Window to the Middle East

A Producers Guide to Television in the Middle East

By Jamal Dajani

It was not long ago that people living in the Middle East had to rely on foreign-based, Arab-language, shortwave radio broadcasts—such as the Voice of America, Radio Monte Carlo, and BBC World Service Arabic radio—to get a steady flow of accurate news. Government-controlled radio stations, especially in larger Arab nations, pumped out heavily censored news reports not only to their populations but also to the larger Arab masses across the region. Similarly, when terrestrial Arab television services began in the 1960s, audiences were fed a steady diet of official propaganda and limited programming. Newsgathering and reporting, in the Western sense, were not central to how governments ran their media. Instead of field reporting, interviews, studio discussions, and the sort of broad coverage we are accustomed to today, viewers were given a studio-delivered digest of “protocol” news—government news bulletins of official state activities and speeches of the day.

Today, the region’s broadcasting landscape is a far different picture. Satellite dish receivers cover the rooftops in most major cities in the Arab world. The emergence of a global telecommunications revolution in the eighties, particularly in satellite television, brought dramatic changes to the Middle East about ten years later, perhaps more so than for any other region on earth. With more than three hundred satellite stations now on the air in the Middle East, it’s hard to believe that there could be room for any more, but new stations continue to pop up on audiences’ satellite menus, and the choice of channels could easily reach four hundred by the end of 2007. 

Many in the West believe that the catalyst for this Middle East media explosion was Al Jazeera; however, the first satellite broadcast in the region started in Egypt. The Egyptian Satellite Channel began transmitting in December 1990, followed a year later by Saudi-financed Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC). During the nineties, many other Arab countries followed suit with their own satellite offerings. Among the first crop, more than 70 percent were state-controlled and state-funded enterprises broadcasting in Arabic.

The impact of the satellite dish across the Arab world has been profound. While Al Jazeera, by far the best-known television network, boasts sixty to seventy million regular viewers worldwide, most Arabs spend a lot more time watching entertainment channels like MBC, LBC, ART, Orbit, and others, especially during the month of Ramadan, a time that broadcasters program similar to the “sweeps” season in the United States. 

Cairo and Beirut, once the centers for most film and television production, are currently challenged by the tiny state of Dubai, which has become the home of many television outlets housing state-of-the-art production facilities. More than thirty Arabic channels are transmitted out of the United Arab Emirates alone.

Arabs spend more and more of their time glued in front of a TV screen watching wall-to-wall news coverage, music videos, reality shows, comedy, and drama. Previously taboo subjects on TV are now being shown throughout the region. Two years ago, a program called Hur al-Ayn (Maidens of Paradise) created an uproar for tackling the impact of Islamic terror attacks not only on Westerners but also on Arabs. Another series, The Road to Kabul, about the war in Afghanistan, was pulled off the air a year earlier, amidst various speculations for reasons ranging from death threats made to the producers by Islamic militants to governments’ pressures to financial and technical problems. Each year, new programs keep pushing the envelope, and discussions about sex, marriage, divorce, religion, and terrorism can be viewed on the same channel. 

At a time when animosity between the West and the Arab world is increasing, Arab satellite television has provided a window on what close to three hundred million people in the Middle East see on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the images they see are very polarizing. Almost daily, Arabs are reminded time and again of the American occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Images of the sectarian war that has engulfed Iraq and pictures of Palestinian children haunt viewers throughout the region.

Nevertheless, this very same medium has changed people’s lives in the region. The Arab nationalism that Gamal Abed El Nasser tried but failed to market in the Arab world in the sixties has been revived through satellite TV, which highlights the commonality between the populace that exists from Marrakesh into Beirut. Arabs throughout the region watch the same sitcoms, see the same religious shows, laugh at the same jokes, and cry when they see the same news stories. Their freedom of information and expression are no longer controlled by their “ministries of information” or by borders. Democracy might not be a reality on the ground in the Arab world but “pluralism” is in the air…on satellite TV.


About the Author 

Jamal Dajani is an award-winning producer and the director of Middle Eastern programming at Link TV. Since 2001, he has produced more than thirteen hundred installments of the Peabody Award–winning program Mosaic: World News from the Middle East.


A Look at Channels in the Arab World

AL IRAQIYA TV (Iraq) A terrestrial and satellite news channel in Iraq that was set up during the U.S.-led occupation in 2003 and is supported by the United States military.

JORDAN TV (Jordan) Presents an array of Arabic-language programming, including news, family entertainment, documentaries, cultural and educational programs, and sports. A variety of feature films are also broadcast in English and news bulletins in English and French.

KUWAIT TV (Kuwait)Offers 24-hour Arabic-language programming directly from Kuwait City. Features family programming, news, information, children's programs, music events, documentaries, and popular movies.

NILE TV (Egypt)A state-owned Egyptian television satellite network that broadcasts from Cairo. It is the only Egyptian television network broadcasting in Arabic, French, English, and Hebrew.

OMAN TELEVISION (Oman) The state-run channel in the Sultanate of Oman, offering news, entertainment, and family programming in Arabic, with selected programs in English.

ORBIT TV (Bahrain) The first fully digital, multichannel, multilingual pay-television service in the Middle East, offering a variety of news, social, cultural, and entertainment programs.

ROTANA (Saudi Arabia) Comprises six satellite channels-Rotana Mousica, Rotana Clip, Rotana Tarab, Rotana Khalijiyya, Rotana Cinema, and Rotana Zaman-offering music, films, interactive games, and other programming. The company is owned by HRH Prince Al Waleed Ben Talal Ben Abdel Aziz Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family.

SAUDI TV (Saudi Arabia) A state-run channel that presents religious and cultural programs, entertainment and music, Arabic dramas, non-Arabic films and serials, children's programs, and news and other current-affairs programs.

SUDAN TV (Sudan) A state-run channel offering a variety of programming, including news, sports, drama, and comedy.

SYRIA TV (Syria) State run, operates two terrestrial and one satellite television channel, broadcasting news and entertainment programming in Arabic, English, and French.

TUNIS 7 (Tunisia) One of two TV stations run by RTV Tunisia (ERTT), the country's public service broadcaster. Delivered by satellite, the channel airs news and entertainment programming.



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