Bin Talal Coup: What Remains of LBC?
By: Layal Haddad
Published Sunday, January 8, 2012
After a war of control with Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) Chairman and CEO Pierre Daher may have shot himself in the foot. Presumed Daher ally, Saudi billionaire Alwaleed Bin Talal who bought major shares in the station, is set to sideline Daher and swallow up any independence the station boasts.
It appears that the Lebanon’s oldest private television station, which started broadcasting on 23 August 1985, is now in its final chapter. But if and when drastic changes will occur at the station remains unclear.
What is certain thus far is that the “exemplary” partnership – as reported in the past five years – between LBC’s chairman and the Saudi prince has soured beyond repair. Prince Alwaleed has decided to exclude Daher from the LBC satellite channel and its production arm, Production and Acquisition Company (PAC), in which Alwaleed owns an 85 percent stake.
When the Saudi billionaire bought his large share in 2008, it seemed that this injection of capital would facilitate the expansion of LBC in order to maintain its reputable position among Arab satellite channels.
At that time, Daher said that this partnership “will strengthen our financial, competitive, and productive abilities.”
But less than four years later, it turned out that the first victim of this deal was Daher himself.
Largely responsible for the success of LBC, Daher transformed the station from a mouthpiece for a political party — the right-wing Lebanese Forces — to a channel for (almost) “all of Lebanon.”
Today Daher stands powerless before Alwaleed’s decision to control the two institutions that form a major part of the Lebanese Broadcasting Company empire.
But Daher’s loss is not only restricted to LBC and PAC. It also extends to the Kfaryassine Building, where most programs — including Star Academy, Celebrity Duet, and Top Chef — are recorded.
This building, in addition to much of the equipment and machines used inside the LBC headquarters in Adma, north of Beirut, is owned by PAC.
Worse yet, most of the employees of LBC channels receive their salaries from PAC. Therefore, their jobs are under threat and they must await a decision from the Saudi prince regarding the future of the channel. An informed source indicates that they will likely have to sign new contracts with revised salaries and job descriptions.
Thus, it appears that the aftershocks of this media earthquake will reach the local channel, which has not yet recovered from the one-year-old court ruling on the Lebanese Forces’ ownership of the channel.
A feeling of anticipation prevailed at LBC studios due to the administration’s discretion on the matter. While there is talk of Daher being in a state of shock over the dispute, other long-time observes say that what is happening was expected, especially after Turki Shabana (vice president of Rotana Group, which is mostly owned by Prince Alwaleed) was given additional control in LBC.
Tension between the two executives made Daher feel marginalized after having enjoyed absolute power for years. Some employees speak of direct confrontations at the channel premises between Daher’s wife, Randa, and Shabana.
The dispute escalated after Alwaleed accused Daher of squandering large amounts of money at the satellite channel, while Daher accused the Saudi prince of violating his obligations towards the local channel.
However, a source close to the Saudi prince tells Al-Akhbar that Alwaleed is disappointed that the satellite channel declined significantly under Daher’s administration, its viewership decreasing drastically after it having been one of the most watched channels in the Arab world. Moreover, Daher’s “family management” of the channel’s administration has led the prince to reconsider Daher’s role.
Contrary to reports about the Alwaleed’s intention to close down the satellite channel in order to reduce its financial burdens, it seems that he is planning on reviving it instead by transforming it into an entertainment channel for the Arab world. Thus, his collection of channels will be complete alongside Rotana Khalijia and the Al-Arab news channel, which will be launched at the end of the year in Bahrain.
This likely means that the new year does not bode well for the most popular channel in Lebanon. Sources close to Daher reveal that he stands powerless before these sudden and rapid developments.
Some speculate that he sealed his fate by pursuing the wrong exit strategies to escape the Lebanese Forces’ attempts at controlling the channel. First, he turned to the late advertising mogul Antoine Choueiri, and then to Alwaleed, opening the way for the Saudi billionaire to own a majority share in the company.
The prince’s media expansion plans, including Al-Arab channel and his recently acquired shares in Twitter, raise a number of questions: Could there be political reasons behind the prince’s decision? Does Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia have anything to do with it?
And what will Daher do to fight back? Will he ask the local channel’s shareholders (Issam Fares, Najib Mikati, Suleiman Frangieh, and Michel Faraoun, among others) to increase their shares? Or will he raise the white flag and announce the end of an era?
The answer to these questions seems impossible to predict in light of the fact that neither Daher nor Shabana are willing to talk openly about the issue. The preliminary impression regarding a solution seems bleak.
Daher Tries to Restore Calm
What is the connection between LBC’s construction of new studios and the ongoing dispute between Daher and Prince Alwaleed? Is this a preemptive step to ensure the continuity of production in case the prince takes over the channel’s studios in Kfaryassine?
In an interview with Al-Akhbar, Pierre Daher expressed surprise at the recently circulated news. He called on the press “to be accurate in reporting and analyzing news, and to avoid listening to rumors.”
Daher explains that “we built three studios last year, including the news and Beirut Hilwa studios, but no one mentioned that in the press. Why are they focusing now on the studios under construction?”
He adds that “news programs, including the second season of Ahla Jalsa with Toni Baroud,” will be recorded at the new studios.
Is there a gradual division between the local and satellite channels? Daher believes that “the local channel’s purchase of some Arab satellite programs (such as Arab Idol from MBC) enriches the channel and allows it to benefit from productions by other satellite channels, which is not uncommon.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.