No. 5, Fall/Winter2000

Special Issue:
The Arab World

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Transnational Television and Asymmetrical Interdependence in the Arab World: The Growing Influence of the Lebanese Satellite Broadcasters

by Marwan M. Kraidy

In spite of its small size, Lebanon is a major player in transnational satellite television in the Arab world, so broadcasters and researchers alike are wondering about the implications of the return of Rafik al-Hariri to power. Hariri, appointed prime minister shortly before the publication of this issue of TBS, is not just a construction magnate as the news agencies like to describe him, but has emerged in the 1990s as a media baron as well. Hariri's Future Television has competed with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI) for the leading spot among Lebanese transnational satellite broadcasters.

Hariri's success as a businessman and his connections at the highest levels in Arab business and government is bound to reopen the issue of satellite broadcasting from Lebanon. Hariri's stand and actions on the issue are somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, he is a staunch believer in the private sector and a leading voice advocating the privatization of state assets in Lebanon, and a supporter of investment in media and technology for Lebanon to regain its influence as a cultural and intellectual force in the region. On the other hand, Hariri's cabinet has clamped down on Lebanese television stations, especially LBCI's pan-Arab satellite broadcasts, justifying his actions as necessary to protect Lebanon's image abroad in order to attract Arab and international direct investments.

All this is happening at a time when other Lebanese stations are fast moving towards a stronger transnational presence. Tele-Liban, the half-state-owned broadcaster, is considering an offer from a leading pan-Arab broadcaster to buy 49% of its shares, the maximum allowed for a private company. The National Broadcasting Network (NBN), owned by House Speaker Nabih Berri, has recently launched satellite activities, while al-Manar, Hizbollah's televisual mouthpiece, has attracted a pan-Arab audience with its savvy broadcasts of anti-Israeli operations by the Lebanese resistance.

As a result, Lebanese television is poised to grow in size and influence on the Arab scene. Abu Laban reported that in the 1960s, President Nasser of Egypt read the Lebanese press first thing in the morning to get a sense of current affairs in the Arab world.(1) Several scholars have noted that Lebanon's unique political and media experience gives Lebanese media a pan-Arab influence disproportionate to Lebanon's size and real power as one of the smallest and most vulnerable nation-states.(2) This is not due to any direct power Lebanon has over its Arab neighbors, but to the fact that the Lebanese press has historically reflected the political currents and power struggles occurring in the region. In the digital age of satellite broadcasting and the Internet, Lebanon's media's influence has grown with the adoption of new technologies.

The pan-Arab success of Lebanese television is also explained by other factors. From its early days as mouthpiece of Maronite paramilitary forces, LBC has been run as primarily a commercial corporation, and only secondarily as an instrument of propaganda. During the most heated moments of the war, LBC captured a sizeable segment of the Muslim audience by broadcasting Fawazeer Ramadan and other special programming. This entrepreneurial logic, emulated by Future Television to some extent, has made these companies competitive, aiming for international production standards. Unlike other Arab broadcasters, these companies did not have to please the ruling class, but had to attract and keep an audience in order to maintain a steady flow of incoming advertising dollars.

In addition to the entrepreneurial dimension, Lebanese stations in general have a more relaxed idea of sexual acceptability than what is offered on most Arab national channels. Both LBCI and Future use attractive, scantily clad female anchors, presenters and program hosts. Besides, they both used sexuality in a systematic way as part of their marketing plan. LBCI's aerobic show with Haifa, for instance, provided a platform for the company to offer an erotically charged show wrapped in the shroud of a sports and health program. The host Haifa, accompanied by a trio of models in tight clothes, executed aerobic movements in a warehouse-like studio, captured in suggestive poses and evocative camera angles and broadcast to an pan-Arab, largely male audience via satellite.

The influence that transnational satellite broadcasting has given to smaller Arab states such as Lebanon is an interesting phenomenon that promises to shuffle, or at least disturb, Arab power dynamics and public opinion. I would also like to give my analysis a theoretical grounding by borrowing Straubhaar's notion of "asymmetrical dependency"(3) as a framework for Arab transnational broadcasting. While Straubhaar has proposed the concept to discuss the cultural implications of transnational broadcasting in the Americas beyond cultural imperialism, I will apply asymmetrical interdependence to the regional political realm in the Arab world. The concept of asymmetrical interdependence holds that although countries might be vastly different in terms of political and cultural power, they are not locked into relations of dependency. His case study is Brazilian television, which, Straubhaar demonstrates, is no longer dependent on American television for imports.

Transferred to the Arab world, the concept of asymmetrical interdependence gives a grounding for the transnational television flows and their socio-political impact. More specifically, it highlights how smaller countries, such as Lebanon and Qatar, have been empowered by satellite technology and have expanded their reach beyond their borders. continued

Next page: "Issues discussed in these shows were lightening rods for the Arab world."

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