Beyond Al-Jazeera: The Social and Political Impact of Arab Entertainment Television
Marwan Kraidy, Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Assistant Professor of International Relations and International Communication,
School of International Service, American University
Since September 11, 2001, scholars and policymakers have given increased attention to Arab satellite television. While al-Jazeera has been the center of their focus, Kraidy suggested that other Arab media are probably as influential and should not be neglected. For instance, Arab reality television programs have been appropriated by various groups across the Middle East and assume a substantial role in the changing social and political fabric of the region.
Not monitored closely by the state, Arab entertainment television breaches sensitive topics indirectly. Meanwhile, its extended network of demographically diverse viewers—especially women and youth—is critical for social and political change. Reality shows foster a systemic relationship between contestants and viewers, because the dramatic structure and commercial viability of the genre promotes active audience participation. While most reality shows are a balance of Lebanese talent and Saudi funding, the programs have increased exposure to dual trends of patriotic behavior and pan-Arabism in the region.
The prevalence of reality shows in the Middle East results in an activation of hypermedia space, in which viewers interact in what Kraidy describes as a town square arena. The hypermedia space is characterized by a seamless flow between big media such as television operated by networks and small media such as mobile phones operated by individuals. By using mobile phones to submit votes for contestants on reality shows and to exchange views about reality shows through text messaging, individuals are contributing to this energy. Kraidy noted that bonds are formed through exchanges via small media, which entail a higher level of interpersonal trust between individual users.
Kraidy's first case study in reality television was Superstar, an inter-Arab talent competition conducted in a way similar to that of American Idol. The last episode of the first season of Superstar drew 30 million viewers, referred to by some as the largest election in the region. Throughout three seasons of Superstar, viewers continue to vote overwhelmingly for contestants who share their national heritage. In Syria, posters of Syrian contestants shared the windows of storefronts with posters of the country's political leaders. In Libya, a contestant voted out of the competition was welcomed home by Qaddafi. In Lebanon, riots broke out after a Lebanese contestant lost to a Syrian in the semi-finals. In the finale episode of the most recent season, the father of the losing competitor approached her on stage mid-song to wrap a Syrian flag around her shoulders—his actions all the more dramatic against the fervent waving of flags throughout the live television audience.
Kraidy's second case study, Big Brother, was first created in Saudi Arabia and then moved to Bahrain. Seven days after its release in 2004, the government of Bahrain ordered the show's termination, costing the private television network a loss of $8 million. Opposition to the show by Islamist groups led to a debate in the Bahraini parliament over the merits of keeping Big Brother on the air. More liberal leaders predicted that taking the show off the air would damage Bahrain's national reputation and endanger foreign investment. Ultimately, the reality show led to a public divide between the politicians and the Islamists, with the politicians siding in protection of the entertainment industry.
The third case study in Kraidy's research was Star Academy, which has received the highest rates of viewership in the history of television in the Arab world. The show follows sixteen young Arabs of both genders and various nationalities as they cohabitate in the same building. Star Academy has been met with protest by several governments and factions. In Saudi Arabia, the first fatwa devoted to a particular television show has been issued. A phone company boycotted the show by disabling customers' abilities to vote for contestants with their mobile phones. Upon his return home, the winning Saudi contestant was arrested by the religious police for summoning public displays of affection among his fans. In Kuwait, fatwas and debate within the Majlis contributed to the termination of the Kuwaiti Minister of Information. In Algeria, the state-owned television network initially broadcast the show, only to interrupt programming with a classic Egyptian film instead. Ultimately, the Algerian president ordered the suspension of the show to appease the Islamists.
Kraidy suggested that Star Academy has served not only as a source of contention in the region, but also as a source of mobilization. Footage of the opening theme, "The Truth is Coming," features the individual contestants singing lyrics about freedom and unity, eventually linking arms with each other and emerging against a group of young people carrying flags of the their respective nations. Speaking about the role of the reality show in the Cedar Revolution, Kraidy noted that immediately after Prime Minister Hariri's assassination in February 2005, Star Academy was subject to a ten-day recess. On the "patriotic night" of mourning, the show was broadcast and the Syrian candidate was voted out of the competition. Subsequently, imagery and slogans from Star Academy were integrated into peaceful protests that helped to fuel the Cedar Revolution.
Kraidy suggested that while reality television does not necessarily provide viewers with opportunities to engage in the literal expression of democracy, it does establish an informal language and media through which viewers can practice democratic behavior such as voting. Reality shows are also built around transformative narratives, Kraidy noted, which showcase the potential avenues of social and political opportunity. Reality shows act as catalysts for fostering interest in participating in public events, and the heavy news coverage of reality show controversies generates dialogue about sensitive issues and freedom of speech in the region. Kraidy projected that given its popularity, entertainment television has more potential to influence and alter politics in the Middle East than political broadcasts themselves.