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From the Field
NOTE FROM HAL: The following article written by Bryce Zabel also appeared on VARIETY last week
TV Channel Would Brand U.S. Abroad
By Bryce Zabel

They hate us. They really, really hate us.

It's sobering to read the "Gallup Poll of the Islamic World." Not only do significant numbers think America itself conducted the 9/11 attacks, but large majorities also believe their societies are negatively impacted by Western values. We may believe in our way of life, but we're not making the case for it.

Clearly, the only realistic response to a practicing terrorist is a visit from Special Forces. But any long-term strategy must reduce misunderstandings that breed or sponsor future terrorists.
Granted, this is not Hollywood's responsibility. In the marketplace economy, the American entertainment product which does get sold overseas is, frankly, selected for commercial reasons and not for public diplomacy.

Still, the idea that 16 months after 9/11, our powerful communications and entertainment industries aren't playing a significant role in this national challenge, is a tragic missed opportunity.
Last fall, Hollywood and Washington sat down together for some highly publicized meetings. Politics and fears of an unholy propaganda alliance don't make for bold visions. Since then, panels talked, DVDs got to battleships, celebrities entertained troops, soldiers paid reduced rates at home, and the "Wizard of Oz" was even shown at a Kabul orphanage.

Guess what? They still hate us.

With the exception of a few PSAs, we have not truly gotten in the game of building bridges of cross-cultural understanding.

Meanwhile, the only organization truly tasked with this job, the Voice of America, remains a government mouthpiece which some of its own employees think makes outdated, unwatchable television.

Even the proposed Middle East Television Network, an idea that's gotten a modest buzz as a competitor to the news monopoly of Al-Jazeera, will target only a few of the 60 countries currently thought to support Al-Qaeda, or even other trouble spots like North Korea. In any case, it will be more U.S. government produced news, only in Arabic, probably located in Dubai.

America should both re-energize VOA and build the Middle East Television Network. It can't hurt. But we should do more. And we should start now.

Globally, America needs to brand herself with at least the same effort as Coca-Cola. Britain has the BBC. Our side needs something equally respected. Maybe we should point Washington in the right direction and create a win/win. So, here's the pitch:

The Freedom Channel

High Concept: America's story, told 24-7, around the globe, by the U.S. news and entertainment industry, free of government interference, from now on . . .
Imagine a satellite delivered All-Star channel of the best and most informative existing programming available from broadcasting, pay, cable and film. Its mission statement advocates the powerful American-held values of liberty, religious freedom, tolerance, diversity, democracy, human rights and free speech.

Although probably funded by the government or a non-profit organization or both, the strings stop there. An advisory board, drawn from across American society, will choose from the important work already being done in television and film and license programs selected from them. It would be transparently presented so viewers could see who produced each program. From documentaries and specials to series to movies -- current and in libraries -- and appropriate originals -- let's put the best of America out there, not just the best-selling.

This will not ask us to compete against ourselves but to expand our options. The Freedom Channel means a second use for our product, helping our bottom line, keeping our people working. It also showcases product.

Not every episode of every series, for example, would support the mission statement. Yet if several are licensed, their exposure in foreign countries could stimulate demand through other delivery systems. Finally, The Freedom Channel would not compete in North America.

Let celebrities, average Americans, policy-makers and others introduce each episode or film in a way which promotes positive values of friendship and understanding. Put our content in context. Translate it into all six of the United Nations languages, whenever possible.

Imagine the symbolic power in a news block showcasing journalism from ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, PBS and CNN together. It would demonstrate freedom of speech, and also confidence in airing multiple views.

Whatever form it takes, the important thing is to get started. Like other channels, we'll use our skills to refine The Freedom Channel through market research and continual evaluation. Let's invite Washington back to robustly debate this idea, or others, that will lessen tensions and help the economy. Take the boogeyman of propaganda off the table. Put before us bold action, common cause, and self-help. We won't sway the extremists, but we could reach moderates and the next generations of haters.

The Freedom Channel. Doing nothing was never a good option. It's time to make some new friends.

About the Author
Bryce Zabel is currently writing pilots for both CBS and DreamWorks, as well as a series bible for HBO. A former CNN correspondent, he is also chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.