Iraqi emigres everywhere can soon tune into Baghdad's hottest TV hits, including a Mesopotamian version of American Idol, Saddam Hussein's trial, and a talk show hosted by Iraq's equivalent of Oprah Winfrey.
As early as next month, New York-based JumpTV, billed as the world's leading provider of television broadcasts over the Internet, will begin offering the programs of five independent Iraqi television stations for $19.95 per month.
The Iraqi programming bundle is the latest addition to an online distribution network that streams live, high-quality TV signals from about 100 channels in more than 40 countries over the JumpTV Web site (http://www.jumptv.com).
The company has planned a formal announcement of the deal for Wednesday in Baghdad.
Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, president of privately held JumpTV, declined to specify how many subscribers have signed up since the service was launched in 2000. But he said its customers number in the tens of thousands in more than 70 countries.
Tuzman, 34, said he plans to take JumpTV public in June, listing shares of the company in London. He gained a measure of fame five years ago when his very first experience as an Internet entrepreneur--a short-lived online venture called govWorks.com--was chronicled in the 2001 documentary film Startup.com.
In the case of JumpTV's latest Baghdad offerings, the service is aimed at Iraqi expatriates--Tuzman cites population estimates ranging from 1.5 million to 6 million--living in relatively small diaspora communities around the world.
But a sizable portion of early subscribers carry a ".gov" suffix on their e-mail addresses, indicating they are employees of the U.S. government, he said.
"If you are someone in the State Department sitting in Washington, until now you had no way to see TV from Iraq. And that's a valuable perspective to have," Tuzman said.
BAGHDAD'S SIMON COWELL
The Iraqi TV channels offer outsiders a rare glimpse of a nation and culture overshadowed in the international media by daily reports of bloodshed, kidnappings, and political strife.
One channel in the package is Alsumaria, whose most popular show is a local talent competition similar to the American Idol and Pop Idol formats that have become hits in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere.
The Iraqi show, whose title in English is Iraq Star, even features a cranky, acerbic judge named Mo-Hadi, Baghdad's answer to Simon Cowell on American Idol.
Other stations in the bundle are AldiyarSat, which broadcasts exclusive gavel-to-gavel coverage of Saddam Hussein's trial, and Al Fayhaa, whose best-known personality, news anchor and talk show host Inam Abdul Majeed, is considered the Oprah of Iraq.
Rounding out JumpTV's initial five-station Iraqi package are channels Beladi and Albaghdadia.
"Here's another side of Iraq. It's not all insurgency and car bombings," Tuzman said. "It's lifestyle, and I think it's important for Iraq and the world to see that side of the society."
All the programming is in Arabic, though Tuzman said translation scrolls might be added to the webcasts, which can be viewed as live streaming or downloaded and watched later.
The online TV service as a whole is marketed mainly to emigres from nations where its programs originate, including Russia, Bangladesh, Colombia, India, Germany, Lebanon, Nepal, Romania, Albania, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Internet streaming offers a cost-effective way of getting TV content to niche audiences too small or spread out for traditional terrestrial cable or direct-to-home satellite companies to serve economically, Tuzman said.