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New cable network targets Muslim Americans

BridgesTV is the first English-language cable channel targeting Arab-Americans in the U.S. NBC's Ron Allen reports on the fledgling network's operation and goals.

Muzzammil Hassan's home in the suburbs of Buffalo is under renovation. And these days he and his family have constant company. That's because Hassan's house has become a television production center of sorts. It's home to BridgesTV, which bills itself as "the American Muslim lifestyle network."

Bridges debuted this month. It's a subscriber channel available on cable, satellite and broadband across the country that shows entertainment and news programming 24 hours a day in English.

In a drama/mystery on Bridges, Jinnah, who's south Asian, is a reporter trying to solve a mysterious murder. Turn on the morning kid shows, and you'll see mom wearing a traditional headscarf. And on Bridges' version of Comedy Central, you'll hear jokes like the one about the Muslim airline passenger trying to get through airport security.

"You probably get there one or two hours before the flight," he tells the audience. "It takes me a month and a half," he says, the punch line poking fun at a common complaint since 9/11.

Bridges TV is the brainchild of Aasiya Zubair, an architect, and her husband, Muzzammil Hassan, a banker. They were disturbed that negative images of Muslims seem to dominate TV, especially after 9/11.

"I did not want my kids growing up to watch Muslims being portrayed as terrorists," says Zubair.

BridgesTV is based in the family's home and edited in their basement. The news is taped in their living room studio. Anchorman Asad Mahmood sits on a small stool in front of a projection screen. There's a camera and a couple of lights pointed his way. A few bed sheets over windows and doors, that viewers never see, help control lighting and give the room that studio set look. "From violence to peace ... Egypt says it's willing to mediate peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians," he reads from a teleprompter, scrolling the words himself with the click of a computer mouse.

"I'm a journalist like any other journalist," the former producer at an NBC station in Boston explains. "This network, and specifically the news show, has no religious or political objective. All we want to do is inform American Muslims about stories that they're interested in."

In addition to its original newscast, the network buys programs from independent producers and broadcasters like the BBC. Founder and CEO Hassan says he has about two years of programming now. It's estimated he has anywhere from $8 million to $10 million invested in the project, money raised during the past three years from about 50 supporters. Right now the network has about 50,000 subscribers.

"I hope, long term, Bridges can play a role towards a better understanding between America and Islam," says Hassan.

He says the network has no desire to be like al-Jazeera TV, the Arabic language station often accused of being anti-American.

Naushad Virji, a Florida investment manager, subscribed to fill a cultural void for his family.

"I can identify with the people who are on there, with the things they're talking about," says Virji. "There is no other show that caters directly to American Muslims. There are a lot of other TV channels for Arab Muslims that are in Arabic, which I can't understand," he says.

The big challenge, say industry analysts, is convincing cable providers to make space for BridgesTV. Bridges hopes to build its target audience and grow like Spanish-language Telemundo or Black Entertainment TV, seen by millions and worth billions.

It's media with a message — often not heard — about American life.