Mar 092006
 
Authors: Hugh R. Morley The Record Bergen County N.J.

HACKENSACK, N.J. – Andy Altahwi wants to bring a new Middle Eastern reality to your TV.

It's not the world of Iraq, al-Qaida and Islamic fundamentalism that often appears in U.S. media. Instead, Altahwi offers singing, dancing Middle Easterners, and the day-to-day life of Arabs living in the United States.

The vision is embodied in Dandana TV, an MTV-like channel the Egyptian immigrant launched two years ago. Since then, his Rochelle Park, N.J.-based company has added another channel: Dandana Reality.

And Dandana TV is now available on Dish Network. Dandana's creator says it is the first round-the-clock channel aimed at the Arab community with programming created in the United States.

"There are a lot of Arab channels in the U.S.," he said. "But they are all imported. They don't reflect us as Arab-Americans."

Dandana is one of a growing number of ethnic channels intended for immigrants or Americans of foreign descent who want to enjoy their native culture.

Russia Media Group, for instance, offers programming for Russian immigrants, mostly Jewish. And American Desi, a 24-hour channel, began broadcasting to people of Asian-Indian descent a year ago.

Dish Network spokesman Marc Lumpkin said the company's roster of ethnic channels has gone from about a dozen in 1999 to 115 today.

"Consumers who are first- and second-generation, expatriates are looking for programming from their home country," he said.

Altahwi turned to broadcasting after a successful career on Wall Street. He came to the United States in 1985, armed with degrees in law and economics and looking to make his fortune.

He worked as a commodities trader before moving to the investment banking arm of Prudential Securities. In 1998, he founded Adamson Brothers, a securities brokerage mortgage company and investment banking firm that Altahwi still heads.

The company – which is in the same Rochelle Park building as Dandana TV – now has revenue of $6 to $7 million and a staff of about 30, Altahwi said.

He said he turned to television as a way to "build a bridge between our community here and their family and friends back home."

Dandana TV began broadcasting music videos in July 2004, with 15 employees and a studio in Paramus, N.J. The company bought satellite time on Globecast World TV, where viewers could see the programs for free, Altahwi said.

A second channel, Dandana Reality, followed last August, offering documentary-style programs about Arab life in the United States. The two channels are also broadcast in the Middle East, Altahwi said.

At present, the programming for both channels is made in a studio in Orange, N.J. But Altahwi hopes soon to get approval from Rochelle Park to begin using the new 13,000-square-foot studio at the back of the Adamson offices.

So far, Altahwi said, he has spent about $10 million on the TV arm of his company. He hopes to break even this year with revenue from advertising and subscription sales; Dish viewers pay $6.99 extra a month to get Dandana and another Middle Eastern music channel.

The goal, he said, is to create programming similar in quality to that on American television stations.

"You are very much watching an American show, but it's in Arabic," he said.

At Dandana, that means no news, politics or religious programming. Instead, the schedule consists of gossip, entertainment, talk shows and recorded music concerts. And, of course, music videos.

Though many are made in the Middle East, they offer a sharp contrast to the strict Muslim lifestyle that dominates many Arab countries.

A typical example appeared on a television showing Dandana Reality on a recent morning, as Altahwi strode around his new studio. Underneath a pounding dance beat superimposed with Middle Eastern melodies, the video showed a young boy and a girl, both dressed in Western clothes, dining on a cruise ship and wandering through an old city.

The girl wore makeup and a tight yellow shirt – a far cry from the often-seen image of Arab women all but invisible behind dark, baggy clothes and a burqa.

That's one reason some Arab-Americans are uncomfortable with the channel.

Nora Abassi, a Ridgefield, N.J., resident with four children ages 13 to 23, said she doesn't like them to watch Dandana TV.

"The themes are encouraging dating, and loving, and stuff like this which we don't encourage," she said. "This is not what way we want our kids to be raised."

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