No. 5, Fall/Winter2000

Special Issue:
The Arab World

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Pan-Arab Satellite Television:
Now the Survival Part

by Jihad Fakhreddine
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 satellite channels.

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.

The 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 fall—that 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?

Copyright 2000 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo