TBS 11, Fall-
Winter 2003

In This Issue:
Arab Gulf, Arab Satellites
The Region and the World
Media on Media
About TBS


Seeking Stardom on Satellite Channels

By Bassam Khaled El Tayyara

One of the most prominent features of Arab satellite broadcasting lately, especially in news programming, is that channels are competing with each other to bring guests on the air. Hence, prominent "satellite faces" move from one channel to the other depending upon their specialisations. What is more, while the guest commentators used to be experts in particular fields, nowadays the channels are trying to outdo each other in hosting their colleagues from the non-television media, such as radio, newspapers, and other forms of print media.

It used to be the print media that would feature guests from radio and television, since their readership regarded them as stars with face recognition and great drawing power for attracting readers. Announcements of interviews with media stars to appear in the pages of newspapers and magazines was used as a marketing ploy. This increased even more when broadcast media personalities gained stardom to rival that of cinema stars and society figures.

On the other hand, print media figures were only invited onto analysis programs of the broadcast media as program enhancers when those programs were concentrating on their fields of expertise, and only a few of these print journalists exercised star power, and those were the ones who managed to cross over into other public fields, especially politics.

It is safe to say that the balance between guest appearances in the broadcast media and in print always tipped heavily in favour of the print media, as is evidenced by a comparison between the kind of spin given to the guest appearances. The print media would emphasise the star status of their media guests, while the broadcast media would usually emphasise the expertise of theirs. In the same way, there was a difference in the types of guests appearing in either of the two types of media. The print media hosts anyone who might appear on the air, from program hosts and announcers to entertainers and even weathermen. All of them have star status by virtue of their appearing on the air. The broadcast media, for their part, could only host big names from the print pantheon.

This is for technical reasons having to do with the nature of the broadcast medium, which relies on hosting familiar names for their star appeal. It does not have the time to introduce its guests sufficiently and establish their credibility if they are not already well known. For the print media, the opposite is true. It relies upon putting across ideas without time constraints, and can easily introduce guests in a few lines of print, the length of which depends only on the space allotted.

Put briefly, known stars who are hosted on radio or television for a few minutes add to their name recognition, and increase their accessibility to the media. In other words they become even bigger stars, and their hosts (the channel, the program, and the announcer) enhance their own stardom by hosting stars. On the other hand, unknown guests only increase their own star power slightly and they reduce the star appeal of the hosts since they are squandering their reputations on unkowns, unless the stories are attention-grabbing or bizarre.

Meanwhile, the print media it is not affected by the star quality of the personalities it treats in its stories. If the personality has high recognition, then the media enhances its own reputation, along with that of the venue in which the story appeared. If the personality has low name recognition, that does not reflect badly on the medium, which has simply brought the name up in the course of the story. It gets the credit even if the story is disagreeable.

So, the practice of hosting media colleagues is an attempt by broadcast media to overcome that weak point of television and to galvanize appeal by concentrating on hosting print media personalities. In the service of this, it is employing some the particular features of the medium, including intensity and repetition, in addition to the publicity appeal of the media personalities themselves. This is a language well known to media personalities who want to become famous, and who understand the appeal of broadcast media, and sometimes the language of monetary appeal.

The monetary factor aside, print media cannot compete with broadcast media in the remaining three particulars. With respect to intensity and repetition, television can re-broadcast programs several times in a single day, or on more than one day in a week, or occasionally every week in a month. Meanwhile, print media cannot publish an article more than once. Even with urgent issues, it can only return to them after a certain amount of time. And while a guest on television can appear on various different programs, a guest in the print media can only be interviewed in a newspaper or magazine every once in a while no matter how important the issue or wide the guest's expertise or popularity. Meanwhile, on television an expert might be invited to comment upon a subject and then move on to giving opinions on other closely-related subjects or even things that have no direct relation to it at all.

As for publicity, media personalities know full well the power of broadcast media to bring their names to prominence and to enhance their professional reputations. The fame makes their jobs easier in their own sphere by enhancing their credibility as print media professionals. For that reason, very few print journalists turn down invitations to appear on television, even if they are not paid directly for those appearances.

Therefore, satellite television in general and particularly in the Arab world has furnished a stage, as it were, for rapid interviews (between three and seven minutes long) for an assortment of print journalists through programs that present live interviews or broadcast their voices with still images, which they send as digital images from any part of the world by way of the internet, where they are reached by telephone at the time of the interview. In this way, they can appear as expert commentators on events and corroborate or rebut the remarks of earlier guests on the show (which they will have been listening to over the telephone). When they appear live, such appearances are limited to news analysis programs, since their appearance requires their physical presence in the country of broadcast. Sometimes they will have been recorded in the studio itself, in which case the caption "satellite video feed" appears. This being relatively expensive has tended to favour the other style of interview involving picture and voice.

Naturally, both sides benefit from this. And the real beneficiary is the viewers, for whom television guarantees the largest amount of information, and whose horizons are broadened thereby. The journalists who are borrowed from print media gain by having their pictures and voices circulated in a wider field, and by directly enhancing their media reputations. Occasionally someone's reputation suffers, since there are different standards of quality in print and broadcast media. So just as not just any radio or television announcer can do well as a print journalist, so not every print journalist can become a success at presenting programs or even conducting a single live broadcast. In many cases, the print journalists are aware of their own weak points as they appear on screen and they will request, or even insist, that they be given the chance to prepare before an interview, which is not usually the best thing, since interviewers then will lose a great deal of freedom and spontaneity and as a result the appeal of a live broadcast, regardless of how well prepared they themselves are, and how much the production team fiddles with effects.

Even when broadcasters agree on the principle of allowing guests to prepare, and they agree on the details of the interview, they will most times still try to manipulate the situation to corner the guest live, which makes for interesting live television. This might happen when the host presents questions that had not been agreed upon or just rearranges the expected order of the questions. Or the host might ignore an answer given by the guest and jump to the next question.

This kind of thing has to happen to keep viewers from losing interest and changing channels. Of course that is not an issue with print media, in which essayists and editorial writers can pick out the words they wish to include in their articles and they can edit in such a way as to clarify obscure points; and they generally have the time to do this, while broadcast media do not.

Print journalists are always talking about contradictory statements and charging broadcasters with back stabbing, but these disputes are quickly forgotten, since both sides know that these are the rules of the game in broadcast media. So when a print journalist's phone rings and there is a radio or television colleague on the line, all rancour is forgotten and the appeal of appearing on the air takes over once again. Afterwards the regrets and recriminations begin anew and the print journalist vows never to appear again on television. Even while making the vow, they know that they would not hesitate to accept a new invitation, since the chance to appear on television holds irresistible appeal. TBS

This article is reproduced from El Wasat, number 59, 26 May 2003, p. 12. Translation by David Wilmsen, TBS contributing editor.
Copyright 2003 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu