Hooked on Being Hooked: Arab "Reality" TV

Asma Agbarieh

Something new is afoot in the Arab world. Millions of families have shut themselves up in their homes, eyes glued to the TV screen. And now the show begins! The Arab heroes step forth: the stars of "Super Star" on Almustaqbal (Future TV) and "Star Academy" on the Lebanon Broadcasting Corporation.

When I started researching this story, I intended to study an entirely different topic: Why have Israeli Arabs, about 20% of the population, stopped watching Israeli news and commentary, turning instead to the Arab satellite news channel, Aljazeera? I discovered I wasn't up to date. The Arab nation, it seems, has stopped watching Aljazeera, becoming addicted instead to the new trend known as "Reality TV".

The latest hysteria has been about Hawa Sawa, "Love on Air", a matchmaking program. The setting was a Lebanese apartment. Eight young women lived there under a camera for three months, 24 hours a day. A voice (called Voicy) interceded in their lives, asking questions and getting them to converse with each other. After the first two weeks, potential grooms were shown to the public, which weeded out the excess. Proposals were made, via the camera, and couples formed. The public was to decide on the ideal bride. The channel would pay for the fantastic TV wedding, at which 300 million Arab viewers would be the virtual guests. They would also win a honeymoon, house, and hard cash.

Khaled Mahamid, 21 years old, a worker from Um al-Fahm in Israel, does not hide his deep disappointment with the way the program ended. He and many millions more chose 21-year-old Aicha Gerbas of Algeria as the winning bride. Minutes before the finale, however, she jilted Khaled, her chosen groom! "This is completely inappropriate behavior," said Khaled. Voicy agreed. The Arab world went into shock. The dramatic rejection occurred at 2 a.m. The program had planned the finale for that late hour, knowing that the viewers, most of whom are unemployed, would be able to sleep late the next day.

Aicha, it turned out, already had other marriage plans. The outraged public then chose Mervat Fo'ani of Lebanon and her mate.

The most "scandalous" Reality TV show is "Star Academy". Young men and women live together in an apartment, competing for the title of "best Arab singer". We watch them train, sing and dance. The participants represent something else as well, however: an extremely permissive social ethos – atypical for Arab society. They hug and kiss on live TV. Although most of the viewers agree on the undesirability of such behavior, they can't tear their eyes away from the screen.

The Reality shows get such high ratings that one wonders about current priorities in the Arab world. There are those who exaggerate the severity of the situation, for example, Abed al Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, who interprets the phenomenon as a harbinger of doomsday. Others see it as an Israeli-American conspiracy, created in order to distract the Arabs from important issues like Iraq and Palestine.

A new communications phenomenon

Bernard Tannus of Radio al-Shams in Nazareth describes Reality TV as "part of the enormous technological progress that has taken place, together with competition for ratings, spurring the media to seek new ways of attracting viewers. The phenomenon is not confined to the Arab world. It is copied from programs that succeeded in the West, like "Who Wants to be a Millionaire".

Almustaqbal, for instance, bought the franchise on Super Star from the production company that created the British show "Pop Idols", which attracts 14 million viewers. The American channel Fox broadcasts a series of "Idol" shows that has met with similar success. The same kind of program appears in Ireland and South Africa.

Burhan Jabarin, 21, of Um al-Fahm, is an interior decorator. In the past he used to sit with adults in a coffee house and discuss events in Iraq, as portrayed on Aljazeera or Abu Dabi. "Today," he says, "the only thing that interests these people is the news about Aicha and Mervat and who won on Star Academy."

One reason for the success of these shows, says Dr. Khalil Rinawi, a lecturer in Communications at the College of Administration in Tel Aviv, resides in the fact that "Arab society is highly emotional, and the programs on Reality TV are based on the factor of emotional identification between the viewer and the protagonists."

Rinawi adds: "Starting from mid-2003, we see a growing gap between the the state-run channels and the alternative satellite stations (such as Almustaqbal). We see two tracks: On the one side, the channels broadcast serious material, religious, moral and political. On the other, entertainment channels like "Rotana" and "Dream" broadcast video clips (as on MTV), and these compete over who will 'raise the shirt higher or drop the pants lower' in order to draw more viewers.

Dr. Rinawi believes that the Arab channels "will go even farther than this in permissiveness and exposure of the body. They won't hesitate to break social and moral boundaries in order to increase profits."

Media democracy

How exactly are profits made? Through advertising, of course, but the really big winners are the telephone companies. For instance, the number voting for the candidates in Super Star set an Arab world record. There were 79,550,000 calls (out of a global Arab population of about 290 million). If a call from Cairo to Lebanon costs 50 cents per minute, and 75 cents from Jordan, one may imagine the money that was made. Most of the phone-company directors are connected with the TV channels, which are connected to governmental institutions. Almustaqbal, for instance, is the private property of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri.

The Islamic movements, for their part, never got such ratings. An example: When they asked viewers to sign up by phone to support Afghanistan against the American attack, they received four million calls – a pittance compared to the ratings that Reality TV gets today.

Rinawi points out an additional factor. The lack of democracy in the Arab world causes deep frustration. "The ability to express an opinion and influence a result, even if only in the realm of entertainment, soothes the frustrated spirit and obscures the fact that the Arab media, until recently, belonged to the establishment and operated in one direction only: from the authorities down to the people."

This is not to say, of course, that the media have ceased to be part of the establishment. Rinawi explains: "The Arab media seesaw between, on the one hand, absolute submission to the orders of the regime, and on the other, the fulfillment of commercial ambitions to rake in profits. These media, therefore, have never been objective. Their purpose is not to broaden anyone's education." He continues: "The programs of Reality TV serve the interests of the rulers, because they distract people from the really important topics, providing an outlet for the frustration and rage that result from unemployment and daily hardship. They do this by means of channels that pose no political threat."

As an example Rinawi names King Abdullah of Jordan, who allowed every Jordanian to phone free of charge in order to vote for the Jordanian candidate in Super Star, Diana Karazon (and she won!).

Jad Kadamani of Ru'iya (Vision), a non-profit association in East Jerusalem, comments on this "democratic" phenomenon: "The governments allow the Arab public to vote on topics that they select. The regimes don't want pressure groups from political parties or civil organizations. It wants Zamalek and Ahali (two Egyptian soccer teams) to be our parties. It wants Aicha Gerbas and Diana Karazon to be the symbols of the Arab nation. The public knows this, and therefore it avoids approaching the 'forbidden'. It invests the larger part of its attention in 'permitted' topics like matchmaking, marriage and building a family. In this way, whether it likes it or not, the Arab public finds itself playing games that the regimes toss its way."

The Channel of Contradictions

In the hate list of the Islamic movements, Super Star comes first, then Star Academy. The incitement against the programs is intense. In Bahrain, for example, because of a kiss on the mouth, the Islamists organized big demonstrations forcing parliament to forbid the broadcasting of "Big Brother" on M.B.C. Mere legislation, however, will not keep most people, including many religious, from watching Big Brother's cousins.

Fatma Khatib (28), of Majd al-Krum in Galilee, told me: "I watch Amru Khaled (a famous Muslim preacher) on the religious channel "Ikra", and I also watch Star Academy. In normal life many things are forbidden – so what? Should we stop living? The Islamic Movement is angry at the way young people act on the program, and this is right, because it's not our tradition. But what interests me on the program is to see the development they go through and how they achieve success."

Mustafa Mahamid, a construction worker from Um al-Fahm, does not find in Star Academy any real sign of development or progress: "The problem is that we don't advance. When all is said and done, we're copycats. And how can we get ahead if we're ignoramuses? How will the pupils make progress if they desert their studies to watch these programs?"

What angers Fatma Agbarieh (27) of Jaffa is the attitude toward women. "They use women for clear commercial purposes. They stick them in front of a camera for 24 hours per day for three months. I wonder, why don't they also put men in those circumstances? Don't we women have an equal right to judge whether this or that man would be an ideal husband? In the final analysis, despite the bright lights, they've left the woman in a cage and told the lion, 'Choose the prey you prefer.' If the society wants to be progressive and modern, it must be so at all levels."

The semi-nudity that the Arab woman presents on TV as progress is basically the copying of form without content. Although the female body continues to be exploited in the West for cheap commercial purposes, the Western woman has managed to make important achievements toward economic and social liberation. The Arab woman is far from this. As a result, her semi-nudity is merely another form of humiliation.

Purveyor of Dreams

The fascination with a splendor that cannot be achieved develops into a kind of addiction, an escape. The public buys a sweet dream, a modern paradise containing everything it wants and cannot get: an illusory feeling of participation in decision-making, a mixed society of men and women, a virtual satisfaction of desire, and even vicarious marriage. In Egypt live millions whose poverty prevents them from renting a home and therefore from marrying.

Where is Aljazeera amid all this? In fact, the famous Arab news station plays its part in the marketing of illusion. Where Rotana sells nudity and permissiveness, Aljazeera sells blood. It is responsible in large measure for the patterns of addiction and escape that have developed among Arab viewers over the past few years. Aljazeera peddled televised blood in plentiful doses, till the Arab world got hooked on it day and night. They got fed up with all this blood, but by then they were hooked on being hooked. They turned to live matchmaking and the making of new stars.

There is another reason, too, why the public has abandoned Aljazeera. It sold the Arabs the feeling that they are strong, as though to say, "America has CNN, but we have Aljazeera, and there we fight the enemy." CNN has Bush, and Aljazeera has Bin Laden. America has colonialism, and Aljazeera has jihad. This station incited the Arab masses with the babble of extremist militant Islam. It pushed the Palestinians into the streets for the second Intifada – until they were defeated, just as Arabs were defeated in Afghanistan and Iraq. They learned that they were not so strong, after all, despite their appearance in the glorious modern studios of Aljazeera.

Behind CNN stand the Marines, but who stands behind Aljazeera? The princedom of Qatar, which finances the station while remaining a US ally.

To return to the Arabs in Israel, with whom I began, their shift from Israeli news to Aljazeera, and then from Aljazeera to Reality TV, can be explained if we compare the two Intifadas. In the first (1987 – 1993), people had a leadership, a direction and a program. They enjoyed international support. They had greater equanimity, therefore. They were strong and confident of their ability to change the situation. They weren't "afraid" to hear the Israeli news, because they had, by means of their leadership, the possibility of responding in words and action. It was also important to hear what Israel was saying, in order to answer.

Today, however, the Arabs – especially the Palestinians – have lost the cool-headedness and prudence that they had then. Into the political vacuum bursts extremist Islamic ranting, as featured on Aljazeera. This has resulted in deep disappointment. Helplessness, sad to say, explains the present escape into a world of virtual power.