Local Time

Monday, December 06, 2004

American Muslims to get a TV network of their own - beamed from Buffalo

By JAY TOKASZ News Staff Reporter 11/26/2004

One show features a Muslim newspaper reporter named Jinnah who solves whodunits. A soap opera explores the melodrama of a Muslim father confronted with his daughter's desire to marry a non-Muslim. "Allah Made Me Funny" chronicles a Muslim comedy tour.

Islamic television, beamed from Buffalo, is coming to a station near Muslims across the country and in Canada.

Bridges TV debuts Tuesday, weaving news coverage with music videos, animated children's shows, classic movies and programs about food, travel and culture - all with an underlying theme appealing to American Muslims.

The new cable television network is the first in English to be aimed at this demographic, one of the fastest-growing in the country.

Its founder and chief executive officer, Muzzammil S. Hassan, 40, hopes the network will help balance negative portrayals of Muslims that have dominated American media since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"The name "Bridges TV' is to build bridges with mainstream America," he said. "The very purpose of Bridges is to build bridges of friendship and understanding."

It will be unlike Al-Jazeera or other controversial networks beamed from Arab or predominantly Muslim countries, said Hassan, an Orchard Park resident and former M&T Bank vice president.

"It's more of a cultural, lifestyle and entertainment network. It's not a religious or political network," he said. "Our focus is life right here in North America."

Programming will be delivered nationwide via a fiber-optic link from the studios of WNED-TV in downtown Buffalo to a satellite provider in Staten Island.

Bridges anticipates 50,000 initial subscribers. It already has carriage agreements with Comcast Cable Co., the nation's largest cable operator, in Detroit, home to a large American Muslim population and with Buckeye Cable, a smaller firm that serves northern Ohio and southern Michigan.

The network also is available by GlobeCast satellite and by broadband television. It costs $14.99 as a premium channel.

It premieres at noon Tuesday with "Bridges News," an original newscast anchored by former NBC News correspondent Asad Mahmood.

Bridges TV employs about 20 people. Hassan hired an Emmy award-winning television producer, Jamilah Fraser, as program director, and Tayie Rehem, formerly of the CBC Network in Canada, as executive producer.

The nightly news program, the centerpiece of the network, will air at 7:30 p.m. weekdays with "an unbiased view of what's going on in the world from an Islamic perspective," Fraser said.

Bridges TV is aiming for PBS-style programming to appeal to a variety of viewers, she said.

The venture has $5 million to $10 million in backing from more than 50 investors, all of them from the United States. Included is millionaire Buffalo native Robert Goergen, chief executive officer of Blyth Industries, a large home decor company based in Greenwich, Conn., and founder of Ropart Asset Management, a private equity fund.

Mike Pinto, chief financial officer of M&T Bank and a friend of Hassan's, provided financial consulting.

"I look at it more like a community project," Pinto said. "God nows we need more of these things sprouting up here. I liked the whole concept and approach of bridging the gap. It's a good thing for Buffalo and a good community effort."

The cable industry is crowded with an estimated 350 networks competing for carriage contracts, but industry insiders say there is still opportunity for new networks that come prepared with quality programming and plenty of start-up funding.

"The key is content. You have to be able to offer something that by and large doesn't exist in the marketplace today. If you've got the content, you're going to be able to attract viewers," said Rob Stoddard, spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

Some networks have had success targeting ethnic populations or providing niche programming, even though they "may not always succeed with mass appeal in the traditional sense of a TBS or CNN," he said.

Hassan believes that Bridges TV taps into an unserved market with tremendous potential, akin to the Hispanic market that the founders of networks such as Univision and Telemundo plugged into nearly 20 years ago.

Telemundo, a U.S. Spanish-speaking network with 32 million subscribers, was sold to NBC for $2.7 billion in 2001. Univision is the country's fifth-most-watched network.

Hassan was able to sell investors on key demographics for the nation's estimated 7 million Muslims.

At 6.2 percent per year, their growth rate, for example, far outpaces that of the total U.S. population, which is less than 1 percent per year.

American Muslims' average annual household income is $11,000 more than the overall U.S. average, and more American Muslims have bachelor's degrees and advanced degrees, according to census data and a 2002 study by Cornell University. Two-thirds of American Muslims are younger than 40.

It all adds up to an ideal market for advertisers, said Hassan, who worked in sales management at Procter & Gamble and Clorox prior to receiving an MBA in 1996 from the University of Rochester's Simon School of Business.

"I definitely had doubts about the market, but then I listened to the numbers . . . and he convinced me," Pinto said.

The idea for the network developed in the months after 9/11.

As Hassan and his wife, Aasyia Zubair, drove from Buffalo to Detroit in November 2001, they were alarmed at the extent of anti-Muslim rhetoric on the radio.

Zubair was concerned that the stereotypes would affect their children's self-esteem, and she suggested that her husband put together a business plan for a Muslim television network.

"She felt that maybe there needs to be a Muslim media, where our children could grow up feeling confident about both their Muslim identity and their American identity," Hassan said. "And she said, "Why don't you do it?' "

When Hassan could not find anyone else to take on the project, he delved into it in his spare time.

He read books on broadcasting, talked with people in the television industry and volunteered at most of the television channels in town, including working the phone bank at the annual WNED-TV fund-raising campaign.

He appealed to satellite and cable companies by developing a $10-per-month "membership" club for American Muslims interested in having a new network.

Then he assured the members that the network would launch a month after it reached 10,000 members - a goal achieved three weeks ago.

"When we met with Comcast," Hassan said, "the comment they made was we have never seen this type of demand before."

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