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BBC to launch Arabic TV channel

BBC World Service headquarters at Bush House in London.




LONDON, England (CNN) -- The BBC World Service has announced it is to set up a new Arabic television channel, in what it describes as its "biggest transformation in 70 years."

The World Service says it will close 10 language services to fund the new station. BBC radio broadcasts in Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Greek, Hungarian, Kazakh, Polish, Slovak, Slovene and Thai will cease by March next year.

The new station is expected to be a rival to the Qatar-based al-Jazeera, which is itself launching an English-language service next year.

The World Service says its new Arabic language television service is "part of a wide-ranging package of proposals aimed at maintaining and enhancing BBC World Service's pre-eminent position and impact in an emerging multimedia age."

It will be the first publicly-funded international TV service launched by the BBC and marks a departure for the World Service, which has concentrated mainly on radio broadcasting. Its BBC World TV service is a commercial venture.

The Arabic channel, due to launch in 2007, forms part of a £30 million (U.S.$53 million) package of new initiatives unveiled on Tuesday.

The World Service also plans to boost investment in its interactive services, initially concentrating on South America, Russia, South Asia and the Middle East.

Funding will come from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and from a "vigorous program of efficiencies."

The BBC initially forecasts 236 jobs will be cut as a result of the restructuring proposals.

Of those, 218 will go due to the closure of the language services -- 127 in the UK and 91 overseas.

The move will see the World Service portfolio of language services cut from 43 to 33.

BBC World Service director Nigel Chapman said: "Many of the European services being closed had their roots in the Second World War and have served their audiences well right through the Cold War years.

"But Europe has changed, fundamentally, since the early '90s. Now the countries to which these languages are broadcast are members of the EU, or are likely to join soon.

"There has been a huge change in the media scene, with many new services opening up which subscribe to similar values as the BBC. BBC audiences are declining in many markets as they discover these new national and local services.

"The contribution of all staff in the BBC language services in these areas has been immense. It is acknowledged that their presence has contributed to the building of freedoms now enjoyed by their citizens. We believe this will be a lasting legacy."

The 10 countries will continue to be served by World Service radio in English.

Of the new Arabic language channel, Chapman said: "BBC World Service is already the most successful, trusted and respected voice in the Middle East with more than 60 years experience of broadcasting in the Arabic language on radio, and more recently and successfully, online.

"The BBC Arabic Television Service will build on this legacy by offering trusted and accurate news with an international agenda.

"It would mean the BBC will be the only major broadcaster who will provide a tri-media service in Arabic to the Middle East -- using TV, radio and online for sharing views and perspectives across the region and the wider world.

"Our research suggests there is strong demand for an Arabic television service from the BBC in the Middle East."

The channel will initially broadcast 12 hours a day and will be freely available to everyone with a satellite or cable connection in the Middle East.

Around 200 new jobs have been, or will be, created by the new investment program, with 148 new posts at the Arabic channel, the World Service says.

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