Here’s a copy of my “Media Uncovered” column in this month’s Bold Magazine:

1,000 Channels and Nothing’s On // Bold Magazine July 2012

By Habib Battah

I’ve written extensively about the democratizing potential of new Arab media, with hundreds of outlets launched across the region since the beginning of the uprisings. In Libya, some 200 publications have sprung up while in Syria dozens of new media brands are broadcasting over the internet and satellite television. Similar media growth scenarios are being witnessed in Egypt, Tunisia and across the tumultuous parts of the region. But hope that these new broadcasters will produce fresh avenues for compelling, relevant content in place of the propaganda that has dominated airwaves in these countries for decades should be measured against the reality that so little of what’s on Arab TV today is worth watching.    

Indeed, the satellite revolution of the 1990s has brought a fearless spirit of reporting in the case of broadcasters like Al Jazeera, whose coverage has helped unseat dictators. Recent decades have also brought us kitsch reality television programs like Star Academy, which defeated conservative clerics and state authorities who initially tried to ban viewer access to the show, now entering its ninth season. Whether or not one is a fan of pop starlets with questionable talent or Al Jazeera’s highly selective reporting on authoritarian rule– the fact remains that television has repeatedly pushed back state power in the region and is likely to continue doing so. At the same time, the falling price of production and satellite time has unleashed some 1,000 channels on Arab television households, yet sadly the vast majority of these are profoundly trivial if not obscenely irritating. 

“Cool TV” is among the legions of Arab channels with zero production value

With only a few dozen Arab TV stations committing to actual programing–at least for part of the day–the spectrum of mediocrity on the remaining hundreds of channels ranges widely. Among them are multitudes of high pitched hostesses peddling everything from skin creams to adolescent on-screen riddles of the type that would appear in children’s magazines such as spotting the difference between two images of pop star Haifa Wehbe. Others meanwhile fill their screens with nothing more than text scrolling bars, splashed in cacophony of unmatched colors and animated with amateurish 2D emoticons. 

With such inspired titles as “Cool TV” and “Hi TV” these legions of spam-like offerings consume a vast portion of the Arab satellite TV dial, leaving channel surfers stranded in a seemingly endless morass of listless material with less creativity than that of a swirling desktop screensaver.

Many spam channels only broadcast infomercials 

Beyond the ever-smiling tele cuties and their dubious infomercial wares, viewers are also confronted with an array of clerics hosting low budget soap box talk shows with many espousing unforgiving conviction and proclaiming apostasy toward alleged rival faiths. Among these TV demagogue hosts are coptic Christian priests and Sunni and Shia sheikhs from Iraq, Syria and the Arab Gulf countries whose religious fervor is mixed with sectarian overtones that suit political agendas.

On the other hand, some channels use religion for more capitalist causes, playing the Muslim call-to-prayer as the soundtrack to commercials selling diet supplements. Further still, is the recent emergence of channels displaying telephone numbers below images of pouty, scantily clad East European models, vaguely urging viewers to “call now: live lines.”  

While censorship should not be encouraged, one hopes major Arab satellite providers would set some minimum programming and production requirements before allowing a signal to be carried to millions of households across the region. Projecting an image of a static billboard advertisement or multiple streams of text scrolling cannot alone be considered broadcasting. Neither can a constant stream of infomercials. At the same time, talk shows that denounce other religions or sects should strictly be regulated. “Some of the (clerics’) speeches are so graphically violent,” Marwan Kraidy, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication and co-author of “Arab Television Industries” recently told me. “I had to change the channel when my kids walked in the room.”  

It’s hard to imagine how hate speech channels are allowed to broadcast at all, let alone multiply in number as they have over recent years, constituting a major growth area in Arab television. One also wonders why the Arab League’s recent demand that satellite operators Arabsat and Nilesat cease broadcasting Syrian government propaganda channels made no mention of the sectarian incitement being aired by the regime’s political rivals.

Whether or not they are conscious of it, the two Arab satellite operators should know that television is becoming an increasingly dated medium, particularly when broadcasters fail to cover stories due to physical or political constraints. Increasingly, news is being produced by viewers themselves, often shot on cellphones, uploaded to websites, and picked up and rebroadcast by regional and global media outlets.  These citizen reporting efforts are fast becoming a tool to demand accountability in the Arab world by shaming leaders and security bodies who have acted with impunity in the absence of a watchdog press. It may not be long before these citizen reporters turn their sites to Arab corporations who have proved equally irresponsible and unaccountable, including the region’s satellite operators.                 

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