The Impact of
Arab Satellite Television on Culture and Value Systems in Arab Countries: Perspectives
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
Muhammad Ayish is acting
Dean of the College of Communication at the University of Sharjah.