In Iran, consumers are forbidden by law from owning satellite dishes. But that isn't stopping a North Hollywood businessman from shelling out millions of dollars on a for-profit satellite TV channel he's beaming into the Middle Eastern nation sort of a modern-day TV equivalent of Radio Free Europe.

Zia Atabay, who was a professional singer when he lived in his native Iran, officially launched his National Iranian Television this month, calling it the first 24-hour Farsi-language station. He hopes to reach millions of Iranians around the world, particularly in his native country.

Atabay, a Valley businessman who has co-owned a cosmetic surgery clinic in Encino for the last decade, has invested $3 million of his own money so far into NITV and expects to pour more into the venture over the coming months to fund its $250,000-a-month budget.

So far, advertisers are slow to sign on, but there has been some interest. One of the first sponsors was upscale Beverly Hills clothier and Iran native Bijan, who runs perfume ads on NITV. Bijan has also appeared as a guest on shows on the fledgling station. Atabay says he has also executed advertising contracts with several Porsche/Mercedes Benz dealerships in the Middle East, and is currently negotiating with other notable companies in the Middle East and Europe that are interested in advertising to the worldwide Iranian community.

Relying on the black market

Though satellite dishes are illegal in Iran, Atabay said the law isn't enforced and he estimates several million people there have bought dishes on the black market to receive international broadcasts.

Though his target audience is scattered across several countries, Atabay believes that by featuring famous Iranian performers and open talk about Iranian issues, the content will appeal to Iranians no matter where they live.

"It's very difficult to make everybody happy," he said. "We'll make the majority happy. My background is art and I've been on television. I know what they (Iranians) want."

In Los Angeles, Iranian-oriented television programming has been growing over the last 20 years, with more than 100 L.A.-produced programs targeting the exile community. More than 90 Iranian newspapers and magazines operate out of the Los Angeles area, according to Hamid Naficy, associate professor of media and film studies at Rice University in Houston, who wrote a book in 1993 about the exile community in Los Angeles.

There are an estimated 600,000 Iranian Americans living in Los Angeles County, one of the major centers of Iranian immigration following the 1979 revolution.

Many settled in Beverly Hills, where Iranians are the largest minority group, according to the Iranian Information Center in Van Nuys. But they also moved to Valley communities such as Encino and Sherman Oaks.

"The Iranian population in L.A. is large and relatively well off," he said. "They are highly educated. And a very high number, around 85 percent, are self-employed. Rather than being the busboy, they own the restaurant."

Naficy said NITV is the first station he's heard of that is trying to broadcast programming from the exile community into Iran. But he said, even discounting the Iranian population, there is ample advertising support for a station targeting Iranian immigrants in the United States. He estimates that smaller Iranian stations in L.A. are generating around $5 million a year in revenues.

"They have the means to support advertising-driven programming and they have things to advertise for," he said. Naficy said he hasn't seen NITV because he doesn't have a satellite dish capable of receiving the programming.

Atabay said he expects to reach at least 7,000 viewers in the L.A. area, and potentially an audience as big as 60 million around the world mostly in Europe and the Middle East.

Actual viewer numbers won't be available until NITV begins scrambling its signal to non-paying satellite TV watchers in the next few months. In the U.S., subscribers have to buy a special satellite dish to receive and unscramble NITV signals, at a cost of $289 plus $20 a month for the programming. The dishes aren't available in stores, and have to be bought directly from NITV. So far, the company has sold around 2,000 dishes, officials say.

In the Middle East and Europe, viewers can receive NITV programming through their existing satellite systems, after calling NITV to order a chip that unscrambles the signal. Subscriptions cost about $200 a year in Europe and $150 a year in the Middle East. Atabay is hoping smugglers will soon put NITV chips on the black market in Iran, and he is working with them to accomplish that.

An Iranian CNN

Atabay, a former executive at CBS Recording Co. in Tehran, left the country in 1980 after the revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power, leaving behind his sister and mother.

Atabay is hoping to create a sort of Iranian CNN. He has a dual goal of giving people in Iran a dose of independent news and information about their countrymen abroad while simultaneously keeping expatriate Iranians in touch with their culture back in the motherland.

The station will not take political positions, though some local groups have pressured Atabay to support the removal of Iran's current government. He insists such sentiments must come from within the country.

"When I say I don't want to take a political side, it doesn't mean we're not political," Atabay said. "When we show women without a shawl, when we talk about freedom, we are political. When we broadcast the news without government regulation, we are political. I just don't want it to become a platform. By not being political, we are political."

Programming consists of talk shows, news, a cooking show, and European movies and cartoons. The shows are produced primarily in NITV's 5,000-square-foot studio in North Hollywood.

For now, Atabay's goal is simply to help link up Iranians whose families were split by the revolution.

"I haven't seen my sister in 22 years," Atabay said. "I didn't see my mother when she passed away. It's sad. For a lot of Iranians, it's like that."

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