Attitudes of Palestinian-Israelis to Arab Satellite TV

  By Mustafa Kabha

With the establishment of the Israeli Television in 1968, an Arabic-language department was also founded, broadcasting for 90 minutes a day on average. About one third of this time slot was allocated to Arabic-language news broadcasts and the rest was used for culture, science, sports, and drama programs. On special days (Friday nights and holidays) the Arabic-language department received additional broadcast time. Some of the Arabic-language programs became integrated in the Israeli television experience, such as the famous children's program, "Sammy and Susu," shown during the '70s, and "The Arab Movie" (usually an Egyptian film) shown on Friday nights. The broadcast orientations and strategies of the Arabic-language programs were those of a "state-controlled media." Both the contents of these programs and the staff producing them were closely and constantly supervised.

In the absence of other options, these programs (despite being biased) became a powerful instrument, influencing the cultural, political, and social life of the Arab national minority in Israel. These indeed were also exposed to the television stations of neighboring Arab countries (Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon) but the reception of these broadcasts suffered from many technological deficiencies and constraints due to the quality of reception, the weather, geographical distance, and the degree to which these broadcasts were directed at them. This partial exposure to television broadcasts from the Arab world preserved contacts and bridges (mainly cultural) with the Arab world, despite the great influence of the Israeli Television Arabic Department programs. These contacts strengthened and expanded with the beginning of the era of Arabic-language satellite television broadcasts. The broadcasts of the MBC television station, which began in 1991, were transmitted through local pirate television stations (such stations were established in Umm Al-Fahm, Baqa Al-Gharbiya, and Jatt in the Triangle), which received the broadcasts via satellite dishes and transmitted them in their own local broadcasts. The transmissions were of course selective and included news, movies, and sports programs. This phenomenon began to increase when MBC station was joined by other stations, such as the Lebanese Al-Mustakbal and the Egyptian Satellite Channel. In the second half of the '90s, satellite dishes became an essential fixture, leading viewers to forego the "mediation" of the local television stations and buy "home dishes" that in a short period became an integral part from the view of the roofs of homes, businesses, cultural clubs, and cafes.

Relations of the Arab viewers with the Arab world through the satellite stations gradually grew closer during the second half of the '90s and the beginning of the third millennium. Viewership of these stations became more massive and came to include almost all sectors of the population and the various age groups. These viewers did not remain passive, but demonstrated alertness and through participation (via internet, telephone and fax) in live talk shows, thus contributing significantly to public discourse in the Arab world and arousing pan-Arab public consciousness on matters pertaining to the Arab national minority in Israel (known in the Arab world as "the Arabs of 1948"). This was also facilitated by Arab politicians and public figures from Israel who appeared on the high-rating programs of the various satellite stations.

Programs that attain a high level of spectators and participation (by Arab viewers in Israel) are programs that relate specifically to matters pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as "The Opposite Direction" moderated by Faisal Al-Kassem, or "More Than One View" hosted by Sammy Haddad, or "Without Borders" moderated by Ahmad Mansur, broadcast by the Al Jazeera Channel, or Imad Al-Din Adib's talk show on the Orbit Channel. Programs dealing with Pan-Arab cultural, political, and social issues also achieve very high ratings. For example, "Stay At Home", moderated by the well known Lebanese broadcaster and poet Zahi Wahbi, shown on Tuesday evenings, succeeds in attracting many viewers to the television screens at home. The appearance of known cultural symbols on this program definitely contributes to the rebuilding of cultural bridges with the Pan-Arab world. Programs targeting younger viewers, such as those shown on Lebanon's LBC Channel and Egypt's Dream TV, which feature Arab and modern Western music and song programs, also attain high ratings.

However the highest ratings have gone to the Superstar song programs, broadcast by the Lebanese Al-Mustakbal Channel, and Star Academy, broadcast by LBC. The responses and reactions to these programs not only became a common topic of discussion among many viewers but also led to lively discourse in the Arab press in Israel, thus deepening the involvement of Arab viewers in Israel in these programs. Viewers not only watched the programs and participated in the electronic voting for the singers in the studio, but also even participated in the early stages of the program held by Superstar organizers in Amman, capital of Jordan (which can be entered on an Israeli passport) despite their clear knowledge that they would not be able to participate in the finals, held in Beirut, capital of Lebanon (which cannot be entered on an Israeli passport).
Children's channels, broadcast during most hours of the day, Space Toons or ART Teenz, also reach high ratings and thus probably contribute to the shaping of the symbolic world of the children who watch them.

It must be emphasized that many viewers (of whom a large percentage are traditional Muslims) prefer to watch satellite stations that broadcast religious and traditional content, and on this level they prefer to watch stations such as Iqra' or Al-Majd Channel or the Saudi Satellite Channel 1 or Al-Manar, which belongs to the Hezbollah Party of Lebanon. These stations, which broadcast mostly Muslim religious programming (interpretations of the holy Qur'an, interpretation of Hadith literature dealing with the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad, or sermons, such as "We Will Meet the Loved Ones" by the Egyptian preacher Amr Khalid), contribute greatly to the process of religious strengthening and the tightening of contacts with the Muslim World.
Increased viewing of Arab satellite stations has involved neglect of Israeli Television, especially the broadcasts of the Arabic Department. This may have accelerated the decision of the Government of Israel, reached in May 2001, to establish an Arabic-language satellite station. This issue involved lengthy discussions within the Israeli Broadcast Association, accompanied by a lively discourse in the press and among the public, those opposing the idea explaining their concern that this channel will signify a return to the era of propaganda and a war of words. Finally a decision was reached to establish the station, which began broadcasting an average of twelve hours a day in May 2002, with the aim of eventually reaching twenty-four hours a day. However this channel apparently did not have the desired effect and instead of increasing broadcast time, discussions are being held today about the effectiveness of this station and questioning its necessity. It is clear that establishment of this station has had no impact on the degree of exposure of Arab viewers in Israel to other Arabic-language satellite stations and on the effect of these stations on the various fields of life of the Arab national minority in Israel. TBS

Mustafa Kabha is a researcher and lecturer in History and Communication at the Open
University of Tel Aviv.
Copyright 2004 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo