Programming From Around World Comes to Washington

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For much of the United States, the closest thing to international television programming is that cranky British judge on “American Idol.” But as digital cable and satellite systems have increased their capacities, numerous international and foreign-language channels have become easily available to even the most technophobic viewers.

Beyond longtime staples such as the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) and Telemundo, programs produced in nations from Nigeria to Vietnam are popping up on U.S. channels and are generally just a click away—or at least available as an additional programming package.

Most people in the Washington area receive television through one of four major sources. Comcast covers most of the area, with Cox Communications bringing cable to most of Fairfax County and some other Virginia locations. The nation’s two major satellite providers, EchoStar’s Dish Network and News Corp.’s DirecTV, provide additional programming options generally not available on cable. RCN, a so-called cable “overbuilder”—constructing competitive cable systems in markets that already have cable service—is also available in some areas.

In addition, Washington has the bonus of a unique noncommercial set of channels under the MHz Networks (pronounced “MegaHertz”), which relay numerous international channels over the air and through cable and satellite systems.

MHz, based in Falls Church, Va., added three channels this summer, bringing its total to eight. MHz’s flagship channel, MHz Worldview, provides what the network calls the top international programming available on one channel, switching from country to country every hour or half an hour. The lineup includes such programs as “Dateline Punjab,” “This is Beijing” and, from Germany, “Euromaxx.” For those with a programmable digital video recorder—now available with most digital cable and satellite packages—viewers can catch up on their favorite coverage from among several faraway nations, even if the programs run in the middle of the night.

Founded in 1983, MHz says its mission is to provide American viewers with worldwide perspectives not normally available in the U.S. media—and the changing demographics of the region and the nation have only added to the demand for such programming.

“We’re helping other countries to tell their stories,” said Nicolette Kuba-Hurd, marketing director of MHz. “We really have evolved into a media pioneer.”

Other current MHz channels include the English version of France24, the 24-hour news network that plugs itself as something between CNN and the BBC and says it’s characterized by “respect for diversity and attention to political and cultural differences and identities.” France24 is also planning Arabic and Spanish programming this year. In addition, MHz features Russia Today, which is in Russian with some subtitles, the Nigerian Television Authority (in English), and Russian World (in English).

The new MHz channels are English versions of NHK World, from the Japanese public broadcaster; BVN, from the Netherlands, with some programming in Dutch; and macTV, from Taiwan. Those three channels are available on some cable and satellite systems, plus over the air for the few viewers who are equipped with digital television (DTV) receivers—not the analog receivers that most people have, even on newer sets.

MHz Worldview is available on DirecTV, and all eight MHz channels are available on RCN. Six MHz channels are available on Comcast, along with several additional internationally oriented channels on Comcast’s regular digital tier, including AZN, aimed at Asian Americans, and the Africa Channel, plus more channels for an additional charge. Comcast even offers an on-demand subscription package of Bolly-wood movies and music videos.

“We are continually evaluating the programming and content we offer to best match the desires and relevancy for the communities we serve,” said Comcast spokesman Joshua Kodeck. “As our customer base continues to vary and our audience becomes more global, Comcast will continually work to add more diversified content.”

In May, Cox launched its own international package of 14 channels including all eight channels from MHz, with a 15th channel, the Middle East Broadcasting Network, about to join them. A Cox spokesman noted that the popularity of these international channels has “exceeded our expectations.”

All of the region’s providers are discovering both an increased domestic demand for international programming—especially in the rapidly growing, ethnically diverse Washington area—as well as a greater supply of high-quality programming from around the world. Satellite companies, with their nationwide footprint and ability to reach hundreds of thousands of viewers in any given language group, have been the leaders in this television trend.

Both Dish Network and DirecTV offer some 20 or more packages of foreign-language programming. Dish, for example, boasts 115 such channels spread out over many packages, sold as add-ons to its basic tier. The packages are comprehensive: The South Asian package, for example, includes channels in nine languages (including English). The Chinese package, meanwhile, features six languages.

All of these companies also offer Spanish-language programming well bey-ond the traditional U.S.-based powerhouses Univision and Telemundo, which sometimes draw more viewers than even their English-language counterparts. Today’s Spanish packages include up to 20 channels, including sports channels and Spanish versions of CNN and MTV.

Also on the basic digital packages is BBC America. Now in its 10th year, the American version of the British staple is available in more than 50 million homes across the country. This year, it appointed longtime American network executive Garth Ancier as its president, with a view toward aggressively expanding the channel’s stateside impact.

BBC America offers its flagship news report from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. (Eastern) daily, plus an additional half-hour live newscast from Washington and London at 7 p.m. There are myriad other offerings from this acclaimed source of British programming—from its eclectic comedies to its renowned documentaries to its drama. September’s highlights include the premiere of “Ultimate Force,” an action-packed drama that follows the adventures of a Special Air Service (SAS) unit (the U.K. equivalent of the Navy Seals); “Jekyll,” a six-hour modern update of the classic; marathons of “Doctor Who” and “MI-5”; as well as season five of “How Clean Is Your House?”

But even with the seemingly endless array of options on cable and satellite, some significant channels are not yet available in the United States—at least not on regular television. Telesur, the South American network launched by the Venezuelan and Cuban governments, among others, is generally not available.

Only a few small cable operators in the nation carry the English version of Al Jazeera, launched in November 2006, although the original Arabic version of the news channel can be viewed as part of Arabic packages.

To get around America’s media gatekeepers, in April Al Jazeera English began posting itself on the Internet site YouTube, with a dedicated “channel” on the video-sharing Web site that allows viewers to pick from more than 100 news clips and receive e-mailed links to new clips as they are posted.

Al Jazeera’s move is also an indicator of the future of television. Along with the launch of video services by telecom companies such as Verizon and AT&T, cable and satellite providers are also looking ahead at competition on the Internet, where programmers and audiences can always reach each other if they try hard enough.

“The new Al Jazeera English-branded channel on YouTube will allow us to approach and interact with our viewers in a new way and will give us a chance to target other potential audiences through this new global platform,” Russell Merryman, editor in chief for Web and new media at Al Jazeera English, said in a statement. “It is a perfect way to promote our best content and set the news agenda for Internet users around the world.”

The tech savvy can find even more ways to catch their favorite global shows. Pro-grammers around the world have their own free or pay systems online, and Jalipo, a U.K.-based company, offers international channels online using a system of credits that viewers can buy. In addition, Slingbox and TV2Me attach to a cable or satellite box and allow the owner to watch programming from anywhere in the world.

About the Author

Sanjay Talwani is the news editor of TV Technology magazine and a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999