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All the Iranian News, All the Time

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 America.

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. Atabay.

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," he said.


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