No. 9,
Fall/Winter 2002
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The Impact of Arab Satellite Television on Culture and Value Systems in Arab Countries: Perspectives and Issues

By Muhammad L. Ayish

This is a presentation prepared for the Arab Satellite Television Broadcasting conference in Cambridge, UK, in November 2002.It is presented in its preliminary form for the benefit of TBS readers, and not as finished research.

Since television's inception in the Arab world in the mid 1950s and in the 1960s, there have always been rising expectations about harnessing the medium to promote Arab-Islamic culture. From a theoretical point of view, all Arab television charters and bylaws include provisions entrusting broadcasters with a leading cultural role. The Tunis-based Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU) has initiated a series of collaborative broadcast programs to foster inter-Arab awareness of common culture and value systems. The Arab League Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ALESCO) has also been involved in numerous projects aiming at the utilization of media, especially television, "to promote the principles of Arab-Islamic culture" (ALESCO, 1998). In response to this orientation, government-controlled television featured programming on folkloric arts, traditional handicrafts and costumes, architectural designs, religious teachings, historical events and classical and contemporary literary traditions. The underlying principle of national and regional uses of television has often been centered on cultural revival and heritage survival. It is believed that by highlighting unique and common cultural features, television would contribute to inter-state and intra-state cultural integration in the Arab World.

The advent of satellite television into the Arab region has added further intensity to debates on broadcasting and culture. Several studies show that in its 50-year experience, Arab world television's contribution to cultural enrichment and revival has been far less than impressive (Bataineh, 2001). As a programming category, culture on Arab world television has been conceived largely in terms of contents that contribute to knowledge enhancement and intellectual enrichment. For quite a long time, human and technical resource shortages seemed to have inhibited an appropriate representation of cultural values and practices on television. Tight government controls over television production also seemed to have precluded creative expression, giving way to poor and low cultural outputs. It has also been noted that television cultural programming is being increasingly overwhelmed by excessive commercialization.

Economics and politics seem to have combined in providing a fertile ground for the flow of foreign television imports from Western Europe and North America into Arab World television, allowing exposure to new cultural products with little relevance to their Arab-Islamic traditions. This foreign program dominance was first noted in the 1970s and 1980s. In the satellite television era, it has become evident not only in the growing volume of imported television contents, but also in the adoption of program formats that emanate primarily from Western visual cultural modes. Critics have come to note that television is gradually losing its focus by re-setting its cultural agenda in tune with global political and cultural trends. By serving as a conduit for "globalized culture," television in the Arab World seems to play a disruptive role that in the long run contributes to the fragmentation of common Arab-Islamic culture and value systems.

Although television's role in contemporary Arab societies is highly recognized, it seems inaccurate to speak of a specific media impact on Arab culture and value systems. In light of absent hard data on how television bears on the daily lives of Arab individuals and groups, discussions of this matter remain more captive to impressionistic perceptions than to empirically verifiable facts. Even when television impact is established, it is difficult to isolate this effect from effects of other variables like the press, the Internet, and educational systems. Hence, this paper addresses the issue of television impact on culture and value systems from the perspectives of broadcasters, viewers, critics, researchers, and other parties engaged in debates on television and culture in the Arab world. In this respect, two functional perspectives on television culture in the Arab World are identified: integrationist and fragmentationist. Proponents of television's integrationist role argue that the proliferation of satellite television in the Arab region would provide Arab viewers with unprecedented access to their common culture in a visual form. By establishing a common cultural fume of reference, television broadcasters would also contribute to the formulation of common visions and goals, something that eventually flows into fostering a sense of cultural identity among audiences in the Arab world as well as in the diaspora. On the other hand, believers in a disruptive television role (fragmentationists) argue that this institution has lost its focus and no longer bears the distinctive features of Arab-Islamic culture. As such, television seems to have created a serious chaos in the public sphere, causing viewers to think of alternative cultural frames of reference that are visually superior to their own. It thus creates a state of disorientation that deepens a sense of disintegration and fragmentation in local Arab communities.

Television as a Force for Cultural Integration

The presumed role of television as a force for cultural integration in the Arab World seems to derive mainly from the 40-year-old modernization paradigm that assumes a powerful media contribution to national development in its social and cultural facets. In this perspective, one sees an emphasis on the development of indigenous culture as the driving force of social change in contemporary Arab societies. As such, the preservation of national culture and value systems has been a prime factor underlying the use of television as a medium of mass communication in contemporary Arab societies. To a large extent, protective policies have steered government-controlled television towards heritage, religious, and educational programs with the aim of fostering indigenous culture and social traditions. In this respect, television contents have been geared up to draw on local Arab-Islamic cultural forms such as folkloric performances and traditional arts, crafts, sports, and heritage, in addition to Islamic discussions of contemporary issues, recitals of the Holy Qur'an, talk shows about Arabic language and literature, social problems and issues, and live transmissions of religious celebrations. Proponents of the integrationist perspective see limited value in Western-oriented entertainment.

Integrationists argue that television has reinvigorated a sense of common destiny in the Arab World. An unexpected consequence of the new transnational media is the extent to which they introduce Arabic speakers to forms of Arabic speech to which they had not been previously exposed. A final impetus for the "new Arabism," according to Alterman, is that as Arabs interact with non-Arabs, they become increasingly aware of their "Arabness." In addition, one of the most fascinating results of the new transnational media is the extent to which they have allowed the reintegration of Arab emigrants into Arab life and society.

The integrationist perspective seems heavily shaped by optimistic views of television's role in enabling the survival of local traditions in the face of sweeping global cultural challenges. Saudi-based IQRAA satellite channel was launched as an outlet for cultural expression with a specific mission of safeguarding indigenous Arab-Islamic cultural values and forms. In Sharjah, UAE, television was established primarily as a tool of fostering Arab-Islamic culture and as a voice of indigenous expression (Sharjah Television Bulletin, 2001). A survey of broadcast items aired by TV channels subscribing to this pattern shows heavy emphasis on history, language, religious issues, social problems, traditional sports, arts, and humanities. Saudi Arabia's Channel One is dominated by Arab-Islamic topics, including live coverage of prayers from Mecca. IQRAA features talk shows and interviews on religious and cultural issues with live audience participation. Wheeler (2000) notes that the growth and spread of new information media is often seen as part of the globalization of culture, but in fact local cultural traditions are often adapted to the new media. She suggests that field research on the new media in Kuwait demonstrates that despite the availability of numerous sources of information, Kuwait national identity remains strong. At the same time, Kuwaitis have in some ways adapted the new media to the expression of their own cultural traditions and vice versa.

The integrationist perspective, reflecting normative elitist government and broadcasters' views on television role in society, sees television as having the potential to contribute substantially to the integration of pan-Arab culture in the age of globalization. Integrationists argue that by drawing on a common Arab-Islamic heritage, television should be able to create a uniform frame of reference shared by millions of people around the Arab World. This frame cuts across geographical and political frontiers to bring together a wide range of viewers extending from Morocco in the West to the Arabian Gulf in the East. By fostering a united sense of identity among viewers it is hoped that television would contribute to building up a pan-Arab community whose attributes are being eroded by sweeping globalized cultural transformations. For cultural integrationists, television should serve as a point of convergence for Arabs at a time when globalization seems to capture their sense of focus to the advantage of Westernized modes of living. Hence, television should emphasize Islamic values and Arab traditions through the presentation of programs on history, heritage, religious teachings, folkloric arts, and other practices that give the Arab nation its distinctive features. Falling within this pattern of integrationist television programs are Islamic talk shows and interviews, Qur'anic recitals, live prayer transmissions, classical literature shows, history presentations, and programs on traditional art and culture.

While integrationists have been successful in developing intellectually rich programming, they seem to have failed to account for the importance of the visual aspects of their ideas in winning viewers' hearts and minds. Practical experiences have demonstrated that intellectually stimulating content with poor visual features may not be conducive to effective television. Live audience folkloric performances have astounding effects but when carried on television, they seem to lose their glamour and appeal. Hence, the question of addressing television as an intrinsically visual medium of communication remains quite challenging for broadcasters affiliated with this pattern. As one writer (Sakr, 1999) comments on cultural programs on Arab world television:

Cultural programs, for their part, are frequently highbrow in tone, while economic programs are complex and dull. News programs are heavily loaded with formalities (motorcades of dignitaries, airport receptions, and important persons meeting round a table), and most political programs are overtly propagandistic, conveying only one point of view, and are hastily produced and naively presented. There is also failure to appreciate the potential of television and lack of training.

Television as a Force of Fragmentation

Unlike the integrationist perspective, the fragmentationist approach sees television as a tool of political and cultural disorientation in the Arab World. Reflecting grassroots concerns over potentially negative television effects, this perspective argues that by focusing on pan-Arab political dissent and Western culture television contributes to the disintegration of social and cultural fabric in Arab communities and to sowing the seeds of discord among the Arab people on sectarian and nationalistic grounds. Those who view television as a foreign cultural onslaught charge that the showing of foreign programs on Arab satellite television contributes to the erosion of local cultures and indigenous life patterns through the promotion of permissive and consumerist attitudes. For those seeing a disruptive television role, broadcasters have failed to stand up to their national responsibilities of protecting local cultures and safeguarding local populations against the evils of incoming cultural materials.

While integrationists see television as a source of cultural convergence and revival in the Arab World, fragmentationists view it as a tool of cultural subversion that undermines Arab-Islamic cultural principles. They cite numerous examples of television shows broadcast by Lebanese and other Arab satellite television services with a clear globalist Western slant. This disruptive television role has been clearly conspicuous in Western-style program formats with entertainment-oriented contents. For example, MBC's Who Will Win the Million? Abu Dhabi TV's Win Your Weight's Worth of Gold, and Egyptian TV's Pyramid of Dreams have been outstanding shows that won first rank in public polls around the Arab world, despite religious fatwas, or judgments, branding them as contravening Islamic values and norms (Al Bayan 2001). The Egyptian Grand Mufti noted that these shows represent a form of betting, which is outlawed by Islam. Critical believers in television's cultural effects staunchly argue that Arab audiences, especially the young, are getting increasingly vulnerable to Western cultural values that undermine the basic fabric of Arab-Islamic value systems. In his study on how new media, including television, affect Egyptian youth, Hamzawy (1998) notes that

The Internet and international television channels were disseminating cultural commodities, which contain the specific repertoire of Satanism: The sacred books of the organization, such as the so-called "Black Bible " came from the United States and Israel. The special satanic clothes and symbols, such as T-shirts with skulls, stars of David, and swastikas were produced in Cairo and Alexandria and sold in small shops in several rich districts; which leads us then to the fourth context: the local one. The Satanists held their black masses and practiced their abnormal sexual activities at international restaurants and hotels in Cairo, such as McDonalds and the Hilton hotels, which were considered to be material extensions of the cultural-religious Other on local soil.

A survey of Arab world television programs exhibiting global cultural orientations shows that the majority include imported Latino soap operas, Lebanese, Egyptian, and Syrian drama series, game shows, talk shows, foreign movies, music videos and feature films. Programs are designed to appeal to popular tastes drawing on visual sensationalism. They are shown mostly on commercial television, as it competes for a larger segment of the advertising pie. They also feature individuals leading Western life styles and thinking modes in which values like individualism and materialism are highlighted. Mexican soap operas dubbed in Arabic are shown on globalist-oriented channels like MBC and LBC despite negative reactions from local print media and viewers (Abu Adel 1997). The fact that these global television shows attract the major bulk of multinational advertisers seems to suggest how transnational corporations contribute indirectly to the diffusion of Western-style cultural patterns around the world (Ayish 1996).

Television as Cultural Institution: Enduring Issues

The dichotomous integrationist-fragmenationist perspectives on television's impact on Arab culture and value systems draw more on ongoing public debates than on empirical findings on how broadcasts bear on local culture and value systems. In this sense, these perspectives seem to take on clear political and ideological colorations that define the mission of television as a cultural institution in the Arab World. To shed light on how integrationists and fragmentationists fare in ongoing debates, discussions need to address common concerns and problems bearing on the medium's role as a cultural institution. These include local and regional production, government censorship, and broadcasters' relations with audiences.

Local and Regional Television Production

In the 1960s and 1970s, it took only hasty political decisions to launch full-fledged television operations in Arab countries. However, the immediate challenge faced by those services was the availability of broadcast materials to cover transmission time on a daily basis. For countries like Egypt, where solid cinematic production traditions prevailed, local production was never viewed as a serious problem. In the rest of the Arab world, underdeveloped local production capabilities seemed to have forced broadcasters to draw on Egyptian and foreign television imports to fill in transmission hours. The private sector seemed incapable of substantially contributing to national television program output while government broadcasters lacked the technical and human resources to achieve production self-sufficiency. According to Kandil (1985), between 40 and 60 percent of TV programs aired on Arab television channels in the 1970s and early 1980s were imported from the United States, the UK, France and Germany. It was also noted that imported programs were dominated by entertainment while cultural materials (on arts, literature, education, heritage, and science) did not exceed 11.9%. Among other things, this state of dependency seemed to have generated sweeping concerns across the Arab world about the cultural implications of airing foreign materials to local audiences affiliated with Arab-Islamic traditions and value systems. Debates reached their height in the late 1970s and early 1980s within broader discussions of a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) involving Third World nations on the one hand and Western governments and media on the other. It was argued that Western television was engaged in a process of cultural invasion as it sought to propagate new views and practices in Third World communities (Tehranian, 1999).

By the mid-1990s, local television production in the Arab world had experienced notable quantitative and qualitative developments as a result of training, exposure to Western television, and the promotion of a stronger private-sector role. Public television's monopoly of program production was coming to an end, giving way to private producers' contributions on a commercial basis. As one television observer notes, the situation for independent producers in the Middle East is becoming fairly healthy; however, responsibility for developing this sector seems to rest jointly with both government broadcasters and the industry:

The fact that this thinking exists illustrates certain shortsightedness on the part of governments and television stations. If indeed, there is a problem with the quality of the programs produced in the region, then [it] must be tackled.
There is an immense pool of talent within the region that can be exploited, if the powers that be wish to encourage it. The provision of courses and training in the region appears to be wanting. If the industry continues its growth and expands in the global economy, then governments must work to nurture a new generation of highly trained, world-class staff. The facilities are growing all the time, workers must grow with them. (Digital Studio 2001: 2)

In the 1970s and 1980s, private producers were criticized for not taking the initiative in stimulating a highly stagnant industry. In the 1990s, they came under fire as excessively commercialized, intellectually poor, and deeply obsessed with attracting wide popularity to stimulate advertising interest. Madhoon (2000) reported the case of a television serial that was produced by a Jordanian company with Cairo scenes shot in Amman and with Jordanian actors playing Egyptian roles to save on resources. He notes that such "transgressions" appear frequent and seem to reflect a profit-making attitude on the part of producers without heeding serious quality parameters. This attitude seems to be encouraged by satellite television channels, which devour any production as long as there are endless transmission hours that need to be filled. Private producers are also criticized for producing intellectually poor works that draw for their success on the dazzling effects of digital technologies. The popular television series "Birds of Prey" (Al-Jawarih), jointly produced in the mid-1990s by Dubai Television and Syria's Sham International Productions featured visually rich scenes unparalleled in Arab television drama. This very feature was a target for media critics who argued that the overemphasis on the image came at the expense of ideas.

But to view private production houses as superficial and profiteering is to do injustice to an important segment of the evolving television industry in the Arab region. The experience of the 1990s clearly showed that the private producers carry a better promise for better television if they have two resources: finance and freedom. Works by ERTU's Production Sector and by private houses in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Gulf testify to the promising potential of the private sector to successfully lead the development of television in the region. Although there are no solid data on the situation of private television production in the Arab world, it seems that this sector is expanding rapidly in light of the failure of government television to supply quality programming. A series of television serials by Syrian companies in the 1990s seemed to have reinvigorated confidence in independent producers' ability to offer worthy materials to Arab viewers. A study on television production at the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) and ERTU suggests that private producers have the potential to be viable alternative sources of television materials that are high in quality and rich in messages (Ayish 1997). Private productions include television serials dealing with contemporary and historical issues and events, documentaries, music videos, game shows, and others. The most outstanding private productions of the 1990s included "The Birds of Prey" (Al-Jawarih), "The End of a Brave Man" (Nihayat Rajul Shuja') and "The Ripening of Flowers" (Awan Al Ward).

Developments in the 1990s also seemed to have stimulated better quality production by government television. According to data released by the Arab States Broadcasting Union, some television services have achieved a 100% local production level (Egyptian and Syrian services) while other channels have not exceeded a 30% level. Data on in-house program production by Arab world television services in 2000 shows that Egypt has the highest level of self-sufficiency in the region in light of its historical primacy in television and cinematic productions. Other television broadcasters have achieved higher levels of local production such as Jordan Satellite Channel (80%), Abu Dhabi Channel (70%), Tunisia's 7 (70%), Algerian TV (75%), Sudan TV (79%), Syrian Satellite Television (100%) and Jamahiriyya Satellite Channel (70%). It should be noted that the remaining percentage of programs shown on those channels is mostly drawn from Arab rather than foreign television sources. This seems to suggest that countries with adequate human resources like Egypt and Syria are capable of achieving self-sufficiency in television production. Yet, the problem arising here relates to the expansion of television transmissions beyond national frontiers and to the globalization of broadcast audiences. This dictates that programs appeal to a wider ranger of audiences and have a pan-Arab rather than a parochial character. To do this, inter-Arab cooperation in program production seems imperative to ensure a pooling of resources and production of television works addressing pan-Arab social and cultural issues. This has been quite evident in numerous television works produced in both Egypt and Syria on Arab-Islamic history (Saladdin, Um Kulthum, Syrian resistance to French colonial rule, Egyptian resistance to British colonial rule, pre-Islamic Arab history, and so on).

The development of television production in the Arab world has been marked by a shift of traditional production centers from Egypt to other Arab countries. Critics have argued that Egyptian works seem to be more redundant, drawing on intrinsically parochial Egyptian issues to the exclusion of pan-Arab concerns. They also seem lacking professional handling of television as a medium of visual communication (Peterson, 1997). Arback (1999) argues that the new commercial satellite channels have unleashed a competitive challenge to the traditional Egyptian programming monopoly. It has been noted that the emergence of so many regional players and non-Egyptian centers of production meant the Egyptian "hegemony" of the 1950s and 1960s was fading out. Growing competition in regional program production has been alarming to Egyptian government and people. In May 2001, the Egyptian Parliament questioned the Minister of Information over what was described as the receding Egyptian role in television production in the Arab world (Al Khalij 2001). The shrinking visibility of Egyptian-television was a topic of debate in "Egyptian Discussion," an Internet site sponsored by Egyptian opposition Al-Wafd newspaper. All participants in the discussions seem to agree that Egyptian media, including television, have lost their traditional leading role in the Arab world media industry as a result of corruption, political censorship, and apathy to global media changes.

Egyptian media officials, on the other hand, rightly argue that the expanding satellite television scene suggests there will always be demand for Egyptian works, especially drama. This sentiment was echoed by the head of ERTU:

Everyone must buy programming from us. There are no Saudi films. And the little that other countries produce uses Egyptian directors, actors, and technicians. We were the first to use ARABSAT to transmit in 1990 and neither the Middle East Broadcasting Center or Arab Radio and Television could stay on the air without our programming. There is no comparison between them and us: you can't compare the original with the shadow (Arback 1999).

Developments in the regional media scene seem also to support continued substantive Egyptian input into the television industry. Egyptian media people are leading television journalists in major regional television organizations. The centrality of Egypt as a regional production center is also evident in regional networks' keenness on establishing production facilities in Cairo where "one can close one's eyes, stick out one's arm, haul in 25 passers by, and probably half would have the qualifications to participate in a talk show" (Schleifer 2000). The writer also found that Egypt continues to be a major source of television serials on Arab television. In late 2000, ERTU had over 20 drama works sold to different Arab television.

Government Censorship

It is widely stated across the Arab world that you may broadcast an indecent kissing scene on television but may not even contemplate making a note of criticism of the political leadership. For government censors, political transgressions seem to be far more sensitive than cultural violations. But as the experience of the past decade shows, cultural productions on Arab television are not "censorship free." In many cases, they are subjected to the same stringent rules applied to news and public affairs programs. A Lebanese TV show presenter accused the government of excluding him from television work for personal and political reasons (Al-Sharq Al Awsat 2000). One local news editorial noted that "Like newspapers, magazines, and radio, Lebanese television is under no illusion about media freedoms" (Dick 2001). Censorship practices were also applied to private television broadcasting in Lebanon in late 1996 when the Cabinet ordered a ban on all political news satellite television. The government argued that political news programs might negatively affect Lebanon's relations with some Arab countries. When LBC challenged the Cabinet ruling, the Government responded by imposing a total ban on all news programs, only to lose the case following an LBC appeal to the state's Judiciary Advisory Council (Dajani 2001). The popular Saudi show Tash Ma Tash shown on MBC had three of its episodes censored and confiscated for no obvious reasons (Nowaiser 2000). A Moroccan scriptwriter has charged that government censorship has deformed his television works by refusing to include certain scenes (Shakhs 2000). Private producers have always viewed government media officials as obstructing the airing of their works on national television. In May 2001, the Moroccan Professional Broadcast Association staged a demonstration to protest bureaucratic and heavy-handed approaches to private producers in the country. They noted nepotism and corruption in handling local television works (Arnoosi 2001).

Audience Views

The diversity of television cultural patterns has generated widespread debates on the potential negative effects of programs on individuals and communities around the Arab world. Such discussions have not only contributed to the demystification of television as a national symbol but have also made broadcasting a target of daily attacks. It has become evident that television is not always received positively among audiences and critics in the Arab world. The rush for producing large program quantities just to cover extended transmission hours tends to adversely affect quality and compromise ethical standards, thus prompting critical reactions from the community.
Critical reactions to "bad television" in the Arab world have emerged in three distinctive approaches associated with the fragmentationist perspective. The first is associated with skeptics who see television as a tool of education and socialization. They charge that television is turning into an instrument of social subversion through the propagation of evil ideas that contravene the basic tenets of Arab-Islamic culture. According to this view, television is serving as a conduit for the transfer of foreign ideas and practices into Arab-Muslim lands either with good intentions or as part of a broader scheme to undermine Arab-Islamic communities. Proponents of this view also argue that television is used mainly to diffuse a globalized Western culture to accelerate the integration of Arab-Islamic societies into the emerging global system. Critical approaches to television have also addressed the importation of Latino soap operas, which are featured in dubbed Arabic voices on numerous television services. Abu Adel (1997) notes that the stories within the serials are designed to be habit-forming. The objective is to make viewers watch them everyday as they revolve for the most part around love, illicit sex, crime, revenge and betrayal.

The second view draws mainly on technical grounds to describe poor television standards that reflect low appreciation for the medium as a visual tool of communication. Proponents cite examples of long and boring scenes in drama serials that draw on dialogue rather than visual manipulation to convey ideas. The third view believes that television has the potential to serve communities with decent cultural offerings as long as that it is accorded appropriate freedom and editorial discretion. They cite censorship and other pressures on program producers to steer production into a course compatible with the dominant political and social ideologies. Political and economic reasons are cited for this viewpoint.

One of the enduring issues in television in the Arab world relates to the traditional lack of broadcasters' interest in viewers' perceptions of programs. Programming strategies have drawn mainly on broadcasters' views of what is good or not appropriate as inscribed in stated policies and television charters. Audience tastes and preferences were largely ignored, thus creating a huge divide between government-controlled television organizations and the viewing public, something that fed into an already growing mistrust between both sides. While few broadcasters have resorted to professional audience research firms to gauge viewers' perceptions, the majority seems to rely on their own judgments to determine program contents. Mainly students and researchers have carried out survey studies for purely academic purposes (Al Abed and Al Ali 1995; Hassani and Samawi 1994). The extent to which private and state broadcasters are willing to heed public sentiments on television remains unclear. But in the long run, all television broadcasters alike would need to take account of viewers' perceptions of their services in order to ensure their survival. Government broadcasters should do this as a function of their mandate to serve the public interest while private broadcasters have to do this in order to survive.

Concluding Remarks

Arab world debates on television's impact on culture and value systems are not unique; they actually flow from global discussions generated by varying perceptions of broadcasting's role in contemporary societies. Although the concept of visual culture, compared to oral culture, seems historically alien to Arab-Islamic traditions, television has forcefully found its way into Arab homes not only as a political medium, but as an entertainment platform as well. It was evident in the 1960s and 1970s that poor human and technical resources seemed to have militated against the utilization of television in the visual representation of indigenous cultural forms. But as broadcasting structures began to stabilize, as a result of growing education, training, and exposure to foreign television, the face of Arab World television began to change. Producers have come to experiment with a wide range of program formats in historical and contemporary drama, music video, talk shows, and others. The impact of Western-style formats has been evident in programs aired by all commercial and some state-sponsored channels such as Abu Dhabi Television, MBC, LBC, ART, and Zen TV.

The two perspectives on television's cultural role identified in this article seem to highlight variations between elitist and grassroots concerns regarding what to offer Arab audiences in the age of globalization. The dominance of both views seems to underscore heightened tensions within the broadcasting community regarding television's cultural discourse. For some critics, the two orientations on television culture seem to reflect ferment in local cultures in search for a practical discourse capable of addressing contemporary problems facing Arab societies. Yet, for others, this situation might be construed as denoting a healthy pluralism in modern Arab cultural discourse, whose spectrum ranges from globalist to synthesist to localist views of cultural development. The question that needs to be addressed here is not about the diversity of television cultural perspectives, but rather the extent to which the medium has been able to convey culture in a visual form and with intellectual richness to promote or hinder pan-Arab cultural uniformity.

The future of television as a cultural institution in the Arab world seems to depend highly on the evolution of cultural policies and programs of action. Issues of centralized cultural planning versus market-oriented cultural supply seem to dominate discussions of the problem. Could culture in the age of globalization survive as a state-sponsored sector or should it be left to market forces? What is the role of private producers in shaping cultural values and practices in society? Is television capable of conveying local cultural elements to pan-Arab audiences or should production cater to issues that share common features of appeal to different social strata in the Arab world? It is clear that answers to these questions require that we take account not only of mainstream views but of grassroots concerns. TBS

References


Muhammad Ayish is acting Dean of the College of Communication at the University of Sharjah.

 

Copyright 2002 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
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