All the Iranian News, All the Time
By JORDAN RAPHAEL
The New York Times
July 24 , 2000
Twenty years after fleeing his native Iran for the United States, Sassan
Kamali is a full-time television newsman once more.
"I feel like a born-again journalist," Mr. Kamali said.
A TV personality in Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Mr. Kamali
now produces and anchors a daily newsmagazine on National Iranian Television,
or NITV, a 24-hour satellite television station that began full-scale broadcasts
last month out of a North Hollywood, Calif., warehouse.
NITV, which features Farsi-language news, lifestyle and cultural programming,
is among several Iranian-American TV stations based in Los Angeles, where
there are an estimated 600,000 Iranians, but it is the first to broadcast
to a worldwide audience. Programming runs on a 12-hour cycle; the broadcast
is repeated during daytime hours in Tehran.
A typical day begins with a morning talk show in which a man-woman
anchor team reads news reports and interviews guests in the style of "Good
Morning America." Last Thursday morning, the hosts bantered about
the United States heat wave, an Iranian gymnast and an Arab sheik with
more than 1,000 wives. The 10 a.m. news program reported on President Clinton's
trip to Japan and the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The station's offerings
also include international sports, Iranian- and French-language music videos,
cooking shows and classic Iranian movies.
NITV's founder, Zia Atabay, says the station's purpose is to culturally
unite Iranian expatriates in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia
and elsewhere. Its other goal is to show Iranians what life is like in
Mr. Atabay, a popular Iranian singer who left Iran after the revolution
and has lived in Los Angeles since 1987, said he was particularly interested
in reaching young people in his homeland, because "the young generation
there wants to be free." He added, "Young people ask us to go
out with a camera and show them what America is about."
Mr. Atabay is quick to point out, however, that NITV does not have
a political agenda. "We cannot take a political side because of our
journalistic mission," he said.
The station's shows do address such issues as religion, freedom and
culture clash, which, Mr. Atabay admitted, are inherently political. "We
are not going to say who or what to support, but we are going to promote
change," he said.
Especially prominent are messages about liberated women. There are
no chadors to be seen anywhere: female news anchors, correspondents and
singers all fully reveal their faces, and in some cases, much more. "We
want to show the people that there is nothing wrong with what you wear,"
Mr. Atabay said, gesturing toward a music video in which an Iranian pop
star, Noush Afarin, wearing a miniskirt and a shirt that left her midriff
bare, was dancing. "Here, Iranian women show the belly."
NITV is a modest operation, run by a skeleton crew of 35 producers,
writers, on-air personnel and camera operators. Additional programming
is purchased from independent production companies. In-house shows are
filmed in a single cramped studio containing three sets, which can be converted
from program to program in under five minutes. Engineers edit and manage
live broadcasts from a control room the size of a bathroom.
Mr. Atabay and his wife, Parvin, who also own a surgery center in the
Los Angeles suburb of Encino, provide the station's $250,000 monthly budget.
They hope to recoup the money through subscription fees, advertising sales
and program sponsorships. Already, the station has attracted a few advertisers,
including Porsche and the Sharp Electronics Corporation, according to Ms.
NITV's audience is difficult to measure, particularly in Iran, where
most viewers use illegal satellite dishes. But the volume of feedback has
been tremendous, Mr. Kamali said, holding a congratulatory poem he had
just received by fax from Karaj City, west of Tehran.
The use of illegal satellite receivers in Iran is so widespread that
the government's occasional crackdowns have had little effect, said Ali
Jalali, chief of Voice of America's Farsi Service, which broadcasts a weekly
one-hour TV program to Iran. "It's grown beyond the capacity of the
government to control," he said.
Jahanshah Javid, publisher of Iranian.com, a Web site for expatriate
Iranians, said that even though Iran's local stations had loosened up in
recent years, Iranians still prefer to watch foreign channels via satellite.
"There is a huge untapped audience there, and for years no one has
been able to exploit it," he said.
"At this stage, I don't think the quality of NITV is going to
matter, because they'll watch almost anything that comes from Los Angeles,"
Mr. Javid added, noting that for most Iranians, Los Angeles typifies American
culture. "But in the long run, the station will have to prove itself
with good programming."
During his show, Mr. Kamali encourages viewers to send in reports about
Iranian communities around the world. He also culls Iranian-themed news
items -- for example, about an Iranian-American student earning academic
honors -- from American publications. Recently, Mr. Kamali reintroduced
Iranians to Art Buchwald, whose column has been absent from Iran's newspapers
since the revolution.
Although he is glad to be on the air regularly again, Mr. Kamali, who
spent the last 14 years working as a finance adviser and computer programmer,
said he dreams of one day returning to his homeland.
"I'd like to live in Iran again if I can be free as I am here,"