The Changing Scene of Lebanese Television

by Nabil H. Dajani

This article was first published in the book "The Mission: Journalism, Ethics, and the World," ed. Joe Atkins, published by the Iowa State University Press, and appears here by kind permission of the publishers.

he past decade has witnessed radical changes in the structure and role of television in Lebanon. With the advent of satellite broadcasting, Lebanese television has become one of the power forces in the Arab world. It is watched with varying reactions around the region. However, little has been written on the subject. Consequently most of the available literature on the topic is either outdated (1), too general (2) or lacks precision. This paper attempts to fill this gap by providing a chronological account of this medium's development. It will provide first-hand information based on the author's experience for over forty years as a media practitioner, researcher of the role of the media in the Lebanese society, as well as a friend and advisor to various media practitioners and officials. The material in this paper, therefore, is based on the analysis of the available written material in both Arabic and English as well as on information collected through personal contacts with media and government sources.

Lebanese Media as a Product of its Society
Media scholars often address the relationship between government and television in the context of either a western societal structure where this medium usually operates within the private sector, or a third world structure where the medium customarily operates within the public sector, typically as a government arm. Lebanese media institutions, however, do not fit either the third world model nor the western model of media operation for the existing societal forces in every state determine the structure, content and operation of media institutions. The mass media, therefore, are unique to their society. They cannot have identity or effects outside the concrete instances within which the different forces operate.

Lebanon is a curious country with many contradictions, a country of extreme pluralism and of deep divisions. It is a society fragmented along sectarian lines, which is going through a controversial identity: its institutions are torn between a state of transformation, which is exhibited in its relatively modern laws and perspective, and that of persistence, which is demonstrated by the performance of its political and religious bosses who put obstacles in the introduction of change or application of laws that may lessen the sectarian nature of the system of government.

While newspaper readership is not widely spread in Lebanon and the Arab world in general, radio and television are available in almost every household in Beirut. Television reception is not only of the Lebanese local channels but the cable connection is widely spread in Beirut and the major Lebanese cities. This spread is enhanced by the inexpensive cost of cable subscription in Lebanon. For little over twelve US dollars a month a Lebanese household can receive some seventy channels including most of the Arab satellite stations, CNN, the BBC, Al-Jazeera and numerous movie and other specialized channels. In some heavily populated areas this subscription could be as little as five US dollars a month. Unlicensed satellite television distribution companies have mushroomed in the past few years and have penetrated almost two-thirds of Lebanon's households (3).

The Lebanese media situation is an example of the contradictory state of transformation and persistence that Lebanon is going through. The existing media laws specify that television institutions be not directly managed or run by the government or private individuals or politicians. The practice, however, is different but is congruent with the special socio-political structure of the Lebanese society (4).

An examination of the development of television in Lebanon suggests that the measures taken by government to regulate television broadcasting since its inception in Lebanon were not intended to encourage television officials to deal with themes of significant concern to the average individual, mainly those emerging from the civil war. Themes that deal with the need for the cooperation of the different sectarian groups in the reconstruction of the country and in bringing about the unity of its people are almost absent in Lebanese television. The examination proposes that the different government legislations were introduced aimed not at promoting original productions, nor at providing more opportunity for local talent and developing responsible and professional organizational structures. Rather, it points out that state legislation in the area of television broadcasting were aimed at allowing government officials and the ruling political bosses to exploit this medium for their own political goals (5).

The assessment of the growth of television in Lebanon will show that government officials and political bosses endeavored to legalize their monopoly over television news and to control programs that might threaten their political ambitions or the status quo. Additionally, it will show that the friction between television authorities with the government during the past four decades was due to the interest of the television officials in financial gain more than their interest in securing increased freedom to produce programs that address themes relevant to the social and economic problems that are confronting the country. No serious investigation has been carried out by the media about claims of corruption in the government, which was often voiced by senior government officials (6). Additionally, no serious program, to date, has been produced to deal with the sectarian conflict that plagues the country.

Early Stages of Television in Lebanon
Unlike most of the developing countries the initiative to establish television in Lebanon belongs not to the government but to businessmen who had little experience in the necessities of television broadcasting. They conceived of their project in essentially business terms, giving little or no attention to its social implications and responsibilities (7). In this lies Lebanese television's main weakness, for the logic of a commercial enterprise in the developing countries often runs counter to that of public service and societal well being.

The first attempt to start television broadcasting in Lebanon goes back to October 1954 when two Lebanese businessmen, Wissam Izzedine and Alex Arida, submitted an application to form a television broadcasting company. After two years of negotiations an agreement was signed, on August 1956, granting a license to La Compagnie Libanaise de Television, SAL (CLT). The license was not a monopoly as the applicants had requested. It was simply a license to broadcast television signals on two VHF channels, one devoted to programs in Arabic or with Arabic subtitles, and the other for foreign, mainly French, programs. CLT thus was the first commercial television station in the Arab world (8). The station inaugurated its service on May 28, 1959. It began transmission with a power of half a kilowatt.

The agreement between CLT and the Lebanese government left the door open for other companies to apply for television broadcasting licenses. The most important terms of the 21-article agreement were that Lebanon would not give the company monopoly rights and that television was under official government scrutiny. The agreement further stipulated that the company was not permitted to broadcast programs that would threaten public security, morals, religious groups, or enhance the image of any political personality or party.

Under the terms of this agreement television programs were to be restricted to education and entertainment. While the agreement allowed the company a restricted and inadequate freedom of political expression, it was quite generous in giving it all the time it needed for advertising. Advertising messages could cover up to 25 per cent of the total broadcast time. The agreement also required that the company should undertake to broadcast, free of charge, news programs and official bulletins submitted by the Ministry of Information (9).

In addition, television was to be subject to all laws and regulations pertinent to the rights of the press and of authors, as well as all national and international laws and regulations dealing with wireless communication and with broadcasting. Television was also required to exchange sound programs with the official Lebanese radio station. The agreement was for 15 years at the end of which the government had the right to buy the television installations.

In April 1959, another group of Lebanese businessmen, backed by an American corporation, ABC, approached the government with a request to set up a second television station, Compagnie de Television du Liban et du Proch-Orient (Tele Orient). An agreement identical to the one granted to CLT was concluded in July 1959. Transmission of one program began on May 6, 1962.

After a number of unprofitable years that witnessed tough competition and lack of adequate organization, especially in selling advertising time, the two companies agreed to coordinate and develop their advertising sales methods and to coordinate the scheduling and marketing of their programs. Before the beginning of the civil war in 1975 the two companies were making large profits. Revenue from television advertising was increasing. Total television income from advertising showed 19.5 per cent increase over 1973 and constituted 35.3 per cent of total 1974 advertising expenditure in Lebanon. Additionally, both companies sold locally produced programs to television institutions in the Arab countries (10).

In December 1974 the Lebanese Council of Ministers renewed the license of CLT. The renewal was for a period of nine years only. The new agreement sought to institutionalize and formulize the political control of broadcasting by the government. Under the terms of the new agreement the Lebanese government would buy the transmission installations and lease them to CLT. It decreed that two government censors be present at the station and requested CLT to broadcast a daily one-hour early evening program prepared by the government. The agreement also required that CLT pay 6.5% of its net advertising revenue to the government. It authorized a maximum of nine minutes of advertising per hour, with a maximum of three minutes during the news programs.

The 1974 agreement made vague requests that TV programs should be "of the highest possible standards" and that CLT should "train its staff in the artistic and technical fields." It required CLT to provide national television coverage. The government, however, was not in a position to implement these provisions because many of these requirements were left vague and because of the outbreak of the civil war, which diminished the ability of the government to execute such an agreement. Thus between December 1974 and December 1977 there were to be two sets of regulations for television broadcasting, one applying to Tele Orient under the provisions of its 1962 license, and the other applying to CLT under its 1974 agreement. continued

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Notes | References

TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu