Joe F. Khalil
everybody agrees that reality television in the Arab world has
changed the way we, as viewers, relate to television. This programming
genre has been the center of much debate ever since the first
group of reality participants was locked up in a villa. These
views can be divided in four categories:
by the popularity of reality TV in the Arab world, many Western
journalists welcomed and praised its “democratic”
values and modern, taboo-shattering appeal.(1)
religious groups and intellectual/creative elites were critical
of the genre. The prior view reality TV as threatening Islamic
values and traditions while the latter see in it a decadent,
low-brow form of art. At best, these views were rejectionist
in television and advertising celebrated the increase of audiences
in prime-time television as this translates into financial rewards.
There was a renewed faith in a production that could be truly
Pan-Arab, both in terms of participants and audiences.
a true academic tradition, very few scholars addressed this
emerging popular culture phenomenon. Yet it now is generating
a debate within academic circles.
this article started as a journal describing my meetings with
“reality” colleagues and students when I was (un)lucky
enough to consult or be consulted on various shows and formats.
These scattered notes provided a starting point for an articulation
and exploration of the phenomenon of reality television in the
Arab world. What has resulted is an attempt to look at the process
of continuity and change within a vibrant industry.
Understandably, it is difficult to establish a perfect vantage
point in order to assert the definite direction of the genre.
Will reality television remain established and popular? And
what exactly are the implications of this new genre? Indeed,
the the term “Arab reality television” itself seems
to be cause much confusion. This study is a contribution to
the emerging assessment of this programming genre.
I will start
by tracing the history and development of reality television
in the region. What you will be reading is an account—not
the history—of reality television from the inside. What
does reality television in the Arab World mean to those involved
in the selection, production and selling of those programs?
What factors contributed to the flourishing of the genre? What
roles did the successes of some shows and the failures of others
have on future productions? Central to these questions is the
belief that the popularity of these shows is multifaceted, contested
and still unfolding.
words, reality television is a representation of reality. Inaccessible
in its raw form, reality or its tele-visual representation becomes
available once selected and processed by the producers of reality
television. The unfolding of reality, as we see it on the screen,
is a process involving a number of people. This paper is concerned
with this group of programmers, producers, technicians and advertising
salespersons. As a matter of fact, understanding this genre
starts by looking at the processes by which it came to be planned,
produced and broadcast.
In previous research(3) , I have examined program adaptations
of Western franchises that were produced on Arab television
channels. That study evaluated the nature, continuity and change
in program transfer after the introduction of television technology
in the region. As a summary of those findings, I observed the
growth of a “live on air” television drama in the
60s. A decade later, programmers started producing classical
dramatic works of Arab and world literature,(4)but they also
were beginning to look at Western shows for either inspiration
or plagiarism. By the '80s, a practice Albert Moran refers to
as ”copycat TV”(5) had become common, in which major
successes were “Arabized” versions of predominantly
European and American shows. In the '90s, it became common for
the concept of a Western show, its rights and production bible,
to be bought and locally reproduced for regional consumption.
For a price, the format came with a plethora of consultants
(creative and technical) and various computer software and machinery.
Overall, the study also discussed the wholesale cloning and
licensing of programs in the case of variety/game shows, but
it did not approach reality television as it had only recently
been introduced to the Arabic television milieu at the time.
like to approach this study of reality television by establishing
some essential premises. First, producing reality shows involves
a variety of managerial, creative and technical aspects. Second,
reality shows are mostly licensed formats that programmers buy
for a particular region or territory, in this case the Arab
world. These reality shows by nature have a multitude of influences,
including an important economic component. The practice of “paying
for” a format as opposed to “freely” imitating
or cloning a show makes economic considerations central. At
this stage, the following questions seem de rigueur: How new
is reality television in the Arab world? And is the buying of
a licensed format the starting point for this discussion?
station Murr Television (MTV) was a pioneer in buying internationally
successful reality TV formats as early as the fall of 1996.
Known for its adventurous programming tactics, this channel
viewed some of the game-show formats as a means of capturing
audiences in preparation for its Pan-Arab broadcast. For five
years, MTV was producing Arabic versions of French and Dutch
formatted game shows such as Family Feud and Everybody’s
Equal. During the same period, the Lebanese Broadcasting
Corporation (LBC) and the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC)
respectively produced the Arabic versions of the French Fort
Boyard and the British Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
This experience paved the way for the possibility of buying
an international format, training the technical team and producing
and promoting it as a “local” show. In addition,
management and advertising executives became convinced of the
financial reward of buying a format given both audiences and
clients interest. This industry trend should not be isolated
from other factors such as an increase in monitoring intellectual
property violation and a boom in satellite broadcasting capabilities.
In fact, it is during that same period that the United States
was leading a movement towards adopting stricter anti-piracy
and copyright laws, while both NileSat and ArabSat were providing
incentives to terrestrial channels to broadcast on satellite.
MTV, LBC, Future Television (FTV) and MBC were all in negotiations
to buy reality television formats.(6) These negotiations were
focused primarily on the financial viability of these shows.
The growing interest in formatted shows in general had caused
licensing fees to increase tremendously. As an illustration,
the licensing fee per episode rose 1,500 percent between the
first game show format Family Feud, in 1996, and the latest
reality license for The Apprentice, which was to go
to production in 2005.(7) Program buyers for all these stations
were keeping a close eye on the international markets and their
competitors. It was just a matter of time before one station
ventured into the production of reality television.
discussion of reality television should not reduce it to a recent
phenomenon linked to the rise of the genre in the Western world.
The cause-effect relationship results in a very narrow view.
Instead, I would argue that the rise of reality TV in the Arab
world was a two-phase development. First came a “foundation
era” in which producers and marketers at Arab channels
became used to or convinced of the strategy of buying Western
formatted programs and game shows. Secondly, a “developmental
era” witnessed a major buzz as public awareness of the
genre grew and even controversies that erupted over the first
reality TV programs added to the hype. Format adaptation acts,
then, as a turning point between the two eras. On one hand,
the industry became watchful of the international markets, as
well as open to the discussion of format-buying as a source
for programming. At the same time, the audience’s reception
of formatted shows offered a de facto proof of popularity.
era” can be traced to the early Arab television of the
1950s and the 1960s, when the need for a large number of programs,
coupled with the lack of video recording technologies, gave
rise to a unique genre of “real drama.” The shows
were mostly broadcast live, so one actor could not always predict
what the other would say or do. Consequently, those actors,
mostly amateurs and poorly trained, developed a certain level
of improvisation and wit to enable them to deal with the real,
unexpected dramatic situation. Playwrights would sketch out
a situation, flesh out the characters and sit behind the camera
operators. As the improvisation unfolded live before their eyes,
they injected characters and scenes or even suggested lines.
In Lebanon for example, this practice was common with the works
of Shushu, Abu Salim and Abu Melham. Personal conversations
with actors and various anecdotal incidences confirm this practice.(8)
This experience of early television suggests a sketchy resemblance
to today’s reality television.
'70s saw the rise of grand masterpiece drama, the '80s offered
what many consider as the first reality TV show: Candid
Camera.(9) (See the article on Egypt’s version of
Candid Camera in this issue) That show was produced
in almost every Arabic country at some point during the 1980s
and the 1990s. Following the same American pattern, this show
put real people in ridiculous situations and recorded their
reactions. In Lebanon, LBC was pioneer in offering several seasons
of this show during the '80s, as did Tele-Liban, MTV and FTV
in the '90s. Because of privacy concerns, other more conservative
parts of the Arab world, like Kuwait, concentrated on situations
featuring celebrities. Candid Camera was produced with
basic technology relying on people's simplicity and lack of
One of the
stars of LBC's Candid Camera, Tony Khoury, went on
to present two distinctly different shows that set the stage
for a wider acceptance of reality television. The first was
called Wakkef Ta Kellak (Stop So I Tell You). The premise
is simple: the presenter roams the streets with a special truck,
stops a person randomly and asks him/her to execute a request
in order to win the contents of the truck. The tasks ranged
from collecting certain products to organizing a rally, but
all were captured, edited and presented in this one-hour show.
The second show was originally designed as a special one-off
New Year's Eve program, but soon became a fixed yearly event.
On the eve of the new millennium, audiences were hooked by a
human interest story—the dream of a family come true.
The show followed the same presenter of Wakkef Ta Kellak
as he tried to help a family reunite, find a loved one, or achieve
a level of happiness. More like a docudrama, the show could
not sustain its success. Interestingly, the last special aired
on the eve of 2003 to be replaced the following year by the
launch of Star Academy in its first season.(10)
to the “development era” did not happen overnight.
From 2002 to 2003, Arab, and particularly Lebanese, channels
were experimented with reality as an emerging genre. In fact,
there was a period of adjustment, featuring a process of trial
and error. To illustrate, one of the under-researched television
channels is Zen TV. Launched in December 2001, the channel offered
a fresh mix of programs produced, presented and managed by a
young team of recent graduates who were ready to experiment
with new ideas and technology. Various Music Television (MTV)-style
shows were created, including a variation on MTV’s Road
Rules. Zen TV was essentially experimental. It provided
a platform for young talent to learn on the job and an interactive
forum for this staff to interact with Arab audiences. It also
tested various docu-drama approaches.
in January 2003, Super Star quickly became the most
significant show of that era. Broadcast on FTV and licensed
by FermantleMedia’s British version of Pop Idol,(11)
Super Star attempted a transparent Pan-Arab search
for the next star singer, using casting calls, judges, live
performances and, most importantly, the audience’s right
to vote.(12) Arguably, the show is a cross between a reality
and a variety show. While the search for the possible super
star definitely captured real moments, feelings and events,
the weekly performance show is in the pure tradition of variety
shows. Undeniably, the contribution of Super Star is
1. It re-emphasized
the commercial viability and value of the format
2. it proved
again that an all-Arab show can be successfully produced
3. It was
the first Idol franchise to feature contestants from
4. It allowed
for an unprecedented interactivity between the audience and
5. It showed
an audience united in watching the show but divided along nationalist
lines when voting for the ‘superstar’(14)
6. Its success
sped up the competitive exploration of reality television.
2003, LBC launched its first reality show in preparation for
the selection of Miss Lebanon. Following a national casting
call, the finalists lived together in “The House”
(a luxurious villa and spa). For six of the eight weeks, the
public, including Pan-Arab audiences, voted for the removal
of two candidates each week. Meanwhile, the girls were being
monitored by cameras that transmitted their lives live on a
24-hour channel.(15) The experimental nature of this Miss Lebanon
special was present on four levels:
1. It was
a training field for the team in charge of preparing for another
upcoming reality show, Star Academy
2. It introduced
a new kind of interactivity in the form of short text messaging
from mobile phones
3. It provided
an opportunity to test the set of rules of conduct in respecting
“Arab values” as cameras filmed participants around
4. It took
the pulse of advertising and marketing interest for such programs.
While this experiment was repeated the following year between
June and August, it was only treated as summer filler with not
much hype or success.
2003, LBC and MBC were racing towards a target launch date for
two Endemol(16) reality productions respectively: Star Academy
and Big Brother. Additionally, an unexpected competitor
joined the race—Arab Radio and Television (ART) dedicated
one of its Al Awael channels to a 24-hour reality show Al
Hawa Sawa (On Air Together). Beginning December 2003, this
reality matchmaking show featured girls courting a marriage
proposal on air for three months, 24-hours a day. This exposure
was important in launching the reality wave because:
1. It tested
the conservative audience reception
with no special talents had the potential to become celebrities
3. It was
a format completely re-adapted to consider “Arab values.”(17)
But the primary importance of this show was its adoption by
ART, owned by the Saudi company Dallah El Baraka and known for
a conservative approach to broadcasting.
day of December 2003 witnessed the birth of the most successful
Arab reality show: Star Academy. Following Endemol’s
format for the French version,(18) Star Academy’s
team identified a group of talented Arabs and invited them to
join the Academy, where they lived and trained to become star
singers. A “graduation process” allowed the instructors
at the academy to nominate two candidates and the public would
vote for one of them to stay in the Academy. Star Academy
stretched the limits of reality television because of its unprecedented
popularity and because it represented the full realization of
a marketing and sales potential that included various ancillary
activities discussed in detail below. Perhaps the show’s
main impact, however, remains its consistent audience loyalty
to both the “prime”(19) episodes as well as the
24-hour dedicated channel.
At the same
time, another show also was in preparation, this time in Bahrain.
Broadcast for just over a week between February and March 2004,
Al Ra’is (Big Brother) was a shocking “reality check”
to many in the industry. Another Endemol format, the show was
a popularity contest between a group of girls and guys living
together in a purpose-built villa. While effort was made to
re-adapt the show to accommodate cultural and religious sensitivities,
Al Ra’is nevertheless caused a wave of uproar
in the Arab media which resulted in its cancellation. Three
main realizations came out of the Big Brother experience:
1. !t was
the first and last attempt to produce a 24-hour reality show
outside of Lebanon
2. It revealed
a divisive nature of reality television along conservative religious
versus liberal lines
3. It revealed
the unpredictability of the genre. These realizations will factor
in further discussion below.
In an attempt
to renew its commitment to reality television after the scandal
of Al Ra’is, MBC made a comeback with an Arabic
version of Fear Factor renamed Thadda El Khouf
(Defy Fear). Produced in Argentina during the spring of 2004,
the show lasted for only one season. Consequently, its impact
was limited to allowing MBC to remain in competition by offering
a new reality TV show. Interestingly, MBC appeared to have learned
a lesson from the failure of Al Ra’is. Starting
with Fear Factor, MBC’s reality shows were all
based on a controlled environment, with a flexibility to edit
before broadcasting. Also during June of the same year, MBC
produced the long-standing international format of Star
Search, renaming it Najem el Noujom. This singing
talent show included some reality sequences but primarily was
a variety show.
By the first
weeks of January 2004, LBC was preparing for a fall replacement
for Star Academy—an Arab version of Survivor.
The show, produced in Kenya, used a crew composed of French,
Lebanese and Kenyans. The French team already had worked on
the French version of the show, while some of the Lebanese crew
had worked on Fort Boyard. The Kenyans were local scouts
who provided general assistance. As noted, this was not LBC's
first experience outsourcing a production to a third party.
It had done that with a French team for Fort Boyard and
it gathered members of that same team for Survivor.
The show aired between September and December 2004, earning
only limited success. Several elements contributed to this disappointment,
including the absence of a live component with games and audience
participation. Furthermore, the location was completely alien
to the viewers. These very same elements now are being taken
into consideration prior to starting work on an improbable second
of 2004 witnessed a proliferation of reality shows as the phenomenon
came into full swing. In addition to a second season of
Super Star, Future TV (FTV) ventured into various new reality
formats, some of which gained relative success. In Wedding
Express, for example, a couple was offered a fixed amount
of money to negotiate their wedding ceremony and the camera
followed them as they negotiated with suppliers. FTV also introduced
a special Ramadan program starring actor Adel Karam, who would
hit the streets and ask people to answer questions or perform
stunts in return for cash. In so doing, FTV managed to (1) introduce
a cost-effective reality production; (2) interact with the viewers
on the street; and (3) combine reality with an element of the
game show genre.(20) In spite of the setback caused by the death
of its owner Lebanon’s prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri,
Future Television also re-launched the third season of Super
Star in September 2005.
the Future Television experience was imitated in 2005 on a newly
revamped Dubai Television. Lead by the previous manager of Future
Television and executed by a number of his assistants and producers,
Dubai television offered several reality shows.(21) The much
talked about Al Daw al Akhdar (The Green Light) monitored
the progress of a group of contestants as they collaborated
on a “goodwill” activity. The show had no winners
or losers, but depicted a socially responsible activity such
as raising money for Palestinian refugees and offered an “ethical”
alternative to racier reality TV like Big Brother and
LBC produced a relatively less successful third season of Star
Academy, and halted the production of an Arabic version
of the The Apprentice a few weeks before the start
of filming. LBC also postponed the decision to produce the second
season of Survivor and did not produce Miss Lebanon
because of Lebanese security concerns. However, LBC produced
two celebrity reality shows: Al Wadi (The Farm); and
Dayf al-Beit (The House Guest). Both shows constitute
a major turning point in the course of reality television: Celebrities
are the participants in these shows. In Al Wadi, a
group of Arab celebrities come to assist the singer Hayfa Wehbeh
in maintaining her farm, while in the second show, a celebrity
spends a day taking care of a family, particularly the kids.(22)
2005 with a production of Worlds Apart which it renamed
El Beyt Mish Beytack (This House is Not Yours). Essentially,
the show transplanted an Arab family into an alien community
such as Kenya, Ghana or Mongolia. The audience got to monitor
the family’s survival instincts, their adaptation skills,
frustrations and the new friendships. The show was consistent
with MBC’s approach to reality television, echoing its
slogan “The World Through Arab Eyes.” Moreover,
it coincided with the channel’s move towards becoming
the “Arab family channel.” Almost simultaneously,
MBC introduced Starting Over with a literal Arabic
translation as Min Jedid.(23) The show followed a group
of women trying to overcome their problems and make a positive
change in their lives. Assisted by various professionals, these
women lived together and engaged the audience through a weekly
special episode, where host Rania Barghout updates the women’s
progress and debates the audience and the professionals on the
main themes of the week. The show introduced a new “reality”
approach close to the soap opera with women's stories narrated
as a series with dramatic cliffhangers at the end of every episode.(24)
from 2003 to 2005, reality television became an established
programming genre in the Arab world. Competition between LBC
and MBC meant that each channel produced at least three shows
a year. Interestingly, ART never produced another reality show
again after Al Hawa Sawa. Following an experimental
stage, each channel developed its own niche; LBC maintained
a consistent delivery of shows involving a “Prime”
show and a 24-hour dedicated channel. After the devastating
Big Brother experience, MBC limited itself to daily
or weekly episodes showcasing the participants “activities”
while maintaining close control on production, editing and broadcasting.
Aside from Super Star, Future Television did not produce
any significant reality television shows. Finally, the following
conclusions may be drawn:
• Lebanon was a breeding ground for the production of
reality television. The very few shows produced outside Lebanon
had Lebanese managerial, creative and technical crews.
• Reality television is an overarching term which includes
various genres. In the Arab world, it primarily started as talent
searches and then reality game shows. Gradually, other formats
were introduced, including lifestyle programs and celebrity
• One company Endemol almost dominated the licensing of
reality shows. At one time, it had two shows under production:
MBC with Big Brother, and LBC with Star Academy.
• Apart from Candid Camera, which was a Ramadan
staple, reality shows are not produced or broadcast during the
Muslim Holy month of Ramadan, despite the fact that it is a
prime period for TV viewing and advertising.
Definition of Reality Television in the Arab World
There is an inherent hybrid nature in the conception, execution
and promotion of reality television shows and in this the Arab
world is no exception. Consequently, the term “reality
TV” itself is too general and has taken on different meanings
to those who use it. Essentially, reality television has become
the two words that advertising sales, programmers, producers
and technicians use to create a buzz around their programs.
In the following, I am offering a definition of reality television
from the creative, technical and advertising perspectives. It
is beyond the scope of this study to offer a comparative definition
of reality television that merges an Arabian and the more common
European or American definitions, but I will explore what the
genre means for the developers of reality television in the
the role of television programmers often is elided in the examination
of the end product, but their role should not be marginalized.
Particularly in the case of format licensing, it is the programmers
who spot, decide, negotiate and sometimes force the production
of these reality shows. They have witnessed the success of the
format in other countries, monitored the episodes; made an appropriate
financial offer and want “Arab audiences to experience
the international successes of reality television.”(25)
In other words, the buying of a previously tried and tested
Western format is generally a reliable way of ensuring programs
can compete and win ratings. Once they sign the format deal,
programmers look for two talents: a producer who can carry the
weight of the show and a presenter who can incarnate the spirit
of the show.(26)
television is a producer’s genre. As a team, the producers
set the stage for an activity that they direct, frame and edit.(27)
To the producers, the definition of reality television often
hides behind a jargon that refers to the origination, combination
or presence of reality elements within any show. For instance,
they refer to shows depending on their shooting location “on
the road” or in a “purpose-built” studio environment.
They talk about presence or absence of a host, celebrity or
“voice of God” (announcer or narrator) and almost
always their production is promoted as a “never seen before”
novelty. Although by definition reality TV is “unscripted,”
in fact many elements are tightly controlled. In this sense,
reality television producers are storytellers—by planning
tasks, selecting sequences, editing and combining elements,
they define “reality.”
technicians, every show is a challenge to their wit, expertise
and ability to challenge the "foreigners." The presence
of foreign consultants is always an occasion for the technicians
to learn and to prove that they can outdo their competitors.
Audio engineers, cameramen and technicians try to adapt their
equipment and experience to the requirements of the show and
for these technicians, reality has come to mean an exciting
and competitive challenge.
show is even produced, an army of advertising sales people try
to get the word out. Primarily, they look for the following
ingredients: first, that the show is a proven international
success; second, that it has Pan-Arab audience appeal; and the
program is entertaining. In fact, the word “reality”
has become synonymous with a sure success. Usually, it is by
simply adding to the word ‘reality’ that sales pitch
is complete. For instance, advertising people will talk about
a “reality” sequence within a talk show, a “reality”
approach to an interview, or a “reality” style for
the camera work. As a programming genre, “reality”
has become such an infatuation that the mere mentioning of the
word triggers smiles throughout corporate advertising meeting
then, reality television is a format that is bought
from one of several Western companies. Ideally, the show should
have been produced in at least one other country to allow for
comparison, evaluation and possible training. The format has
to have the potential of being Pan-Arab. For instance,
its contestants should be selected from a number of representative
Arab countries. The most common pool of participants come from
countries either considered liberal (such as Egypt, Lebanon
or Jordan) or from those with solid advertising bases (such
as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait). Moreover, the show should have
a familiar or exotic setting. However, it should not oppose
Arabic values. To explain this situation, both programmers
and advertising sales agree that the show should be confined
to what is permissible by “Islamic standards.” This
rather complex Islamic/Pan Arab nature of formats will be discussed
in detail in a later section of this paper.
The introduction of reality television to the Arab region has
changed the way programmers and advertising sales persons addressed
production. Up until the reality era, television directors used
to make all the creative and organizational decisions related
to the production. It was a tradition inherited from filmmaking,
in which the director was the source of all decisions and the
role of producers was restricted to an accountancy or management
job. With the early reality formats, an emerging role for the
producer began to take shape under the primary influence of
contractual bindings. Licensing agreements follow a particular
production bible that calls for the position of a producer to
handle the organization as well as the editorial control of
a particular show. But it was not until the “development”
era of reality television that we witnessed the establishment
of a significant role for the producer. As pointed out earlier,
this change was taking place primarily in Lebanon where most
of these productions and their staff are located.
important change in the organizational control of the production
process in Arab television is that the variety of production
positions have become professionalized since it became important
to coordinate the various creative and production activities
to succeed in producing reality television in the Arab world.
Consequently, a relative margin of freedom has been given to
executive producers in casting, hiring and packaging their shows.
At the same time, these “liberties” were attached
to a series of innovative advertising practices. When combined,
these practices produced the most expensive television genre
to be executed in the region.(28)
did these producers come from? What lay behind this loosening
of financial and creative control? And how did advertising influence
this creative process? As argued, programmers paid for a “reliable”
idea -- a secure road to success. This reliance on Western format
purchasing undoubtedly is due to a combination of the Arab world’s
fascination with Western media and the sound business reasoning
that a proven format guarantees a return on investment, allowing
programmers to release anywhere between $5,000 to $70,000 as
licensing fee per episode. Such prices were inflated
by competitive bidding by various channels. This battle for
rights to produce formats requires further study, but suffice
it to say that the evaluation of financial risk or promise partially
explains the environment in which producers flourished and helps
explain the way in which these producers were recruited, trained
television came at a time when the pool of underemployed or
unemployed creative labor in the Arab media was getting larger
because of a number of interrelated factors. By September 2002,
the Lebanese government had shut down one the country's most
vibrant television channels, MTV, leaving more than 400 employees
without jobs. In addition, Zen TV’s productions scaled
down dramatically after the main partner on the project pulled
out. Meanwhile, more and more universities were graduating students
majoring in journalism, mass communication and the audio-visual
arts. While there are no official numbers of graduates, a safe
estimate will put those above one hundred per year in Lebanon
alone. On the Pan-Arab market, the Gulf-based channels seemed
stagnant except for the transition of MBC and the establishment
of Al Arabyia, while the long-awaited re-launch of Dubai Television
and Al Jazeera’s promised documentary channel was causing
frustrations amongst graduates interested in more serious work.
to this glut of journalism graduates and media talent, three
main elements contributed to the growing number of reality television
producers. First, the nature of reality television does not
require extensive experience in any particular form of mass
media. In fact, producers came from various backgrounds, including
fresh graduates, but also journalists, entertainment producers,
news reporters etc. The main criterion was the ability to work
under pressure and long hours -- something many were willing
to do in order to get a foot in the door. Secondly, given the
hybrid nature of reality television, each producer attempted
to use it as a platform for his or her own creative pursuits,
or at least to demonstrate skill. Thirdly, the training and
exposure to new technology was an added value to working in
this field. For instance, LBC trained its core reality staff
on Miss Lebanon before moving them to Star Academy.
As expected, some of those producers remained with the show
while others sought opportunities with other channels given
their new-found “expertise” in the genre.
Having noted this growing presence and status of producers in
the reality TV genre, the following discussion will address
the increasing interest of programmers and advertising sales
in reality television—an interest which translated into
lucrative investments. Undoubtedly, the Western success of reality
television triggered the original interest of programmers in
the genre. It was impossible to escape the euphoria created
around reality shows at television market exhibition such as
Le Marché International des Programmes de Télévision
(MIPTV- the International Market for Television Programmes)
in France. These shows were bought because they provided various
opportunities with a low-risk and high-return investment. Programmers
know they are minimizing their risk when they adapt a show that
has appealed to various target audiences around the globe. In
addition, they are assured high production values, given both
the available technology and the presence of foreign consultants
since being a licensee entails having access to technical support,
training and supervision. Therefore, both licenser and licensee
have a vested interest to maintain a higher production value.
At the same
time, programmers are tempted by reality television's potential
for high ratings, which in turn can be translated into financial
rewards. Given the archaic status of audience research methods,
programmers rely on a combination of gut feeling and tested
formats to make their buying decisions. Reality television draws
its participants from the Arab world, particularly ones that
are considered advertising targets. The financial success of
these shows is more often then not linked to the success—or
at least perceived success—of the nationals of those countries,
particularly in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Egypt. Furthermore,
the ancillary programming that accompanies or is inspired by
the reality shows is another valued asset of reality television.
Programmers increasingly are interested in filling their airtime
with rehashed or re-packaged material. Some of these practices
include the development of a daily show, wraps and/or the launch
of 24-hour channel created for the show. Probably, this trend
can be witnessed in the institutionalization of Star Academy
with concerts, CD's, music videos, and other paraphernalia,
all revolving around the show's themes and stars.
this income is the revenue from advertising. A 30-second commercial
costs between $10,000 to $12,000, compared to an average of
$5,000 for other prime-time shows. Advertisers also are encouraged
to sign onto exclusive or co-sponsored agreements. Reality’s
Pan-Arab appeal attracted major advertisers willing to spend
anywhere between $250,000 to a couple of million for a sponsorship
package. A system of branding and product placement also was
developed to cater for both the sponsors as well as other advertisers'
needs. As a result, it is not unusual to listen to a conversation
between two participants about a particular brand and even less
unusual to see the participants parading various sponsored products
on air. Another growing area of advertising revenue is related
to interactivity. Increasingly, text messaging is used for voting
participants in or out of a show and for sending messages that
will be displayed on a scroller in the lower third of the screen.
A typical deal would involve three or four parties: two mobile
telecoms in the calling and receiving country, the television
channel and possibly a fourth party that handles the voting/display/censorship
system. The channels receive a cents-per-call figure usually
ranging between 10 to 40 cents.
All the above illustrates a positive contribution to the state
of television production in the region, including increasing
job opportunities, entrepreneurial programming spirit and advertising
revenue. Nevertheless, one should not forget three essential
observations relating to the working conditions and the evolution
of the television business. There are over a hundred positions
directly related to reality television in the region. Should
the audience become less attracted by the genre, what would
happen to those employees?
Arab channels’ reliance on formatted shows, particularly
in terms of reality television, has resulted in a peculiar situation.
One on hand, most of those producers are working out of an already
existing production bible, potentially affecting their ability
or willingness to develop their own ideas. On the other hand,
programmers may be less reluctant to pursue a locally developed
format which they would ordinarily consider a risky adventure.
This often works against the development of local talent.
this paper by examining a wide spectrum of views concerning
reality television in the Arab World, ranging from condemnation
to celebration. In addition, I have suggested the need for further
serious study. In the previous sections, I traced the development
of the genre with an emphasis on factors relating to the nature
of television in the region. Particularly, I was concerned with
managerial, creative and technical forces that presented this
genre to the Arab audience. In the following, I hope to address
that debate and offer an idea worth exploring.
As I have
noted, reality television is produced almost entirely by Lebanese
for an Arab audience. The historical development suggests that
culturally and economically Lebanon was a ripe ground for the
ferment of reality television. On one hand, the Lebanese social
context is open to exploring Western ideas and on the other
hand, a pool of talent is readily available and affordable.
At the same time, I have stressed the structural needs for respecting
Islamic, particularly Saudi, values because of the powerful
influence of sensitive and conservative Gulf-based advertisers
and viewers. Creative and advertising personnel working on reality
TV programs in the Arab world cautiously interpret and continuously
rewrite the rules of what can and cannot be broadcast. The dilemmas
of how and whether creative producers should or should not faithfully
adhere to original formats, which I am exploring in a different
study, suggests that socio-cultural elements, specifically Lebanese
and Islamic, are at the centre of format adaptation for the
Arab World—its Arabization.
of an international format involves as much adherence to a Lebanonization
as does Islamization. My use of Arabization refers to the repackaging
of Western formats to Arabic-speaking audiences. The process
of Lebanonization involves the staffing, the aesthetic and editorial
treatment of the format, while Islamization refers to the various
codes that producers apply in evaluating their stories. In other
words, Lebanonization is not a reductionist notion; rather it
helps explain the introduction of words like the French 'nomine'
for nominee in Star Academy, and the Western looks
and language on Al Wadi. At the same time, Islamization
justifies the prayer rooms in Big Brother, and the
taboo subject of religion in Star Academy.
In the Arabization
of an international format, both programmers and advertising
salespersons have a vested interest in balancing Lebanonization
and Islamization. In doing so, they achieve a Pan-Arab audience
appeal while maintaining an Islamic “safe margin”
that guarantees continuous advertising support. One can argue
that Big Brother's failure is partly due to a lack
of Arabization—the show failed to strike a balance. Through
Lebanonization, it achieved its first few days of success when
the audience was getting hooked on the characters. This was
followed by an Islamization stage where participants were afraid
to touch, play or even talk to each other. The inability to
strike a balance was instrumental in the cancellation of the
of the Arabization of these shows needs further study. For instance,
what would explain the success of these reality shows at a time
when a more real, harsh and bitter truth was offered on Al Jazeera
and Al Arabyia? It was during and after the latest Iraqi war
that reality television flourished. It is true that programmers
were eager to maintain an audience that was shifting from general
entertainment channels to news channels. But while this explanation
might satisfy the business, programming and production angles;
but it does not answer questions about those in the audience
who watched and voted.
game shows, reality television is a format—a patented
product with a reproduction permit that is sold in return for
money and copyright recognition. Issues of flows, meanings,
globalization and "hybridity” are central to a better
understanding of this format. In other words, the boom in reality
television in the Arab world is closely related to issues of
structure and reception. Ignoring one or the other robs the
phenomenon of its full significance.
to avoid the danger of overemphasizing the “democratic
freedom” of the reality TV audience, it is important to
note that primarily private media is supporting reality television
government media is still cautiously exercising creative control.
Central to this point is the role of advertising in encouraging,
promoting and indirectly bankrolling reality television. The
potential risks of reality television are twofold: financial
loss and a public relations crisis. The Big Brother
case embodies the problems encountered when a reality TV show
stumbles into both pitfalls, but significantly, it did not hinder
MBC from producing more than five other reality shows.
As I argued
earlier, reality television purports to represent reality, but
in fact it represents many complex and competing “realities.”
The task therefore, is first and foremost to develop the perspectives
and knowledge for us to explore fully the possibilities offered
by this new genre. On the knowledge front, this study offered
an account of the development of the medium. This account was
not exhaustive, but rather selective. A more detailed history
needs to be written. On the perspective front, this study was
concerned with the developers of reality television. The framework
of “Arabization” will need more theorizing as structural
issues pertaining to the political economy of the media in the
region. I hope this contribution will encourage further studies
and contribute to this ongoing debate.
Joe F. Khalil is a PhD student at Southern Illinois
University in Carbondale. He has more than 12 years of professional
television experience as director, executive producer and consultant
with CNBC Arabiya, MBC, MTV and Orbit. As media professional,
he has travelled on assignments in Italy, USA, UAE, Bahrain,
Qatar, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. For seven years, he was an
instructor at the Lebanese American University where his teaching
and research focused on transnational broadcasting, programming
1. This is
primarily in reference to numerous articles that appeared in
the Western press, particularly the views of Melik Kaylan, James
S. Robbins, Carla Power and others. In their view, reality television
is a means of spreading democracy, fighting religious fundamentalism
and introducing the West to Islam.
2. Religious clerics in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait released religious
fatwa condemning some of the rituals associated with reality
television. On the other hand, Arab journalists, actors and
directors were very vocal concerning their dismay and disdain
of the cultural quality of reality television.
3. For a more detailed analysis of the transfer of program ideas
please refer to another article by the author which appeared
under the title “Blending in: Arab Television and the
Search for Programming Ideas,” TBS Vol. 13, Fall/Winter
4. During the '70s, Beirut and Cairo were producing classic
works of French and English authors translated into Arabic but
also series on the lifes of classic Arab figures from the arts
and sciences. This came at time when Arab countries, particularly
in the Gulf, gained their independence and were eager to feature
Arab works on their newly founded television channels.
5. Albert Moran, Copycat Television: Globalization, Program
Formats, and Cultural Identity. University of Luton Press,
6. All channels pursued their negotiations except for MTV, which
was shut down in September by a court order.
7. This difference is between Family Feud and The
Apprentice. The latter was going to be produced during
the spring of 2005. The project is pending a replacement for
Mohammad el Abbar who was going to act as the show’s host.
8. One writer in particular Salah Tizani, known as Abu Salim,
always told stories about how difficult it was for him to recruit
new actors because everybody was acting improvised plots.
A newcomer always found him/herself unable to move in front
of the camera, resulting in awkward silences.
9. Each channel came up with their own different name for the
show, but the basic structure and logistics are very similar
to those in the US version. To avoid confusion, all shows following
the same format are discussed by reference to the channel, not
to the show.
10. The show was cancelled because of the last special which
involved the search for a missing person. When the show’s
team was unable to locate the person or even provide a conclusive
answer, LBC was left with negative publicity and decided that
the show would not be produced again.
11. While the main show’s format is the same as American
Idol, licensing companies offer their license from a particular
‘territory’ to another. In this case, the license
of the Pan-Arab Super Star is in reference to the British Pop
12. Talent search shows in the region date as far the early
'70s, but unlike Super Star, a judging committee was
in charge of selecting the winners.
13. Future television sources reveal that the number of votes
received for the first season’s finale amounted to 4 million.
14. In 2003, the 4.8 million voters for Super Star
voted along nationalist lines with Jordan leading the votes
for its Diana Karazon, the show’s winner. A massive spontaneous
voting campaign involved the Jordanian king, the mobile companies,
private businesses and individuals. Unlike the European song
contest Eurovision, the candidates were not selected as country
representatives but still, Arab voters were somehow more concerned
with the nationality of the winner than with their performance.
15. For all its 24-hour reality shows, LBC converts its pay
channel Nagham into a dedicated channel for the duration of
the reality show. It has done that for Miss Liban ,
Star Academy and The Farm.
16. Along with FermantleMedia, Endemol is the second main format
show provider and both are located in Europe. FermantleMedia
is based in London and is part of RTL group while Endemol is
based in the Netherlands.
17. ART’s owner Sheikh Saleh Kamel is a Saudi businessman
known for sponsoring religious channels like Iqraa.
18. Cf note 9. In this case the license of the Pan-Arab Star
Academy was in reference to the French version Star
19. Prime episodes are two hours episodes associated with a
24-hour type of a reality show. Characterized by its spectacle
nature, the Prime is typically the occasion to vote someone
out or in the show. Editorially, it also involves the best stories
of the week, while commercially, it is considered the most-viewed
and consequently, most expensive advertising window.
20. To many people, this show was not too new, as it resembled
LBC’s Wakef Ta Kellak.
21. It is important to consider the fact that Ali Jaber as well
as many of his close associates, the producers, and directors
had been previous employees of Future Television or Zen TV.
22. At the time of writing this study, it was deemed too early
to assess the impact of both shows.
23. Originally the show, was going to be the Swan.
I did meet with the team working on the initial proposal. While
casting started off along the lines of a possible Swan,
halfway through, an more acceptable format was bought, which
was Starting Over. This is a currently produced program
in the US and has nothing to do with the Swan. Starting
Over is a daytime syndicated reality show in its US third
25. This is how the first season of Star Academy was
promoted using for visual support clips from the various productions
of Star Academy around the world but with particular
focus on clips from the French Star Academy. Interestingly,
the French version was occasionally broadcast in Lebanon on
MTV during the first and the second season (2000 and 2001) as
part of a deal with the French channel TF1.
26. I am not offering a discussion on the role of the presenter
since many of these shows do not have a one, or when they do,
his or her role is very much restricted.
27. The term producer here refers to the various titles including
executive producers and their assistances, creative producers
and story producers. It is beyond the scope of this paper to
outline the differences between each; however, this will be
part of future research looking at the work of the creative
personnel and reality television.
28. Unlike the US, where a half hour sitcom could cost a couple
of million dollars, the Arab world acting and drama production
does not cost as much. On the other hand, reality show’s
one hour has the same drama cost in addition to more staff,
travel, special equipment and license fee. While a drama episode
might cost anywhere between $10-100,000, a reality show license
alone could consume half of the $100,000.
29. The largest bidders are MBC and LBC. Companies like Endemol
are constantly approaching both channels knowing that both will
be willing to pay for a sure product. In my minor interaction
with Endemol consultant in Bahrain (2004), it was obvious that
the Middle East was becoming a excellent prospect with great
30. Dubai Media City withdrew from its partnership with FTV.
Currently ZenTV is understaffed music channel with no specific
31. A major television market exhibition held in Cannes, France.
This is primarily where most Arab programmers seek to buy shows
including formats and series.
32. This is an important area for future studies, particularly
the packages for exclusive sponsors and the issues of exclusivity,
product placement, etc.
33. It is interesting to note that some of the current jobs
involved in reality television are not handled by Arabs. For
instance, the director, choreographer and some of the dancers
of Star Academy’s Prime are not Arabs.
34. This framework articulated here is part of a forthcoming
paper dealing with issues of creative identity and creative
control in the Arab media in general.