It’s a SAT-7 Christmas!

I have a rule in our family that we don’t start talking about Christmas until after Bonfire night (that’s the 5th of November if you’re reading this blog and you aren’t British). I personally dislike all things Christmas whilst it is still summer! But for a TV broadcaster preparations for Christmas start even earlier – something I am undoubtably going to have to get used to! Here’s how we get ready for the  festive season . . .

1. July: Reviewing Movies and Acquired Programmes for the Christmas Season

Back in July, George, our Programming Manager, will probably start asking about what good Christmas programmes we have that can be shown over Christmas. We license some programmes for a certain period of time or a certain number of showings each year, so we need to get him a list of what’s in still stock (this comes out of our broadcasting system, the BTS)!

He’ll also want to know what NEW programmes we intend to show over the Christmas period. Mario, in our Acquisitions team, gets to watch and review films and programmes pretty much every day – so he is the go-to-man! He may have a list of good films he has reviewed that he’d like SAT-7 to buy, or he may have to go back to the samples our distributors send us for reviewing purposes to find some more. Lucky Mario – having to watch Christmas movies in July when it is 45 degrees outside 🙂 Here are some of the ones we will be showing: The Tower Agents & the Mysterious Christmas Gift, Mrs. Miracle, Miracle in Manhattan, Sarah’s Choice, and of course a few more “traditional” retellings of the Christmas story.

2. July-August: Planning our own Christmas shows

At SAT-7 we only really purchase programmes that are either too difficult or too expensive to make ourselves – things like films, animations, and certain documentaries. In general we prioritise spending our programming budget on in-house productions or commissioned work. In this way we make programmes that are culturally relevant, with actors/presenters from Middle Eastern countries, and without any of the slightly annoying artefacts you get when watching a dubbed programme. The planning of these programmes probably gets kicked off in July, with detailed planning in the months running up to the big day (often just days before in the case of a live show).

3. August – November: Purchasing, Dubbing & Subtitling Acquired Programmes

After we’ve decided which acquired programmes to we’d like to show, we need to: negotiate for the rights; sign contracts; receive the master copies; send them to a dubbing house for Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish; dub them (or in the case of most films, subtitle them); convert them to the right file format for showing on a satellite. This would probably happen sometime between October and November, but could be right up to a few days before its first air date.

3. October: Creating the Christmas Grid

We normally make a plan of what we are going to show about 3 months ahead of time – it’s a bit like a Radio Times listings guide (we call this the Grid – or the Planner). Here we try to get the shape of the plan right – showing the programmes at the right times, making each day interesting, lining programmes up with key events in the calendar – that sort of thing. This will probably go through quite a lot of revisions and will even change in the fine details just days before the air date, depending on what is happening in the region. As one of our schedulers told me yesterday, when there are riots in Egypt and Christians are being killed across North Africa, it is hard to feel “Christmassy”. On these occasions it is a difficult balance to know how to be sensitive to what our viewers are going through, and also to offer hope and some escape from what is happening (especially for children).

4. October-November: Preparing Christmas Idents & Graphics

Again with about 3 months to go, the design teams in Lebanon will be working on Christmas themed ‘spots’ and ‘idents’. These are the clips that show between programmes, or just before them – think the BBC spinning globe, a snow scene with the channel colours throughout, or a cbeebies Christmas song. The designers will work these up and give them to the Channel Executives for review and approval. These in-between bits keep the channel fresh and vibrant, even if we do show repeats from time to time. Here is an example of one of the spots that we are showing on SAT-7 arabic this year.

5. December: Putting the Christmas logo on screen

On the 1st of December we change the SAT-7 logos for Christmas themed ones – strangely for the Middle East & North Africa, this involves making them icy and snow covered! 🙂 Logos are graphics that we need to schedule on the screen – they don’t just happen! Try watching a channel that does use a permanent on-screen logo . . . they are not always there! These logos often do not appear on adverts (not that we carry any), or on top of the normal Channel Idents. This means that we need to schedule them through our Scheduling system (BTS) – in fact we do a sort of “Find-and-Replace” on the standard logo (this is a piece of functionality that the developer wrote at our request and we are very grateful!)

6. December: Scheduling the second by second, frame-by-frame plan

We actually finalise what’s going to be shown on air a few days before it happens – although in rare cases we make changes just minutes before air-time (if something significant has just happened in the region). We take the Planner/Grid that I mentioned earlier and work out exactly what is going to show and when: which channel idents (the branding), what fillers (the bits in between), what graphics (logos, etc.) Each one of these lasts for a certain amount of time (but hardly ever a regular amount) and needs to be fitted in with no gaps! It is a bit like doing a complicated jigsaw or a puzzle – trying to fit everything in and get programmes starting at the right times as well.

Once we are happy with this, we send it across to our outsourced Playout provider who take all the bits and bring them together in real-time to beam up onto the satellite! Just in time for Christmas.

7. Live Shows

Well. Obviously, these are shown in real time! In the Middle East, probably like all over the world, people love to celebrate the birth of Christ with singing, special concerts and events. At SAT-7 we are committed to covering a large number of live events, helping isolated Christians to feel a part of what is going on, and helping them identify with other Middle Eastern and North African Christians.

These shows involve our own production crews, producers, and presenters working over Christmas; getting ready for shows, making the equipment work, doing the filming and clearing up afterwards; putting it on Youtube, archiving the material, it never ends!

8. And Oh . . . we celebrate Christmas TWICE!  

Yep. You heard me right. Just when everyone in the West has had enough of Christmas and is going back to work, we celebrate Christmas again on the 7th of January – as this is the date Christians in the Coptic Orthodox church celebrate the birth of Jesus.

There is not much of a let up for our staff – that’s the challenge of a 24x7x365 operation – but we love what we do, serving our viewers, and sharing the good news of Jesus!

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