Switching to Muslim TV: A Group of American Entrepreneurs Unhappy with Some of the Television Images They and Their Children Are Exposed to Have Taken Matters into Their Own Hands by Attempting to Launch a New Muslim Network. Dalia Fahmy Reports from the United States

Article excerpt

Osama Hamdan, a Microsoft computer engineer from Seattle, doesn't like what he sees on television. "There are so many things on TV these days that make people stray," says the 34-year old practising Muslim and father of two. "They make light of issues that are against most religious beliefs, like sex and drugs and violence. They treat it all as entertainment."

Seven million Muslims live in the United States, and as American television becomes more explicitly sexual, violent and in some cases hostile toward their faith, Muslims complain it is getting difficult to find programmes they feel comfortable with.

Muzammil Hassan, a Pakistani Muslim who immigrated to America with his parents 25 years ago at the age of 15, wants to fill the gap. Pressed by his wife Assiya Zubair, who conceived the idea while listening to a fiercely anti-Muslim radio programme, the banker and former Procter and Gamble executive is building the country's first Muslim television network, Bridges TV.

"We were driving from Buffalo, New York to Detroit, Michigan, listening to the radio," in December 2001, says Hassan. "There was a talk show on, and the conversation suddenly turned anti-Muslim, with derogatory comments being made by the callers and the host," he recalls.

Saddened by the insults Hassan and Zubair decided it was time Muslims found a way to make their voice heard "so that our children can grow up confident about their identity both as Muslims and as Americans," explained Hassan, a father of three.

Almost two years later, with contributions from 29 investors and thousands of ordinary Muslims who feel snubbed by the mainstream media, Hassan is well on his way to fulfilling the dream.

So far, he has raised $1m in capital, hired five full-time employees, enlisted consultants and volunteers, and spent countless hours trying to convince advertisers, investors and cable operators that his company, Bridges, is a viable proposition.

In a country where more than 1,500 television stations compete for access to the world's most affluent consumers, finding distribution has proved the biggest obstacle, because the cable and satellite companies who control the airwaves require prospective station owners to line up paying subscribers before they will start negotiating airtime. The executives in charge were sceptical when Hassan first approached them.

"They said, 'we are not convinced there is a real market'," says 30-year old Internet millionaire Omar Amanat, Bridges' largest investor. "'We don't think you will get 10,000 members. But if you show us that you can, we will put you right in line'."

Since going public in May, Bridges has signed up 2,500 members, each paying $10 a month to subscribe to a channel that exists only on paper.

"In the end it will be worth it," says 34-year old Sumera Zia, adding that now, she monitors every show her three children tune into. With Bridges online "I won't have to worry about what they are watching. It will all be Islamic programming," she says.

Although 2,500 is a far cry from die required 10,000 subscriptions, Hassan remains optimistic that Bridges can start broadcasting as planned in September 2004. He also believes that once airtime is secured, he will have no problem finding advertisers to pay thousands of dollars for commercials, the lifeline of any station.

While the financial hurdles he faces in building a media concern seem daunting, Hassan derives much of his confidence from a Cornell University study he commissioned. The research shows that Muslims constitute one of the youngest, wealthiest and most educated immigrant groups in the US, making them particularly attractive to advertisers.

Roughly two-thirds of Muslim households in the US earn $50,000 or more annually, while a quarter earn $100,000 or more. In contrast, the average non-Muslim US household brings in $42,000.

In addition, advertisers, always chasing after young consumers who are believed to hold a disproportionate sway over the country's disposable income, will be drawn to the youthfulness of the Muslim population: roughly two-thirds of adult American Muslims are younger than 40. …