Transnational Television and the Arab Diaspora in the United States

By Abeer Etefa

Introduction

Mass movements of individuals across cultural boundaries have been on the rise throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century. More people than ever before are moving, crossing the cultural boundaries that separate the life patterns of peoples. Today a large percentage of the population of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are foreign born immigrants and their children (Kim, 1988), and immigration is on the rise every day. Cross-cultural movement, indeed, has become a commonplace of our time. Ethnicity, therefore, continues to be a political and social force on the national and the international scene.

Communication patterns are important in passing on culture from one generation to the next and in maintaining one's culture across time (Jeffres, 2000). The erosion of national boundaries by satellite television is evident in different parts of the world. Satellite television by transcending territorial and jurisdictional boundaries, raises a host of questions in which political, economic, social and cultural issues are linked (Sakr, 2000). The United States in particular with a mosaic of immigrants from different parts of the world is seeing a rapid increase in subscription to ethnic television programming through the use of Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS). During the mid 1990s the mushrooming of satellite receivers fixed to the homes of ethnic minority families has become a symbol of elite and popular perceptions of immigrants. Yet, there has been little or no research that examined the viewing habits of immigrant families equipped with satellite dishes nor the impact such viewing has on immigrants.

Television's role in the enculturation process among a culture's children is well established (Kim, 1988). It serves to teach viewers the dominant culture's values and salient social roles as well as foster an integrated national identity (Rajagopal, 1993). Arab transnational media surged in North American markets at a time of high volatility in the Middle East with the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the war in Afghanistan and the Iraq war. However, Arabic transnational media went unnoticed till Al Jazeera, a Qatari all-news pan-Arab satellite television station scooped the world with tapes sent by Osama Bin Laden which have made the Qatari channel famous everywhere. It claims to be the news channel of choice for 35 million people in the Middle East and thousands of households in North America, the most profitable region for all Arabic transnational satellite channels. While Arab media and especially Al Jazeera have started to receive some attention in American public discourse, most of the research focused around the historical development of Arabic satellite television and the policy implications with little focus on the audience especially the Arab audience in the North American market. This paper revolves around the following questions. How did Arabic television, and especially satellite television, first appear in the American market? How do Arab households use the medium and what does it mean for Arab immigrants to have this link to their home countries? Finally, what are the political, economic and cultural implications of transnational Arabic satellite television for Arab immigrants? The study seeks to throw light on this area of the media landscape in the United States by presenting the findings of a survey conducted among a non random sample of Arab viewers able to receive satellite broadcasts in the Portland metropolitan area.

Arabic Satellite Television in the United States

In North America, and in the United States in particular, the pay TV industry is divided between cable, which today has more than 80 million households, and DBS, which accounts for about 15 million households. What distinguishes the satellite industry is its leading role in delivering foreign-language programming. Indeed, the satellite industry was the first to enter the potentially lucrative ethnic pay TV market in an attempt to create a niche for themselves there (ART marketing plan, 2002).

At a certain point, different groups were competing for this market-Alpha Star, Sky View, Direct TV, EchoStar network. Of these four, the first three went out of business. EchoStar network emerged as the leader in DBS and witnessed phenomenal growth during the same time period; currently it serves more than 5 million subscribers (Dish Network website). Thus today EchoStar is the only significant provider of ethnic programming poised for further growth in the future. There is an array of international programming provided by Dish Network (Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Spanish, Polish, Italian, as well as South Asian languages).

The Arabic Radio and Television group (ART) is the exclusive provider of Arabic and Italian language programming on Dish network. In May 1996, EchoStar, still in its infancy, started broadcasting ART America. ART America provides a unique blend of Arabic and multi-language programming consisting primarily of entertainment, mini-series, dramas, sports, movies, music videos, and children's educational programs. ART America also features live and recorded soccer events directly from the Middle East. In August 1998 and after several months of negotiation with EchoStar, two additional Arabic channels were launched and added to ART America. These were ART Movies and the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) is 24-hour Arabic language programming from Lebanon, including movies, sports, talk shows and mini-series. ART Movies offers a wide selection of the latest Arabic and international blockbusters plus a large collection of the classics.

In February 1999, the Qatari news channel Al Jazeera was added to the Arabic bouquet. Al Jazeera is the only Arabic News Channel in the Middle East offering 24-hour news coverage from around the world with a focus on the hottest regions of conflict. Programming also includes a wide selection of political talk shows and documentaries with uncensored debates covering events as they happen. By the fall of 1999, two more radio channels (ART El-Zikr and ART Music Radio) appeared on the package. The latest addition came in the summer of 2000 with several other channels such as the Egyptian Satellite Channel, Nile Drama (a channel dedicated to Egyptian talk shows, movies, and TV series), Future TV (from Lebanon), and Dubai Satellite Channel.

In 1999, the ART group entered an alliance with International Channel Networks (ICN), a division of TCI, which is owned by AT&T. The primary function of the alliance is to introduce the cable viewer to the programming and to negotiate and secure carriage on cable systems nationwide. With ICN creating a one-stop shop for all ethnic programming for cable systems and with the ART group being the primary providers of Arabic programming to ICN, this has poised the group to become the de-facto exclusive providers of Arabic and Italian programming to cable systems nationwide. With digital cable now aggressively pursuing the success that EchoStar has experienced delivering ethnic programming, marketing officials at the ART group expect significant growth in their carriage, distribution and subscriber base (ART marketing plan, 2001). Arab audience in the United States have access to Arabic satellite television through subscription to Dish Network (around $23 per month) or by investing in a relatively expensive satellite antenna and receiver that requires a one time investment but does not require monthly subscription. Currently, ART puts the number of its subscribers in the United States at close to 170,000 households and this number does not include households that do not receive Arabic television through Dish Network. It is estimated that 75 percent of Arab household in the United States have access to Arabic television through one way or another (Bissada, 2003).

Research Methodology

This research was designed to elucidate the viewing patterns of individuals as well as family interaction within Arabic households equipped with satellite receivers. A mixture of open and close ended questions were conducted with a non random sample of Arab households in the Portland metropolitan area in which respondents were asked to describe both their personal viewing habits and aspects of viewing behavior within the household as a whole. Fifty interviews were conducted by phone. Respondents had to be 18 years or older and the person who answered the phone was asked to respond to the survey questions. This research study was a pilot for a larger study involving 350 households in Oregon that is part of the author's dissertation research. The survey was conducted during the months of August and September of 2003. All the households were headed by parents of Arab origin. Twenty-three of the respondents were males and twenty-seven females. Most were resident in and around the city of Portland and its suburbs. The fifty households represented different parts of the Arab world and were in forty-three cases first-generation Arabs. The majority of the respondents came from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Iraq. The rest of the households represented different parts of the Arab world such as Sudan, Gaza and the West Bank, Morocco, Algeria, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Libya. While a sample of this size cannot be said to be fully representative of Portland's Arabic ethnic group, which has a population of close to 10,000 people, it had a mix of homes from the Christian and Muslim faiths. Thirty-one of the respondents were Muslims and twenty-nine were Christians. In all but four of the surveys, the respondents chose to do the survey in the Arabic language. The fifty respondents also represented different stages of the Arab immigration experience. Fourteen respondents have lived in the United States more than twenty years, nine have lived less than five years, fourteen from five to ten years, and the rest have been living in the United States more than ten years. Thirty-six of the respondents were fluent in both English and Arabic while twelve spoke only Arabic and two did not speak Arabic.

Results

The proliferation of satellite television in the Portland area has started with the beginning of the millennium. Over 50 percent of the households surveyed installed the satellite dish between 2000 and 2003. In twenty-eight of the households, the dish was installed between 2000 and 2003. When respondents were asked who had decided on the installation, most agreed that it had been a parental decision. In the majority of the cases, the recent developments in the Middle East, the war in Afghanistan, and the relative drop in satellite receiver prices have promoted subscription to the Arabic channels. Many identified the father as the prime decision-maker in the household. When asked about their personal views, only four of the respondents in the fifty interviews said they had been opposed to this decision. The most commonly mentioned reason for resisting the decision to subscribe to Arabic television was the fear that it would impact on the ability of the spouse or the children in the household to speak English fluently. The female respondent who resisted the decision to install Arabic satellite television is an American married to a Moroccan and cited a mixture of reasons, the most important of which was the dominance of the Arabic language at home with the presence of Arabic television and her inability to share with her family in viewing programs in a language that she did not understand. In her words, "Arabic satellite television has created a lot of tension in our household especially with my husband and mother in law wanting to watch Arabic television all the time."

The reason most frequently given by first generation respondents in favor of installing a dish was a desire to see more of what was going on in their home country. Forty-five of the fifty respondents felt they needed to watch news programs from a perspective different from that of American television. The majority of the respondents also felt that subscribing to Arabic television has definitely played an important role in easing feelings of homesickness and in connecting them to their home countries. Recent immigrants, still struggling to get over the adjustment problems that happen in the first years of immigration, tend to feel stronger about the importance of Arabic television. One Arab female explained how television now represents to her the link to her home country by saying "I live in America but America does not live in me and Arabic television is my only way to live back in my home country."

Women in general had different motives for watching Arabic television than men. While the majority of men watch Arabic television to acquire information or to watch the news or to follow news analysis programs, Arab women use television for entertainment and because it gives them the chance to have some quiet time to relax or unwind or simply to occupy their time and provide them with companionship. In addition, many first-generation women said they felt handicapped by a poor command of English when watching American television and therefore welcomed the opportunity to watch channels broadcast in their native tongue. There was a general agreement among male and female respondents that Arabic television plays an important role in bringing Arab culture and language closer to their children and all of the fifty respondents cited this as the main reason behind their decision to invest money in installing a satellite dish. The majority of the Muslims in this sample said that one of their motives for subscribing to Arabic television was to watch live broadcasts of religious celebrations such as the weekly Friday prayers or the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Christians, especially those from Egypt, said that they were also motivated to subscribe to the Arabic channels as the Egyptian satellite channel and the Lebanese satellite channel have lately increased their coverage of Christian and Coptic religious celebrations.

Main Satellite Channels

When asked to name the satellite stations most commonly selected in the household irrespective of individual preferences, the vast majority of respondents agreed that the most favored channels were those emanating from the country in which the family had its ethnic origins. However, the majority of the respondents cited Al Jazeera television as the most watched television station for news programming and the Egyptian drama channel Nile Drama as the most watched of all the channels for entertainment especially for watching television series or soap operas. Abu Dhabi television and Al Arabiya news channels were also often watched, especially after their news coverage of the war in Iraq. The majority of the respondents (forty-three out of fifty) said that Arabic news channels such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Abu Dhabi Television channels were their main source of information during the Iraq war.

Arab households in this sample watch Arabic-language programs an average eight to nine hours on a daily basis in contrast of 2 to 3 hours for American television programs. In households where respondents said that they watch American television on a regular basis, children's programming and the American cartoon channels were most frequently mentioned as the most commonly watched programs in their household. Six of the households have made a decision to unsubscribe from the American channels. Forty one of the respondents said that they have been watching less American television since they subscribed to the Arabic channels.

The Impact of Satellite Channels

Respondents were asked a number of questions designed to throw light on the impact which exposure to satellite channels had had on them. Concerning the total amount of time spent watching television, first-generation viewers of both sexes generally agreed that they watch less American television since they started receiving Arabic television programming. Most of the second generation respondents reported that their viewing time is split evenly between the Arabic and American channels.

In more than half of the sample households, respondents said there had been changes in the amount of time the family spent watching programs together. The majority of the respondents reported that they have been spending more time watching television together as a family and when friends come over than in the past. While some respondents highlighted conflict over channel selection, others said the programs broadcast on satellite stations made it easier to watch as a family group notably because they were less sexually explicit. Nevertheless, Arab viewers expressed frustration that some Arabic programs and movies have sexually explicit content that is not suitable for Arab cultures.

The majority of the respondents, and especially those with young children, reported an increased level and interest in their households in conversing in Arabic. For some of the respondents, this was the main objective and motivation for bringing Arabic television into their homes. Nevertheless, there was a general dissatisfaction among the respondents on the quality of children's programs and the superficiality of some programs, which do not address the needs of the Arab child in an immigration setting.

Concerning events in the United States, about two thirds of the respondents both young and old reported a reduced level of interest since the installation of the satellite dish. When asked about their interest in receiving news about the political, economic, and social issues within the United States, the majority of the respondents said they are very interested in receiving news about these issues but expressed frustration with the American mass media biases in covering any news related to the Middle East, which prompts them to switch to channels like Al Jazeera or Abu Dhabi television that tend to cover US news and politics but in a "less biased way." Thus although the viewing patterns of the respondents generally accord a greater space than previously to the country of origin, this does not seem to have provided a significant increase in dissatisfaction with the US as a place to live. It is rather a desire to escape from the American media and to seek news and programs from other sources. Respondents were also asked about their interests in learning news about their local communities at the neighborhood or city level. The majority of the respondents (forty-one respondents) perceived a need for acculturation, as they said they are very interested in knowing about issues at their neighborhood level. Most of the respondents felt that Arabic television plays a role in providing entertainment and some news but fails tremendously in fulfilling the needs of the Arab immigrant. These programs are produced in the home countries and do not address any of the needs, motivations or aspirations of
Arab households in the US. Except for one program that airs on Al Jazeera titled "From Washington," Arabic television does not play any role in raising the awareness of or educating Arab audiences and has no positive role in community organizing.

Almost all of the respondents had a very strong sense of ethnic identification. They all identified themselves as Arabs or as Arab Americans with the exception of Egyptians, and especially Copts, who like to identify themselves as Egyptians rather than Arabs. "We are not Arabs and I do not identify myself as an Arab but as an Egyptian before anything else" said one of the respondents when asked about how she identifies herself. In general, first-generation respondents, even those who have lived in the United States for more than thirty years had more exposure to the Arabic channels than second-generation respondents. An eighty-year-old Palestinian woman who has lived in Portland for more than forty-five years described Arabic television as a "friend," especially after her husband passed away.

Summary and Conclusion

The results of this study support in a modest way the idea of satellite television as a significant element in the formation of ethnoscapes and the development of diasporic identities spread over vast and irregular spaces, with the result that as groups move, they stay linked to one another through media capabilities such as satellite television and the Internet, as in the case of young Arab professionals in the United States (Appadurai, 1990). The long-term results of access to the Arabic channels are yet to be seen but it is expected that ethnic traditions and customs will be stronger among those embedded in ethnic communication networks, which include interpersonal communication occurring in neighborhoods and ethnic organizations as well as ethnic media (Jeffres, 2000). The potential results of the regional media market and the creation of the diasporic identities are not hard to imagine. Benedict Anderson in his book "Imagined Communities", makes a persuasive case that two factors controlled the development of national consciousness in state after state in Reformation Europe: commerce and linguistic unity. As printers sought to expand their market beyond the small market of the Latin literate elites, they increased their printing in the vernacular languages creating communities of monolingual people who spoke and wrote in similar languages. Such communities drew together to form modern nation states like Germany and France. Transnational media is altering communication in the Arab world by creating a link between Arabs in different parts of the Arab world on the one hand and Arab immigrants in different parts of the world on the other hand (Sakr, 2002; Alterman, 1996).

It would nevertheless be a mistake to infer from this that minority ethnic families equipped with satellite dishes are bound together in a shared cultural project dominated by the parents' home country. On the contrary, there is evidence from this research and other research (Hargreaves and Mahdjoub, 1997) that there is now greater diversity than before in both individual and family viewing patterns. Second generation Arabs are developing an increased interest in their parents' home country but at the same time they are on the right path in the acculturation process. Although most of the younger respondents now see at least some programs from their parent's country of origin, as their parents report, their viewing habits remain dominated by American channels. Greater curiosity about the land which their parents left does not necessarily imply a greater inclination among younger respondents to adopt the cultural norms prevailing there. Their lack of interest in religious programs (as some of the parents who responded to the survey reported) suggests that they do not offer a ground for an Islamic revival.

Because the broadcasting scene is still evolving and Arabic satellite channels in immigration settings are relatively new, it is difficult to place new developments in solid theoretical frameworks of analysis. The cultural implications of transnational Arabic broadcasting remain under-researched. More research needs to be conducted on long-term impacts of Arabic language television on first- generation as well as second-generation Arabs. Ultimately, satellite television is a force toward the integration of Arab immigrants in their home countries as well as the integration of the Arab world into the global community. TBS


Abeer Etefa is attending Portland State University as a doctoral student.
Her dissertation is entitled
Satellite Television Viewing among Ethnic Minorities: A
Case Study of Arab Americans. She is also a lecturer in the School of
International Studies at Portland State University. Ms. Etefa has a BA in
Journalism and Mass Communication from the American University in Cairo and
an MA in Television Journalism from the Adham Center at AUC. She worked as a
field producer for ABC News and BBC News before leaving for the United
States. Her research interests currently focus on ethnic minorities and the
media.

An earlier version of this paper will be presented at the 54th Annual
Conference of the International Communication Association in New Orleans,
May 2004.


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