel airs on cable. Until then, he will continue to express support with a monthly donation.

“Every time I turn on the TV … I really don’t get a positive message,” he said. “I don’t think any of the media delivers what I am all about. What Islam is all about.”

copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune