Pan-Arab Satellite Television:
Now the Survival Part
Research Manager, Media
Pan Arab Research Center (PARC), Dubai
The second half of the 1990s saw advertisers queuing up to buy tickets to
watch the pan-Arab satellite channels sprinting towards mass audiences across
the GCC markets. The Arab general public responded in kind, especially in the
more affluent states, where satellite dishes are found in every fourth home.
The satellite channels,
more than any other Arab media, breathed new life into the so-called pan-Arab
or regional market. In the pre-Arab-satellite era the predominance of the local
media meant that marketers had to plan locally and replicate local strategies
in every other market. The satellite channels eliminated this process to a large
extent in the visual media. This is how is pan-Arab television proved its worth
to advertisers and mushroomed into a half-billion-dollar industry by 2000 (at
rate card value).
Uniting many Arab markets
has been the major achievement of the pan-Arab satellite channels. The major satellite
channels swayed audiences into their fold by giving television entertainment a
new meaning and content through a variety of new programs and repackaging of more
traditional ones. Many local TV channels found themselves redundant, while a few
others rejuvenated and repositioned themselves as competitors to the more prominent
Equally important, the
pan-Arab satellite channels, led by Al-Jazeera, sparked
a new buoyant mood among the Arab general public, and a certain degree of boldness
became very evident in their content. This relative boldness touched on two aspects:
public political discourse, and culturally sensitive codes that govern male-female
relationships, or more specifically the cultural codes that pertain to women's
behavior and dress code in public.
While Al-Jazeera took
the lead in disintegration of taboos in the first area, the Lebanese
channels were instrumental in whetting the general public's appetite in the
GCC markets for the latter. Arab audiences seem to be pleased with both breakthroughs.
More importantly for the media, these programs can generate advertising revenues,
especially the former program genre.
The implications of the
popularity of these two types of programs are many, not just culturally, but also
because they are money-generating TV programs. This is especially so when analyzed
within the context of supposedly ultra-conservative societies such as Saudi Arabia,
where local brands compete with international brands for advertising space on
the most notoriously culturally relaxed program on LBC, "Ya Leil Ya Ain." Of equal
significance is the sponsorship by a Saudi brand of what is considered to be by
far the most politically controversial talk show aired on satellite, Al-Jazeera's
"Al-Ittijah al-Muakis" ("The Opposite Direction"). Both of these two popular types
of TV programs are cited here to illustrate that the pan-Arab satellite channels
have been able to stimulate certain cultural changes which other media or local
television would not have been able to introduce.
success of one type of program on one TV channel does not mean that it can replicated
on another channel. One would have to look into the culture behind the product
concept of each of the leading satellite channels to understand what lies behind
their success. Delving into the premise of this argument may require a separate
investigation. But a major outcome of the forceful presence of the pan-Arab satellite
channels is the emergence of a brand personality of a selected few of them. Such
product differentiation was not possible in the local, government-owned TV environment.
The success of privately
owned or semi-private satellite channels prompted a very few government-owned
TV channels to attempt to renovate themselves, totally or almost so. But program-mix
and repackaging renovation of government channels, which are hardly able to walk
into the living rooms of Arab families outside their respective markets, is not
enought to put these channels into the major league. It may prove to be more difficult
to renovate a brand image of a channel than to revitalize its program mix. Fixing
a program mix may simply require that more money be pumped in. Facelifting a brand
image requires that all the marketing mix elements be activated.
There seem to be many
loops in this developmental stage of the pan-Arab satellite channels through which
certain of these channels can make a comeback. The TV media environment has yet
to bid farewell to channel-led viewing in favor of program-led viewing. This is
in part due to immaturity of the TV industry, and is even more related to the
severe shortage of programs. More programs and thus more program variety could
eventually differentiate one program from another, not only between competing
channels, but more critically, among programs of the same channel.
The first type of program
that falls prey to this imperfect program differentiation is talk shows of various
natures. A particular channel may have more than a half-dozen different labels
for political or entertainment talk shows. But it remains anybody's guess to identify
the brand character of each one. The chance to call in and voice an opinion is
often one of the few features differentiating live shows.
The predominance of live
or recorded talk shows has been welcomed by audiences, especially in societies
where the general public does not have many chances to voice their opinions on
public issues. But the predominance of live programs, talk shows, or game shows
is due to the fact that they are usually less expensive to produce. On some TV
channels, a few call-in games or competition programs also generate revenue from
the incoming phone calls. Viewers are advised that a minute will cost them x-amount
of money. Initially when charging for incoming calls became a practice, a few
channels failed to realize that they should have advised viewers about the charges.
Game shows offering the
chance to win cash prizes in a variation of a lottery have gained social acceptance.
This need not be considered a trend that has been introduced by satellite channels
to societies where lotteries are officially banned. It could be argued nevertheless
that lottery on TV is no longer considered a taboo, especially when in Ramadan
such programs attract thousands of callers.
At any rate, pan-Arab
satellite channels operating from outside the GCC markets have been instrumental
in introducing certain doses of a more relaxed culture which local channels would
not entertain because of local cultural restrictions. For advertising, this has
meant that certain imported commercials need not undergo lots of editing before
being put on air. This is good news to advertisers: it cuts costs, and at the
same time leaves more room for creativity of the local advertising producers.
The same applies to those who are producing video clips.
The fact that the pan-Arab
satellite channels, or at least a few of them, have been trendsetters in many
areas of life in the Arab societies cannot be denied. What is still not clear
is the magnitude of their impact as an agent of change, socially, culturally,
and politically. By all local and regional standards, these channels have been
a novel medium; otherwise they would not have attracted such wide audiences. Media
and sociology researchers have yet to examine the full impact of this phenomenon.
The scarce and sparse research work that I am personally aware of is more fraught
with apprehensions about the content of these channels. Hardly any government
or private funds have been allocated for scientific research on the impact of
pan-Arab satellite channels specifically, or of media in general.
Strangely, the most vociferous
opponent of the satellite channels is the print media. Editorials and analyses
which I have read or monitored over the past several years have mostly been very
critical of the content that is believed to dominate the satellite channels' program
mix. The ever-present argument is that the satellite channels are too long on
entertainment, too short on educational content. Again, this stance taken by the
print media against the pan-Arab satellite channels has not yet captured the attention
of media researchers.
Similarly, while audience
data on what Arabs watch on TV abounds, missing is what motivates them to watch
what they watch. I could cite only very limited privately commissioned studies
that have delved into any degree of systematic research. Television program directors
are often oblivious to what makes one TV program rise and another fallthat
is, if we assume that they have purchased available audience data, which is not
yet commonly practiced by even some of the more prominent local channels or the
satellite channels. continued
Next page: Can
the pan-Arab satellite channels sustain their vitality?