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New TV Network to Cater to US Muslims - 2003-06-19

The estimated five million Muslims living in the United States could soon tune into a cable television channel created specifically for them. Bridges TV will be in English, and offer mostly entertainment programming, making it unlike any other Muslim-oriented channel currently accessible to the large American Muslim community.

It's a new kind of MTV, where the M stands for Muslim, not music. Where people will tune in to a situation comedy that centers on a Muslim-American household in much the same way that the U.S. program The Cosby Show centered on an African-American one.

That's what Bridges TV Executive Director Muzzammil Hassan says the new channel will be like. But he is quick to point out that the idea is not his. There is a woman behind the concept, he says, and she is his wife.

"We were on a long road trip, listening to radio, and the program suddenly took a very anti-Muslim turn, which got her upset," he says. "Being a mother, her thought was that her children should grow up secure with their Muslim and American identity. So, she got on my case. You have an MBA, why don't you go write a business plan?"

Mr. Hassan did exactly that. He also put together a board of advisors and, over the last 18 months, raised $100 million in investments to back the project.

He says the idea for the channel is viable because there is ample demand for it.

"There are some foreign language, international channels that are available," he said. "But they are either in Arabic, Hindi or Urdu for Pakistanis, or Turkish. So only a limited sliver of the population can watch it. And the programming itself is about life back home, it has nothing to do with the Muslim life in America. Bridges will be all English and it will focus on Americans right here in America."

In April of last year, Bridges conducted a survey of 5,000 American Muslim families, asking what programming they wish they could see on television. Mr. Hassan found a strong desire among American Muslims for a channel like Bridges, but he also discovered something of an obstacle - Muslims have vastly differing opinions on what constitutes appropriate programming.

He says, however, that there's one clear area of agreement. "For the American Muslim family, programming with exposure, physical exposure, and sexual content, makes it difficult for them to watch TV with their families and children. So, this is something where you're not going to see a lot of skin on television," he said.

Bridges programming advisor, Alex Kronemer, acknowledges that programming for conservative, traditional viewers like the Muslim audience will be difficult, but by no means impossible.

"You can turn on any number of channels on Sunday and find Christian-oriented shows meant to appeal to children. Whereas a Muslim child, in a Muslim family, is not going to find a show with Islamic-related themes. Even one where the shows themselves may not be different, except in their setting. You know, where the character facing the dilemma is Ahmed and not Mike. The need for something like that is clear to a lot of people," he said.

Mr. Kronemer points out that the channel will not be exclusively religious. It will be a mix of comedy, cartoons, news, movies, and things like cooking shows. He compares it to Black Entertainment Television, a U.S. cable channel aimed at African-Americans.

Bridges TV will initially function as a pay channel. It expects to enlist at least 10,000 subscribers, each paying $10 dollars, by January of 2004. Even though Bridges is not yet broadcasting and has done very little advertising, it already has a few thousand subscribers. Lisa Kustosik is one of them. She says she has high hopes for the channel.

"You could turn it on and listen to teachings about the Koran, more religious programming," she said. "Or you could get into game shows, or just communities in different sections of the United States, what they're doing and how they're doing it. To see what's going on. There are so many of us, but it's hard for us to stay connected."

Ms. Kutosik, who is Polish-American, converted to Islam eight years ago. Tayyibah Taylor manages a magazine targeted at American Muslim women. She says the channel has an important role to play in the lives of American Muslims.

"So often, Islam and Muslims are looked at through the lens of Middle Eastern politics in this country, which gives everyone a very skewed, very slanted image," he said. "So to have a television channel, portrayed by Muslims, about their lives - I think it will help shatter a lot of the distortions and myths about them."

Bridges TV will offer four to six hours of programming a day in 2004, and work up to 24-hour programming by 2008.