What the Arab World Should be Watching

by: Nabil Echchaibi / Indiana University

I still cherish the memory of my old shortwave radio tucked underneath my bed when I was in Morocco. I rejoiced over the crackling sound of the Big Ben announcing the latest news bulletin of the BBC in Arabic and relished every news report on Radio France Internationale. If you want foreign news, tune in to Moroccan media; if you want news on Morocco, tune in to foreign media, Moroccans often joked.

These were the pre-Al-Jazeera times when the only international broadcasters had a welcome base in major Western media institutions. Today, the popularity of these once vital news sources is receding dramatically as more regional news operations in the Arab world are reclaiming their own audiences with vengeance. The BBC’s commanding influence in the region in the 1980s and early 1990s has plummeted to a meager 10 percent so much so that the Foreign Office of the British Parliament has asked the BBC to start a news channel in Arabic based in the Middle East. It is still early to determine how such a venture will fare, but one thing is certain: the international news broadcasting war is underway in the Arab world, and it does not bode well for the sanctity of news balance.

This news saga began when Al-Jazeera, a satellite news network in Qatar, best known in the West for airing the controversial tapes of Osama bin Laden, became isolated as an example of dangerous and inflammatory reporting in the aftermath of September 11. The tiny news operation, however, has been hailed in the Arab world since its inception in 1996 for its critical and innovative reporting on social, economic and cultural issues, which other Arab national and satellite media working under tight state control had never dared to cover.

Here is yet another example, so we are told, of a transparent clash of cultures that only reinforces the widely propagated idea that cultural differences between the West and the East are primordial and irreconcilable. Journalistic cultures and differing perspectives of what constitutes news are used symptomatically to draw our attention to a much bigger problem. Consider these sporadic headlines on Al-Jazeera before September 11: “Glasnost In the Gulf”; “Al-Jazeera: CNN Of the Arab World”; “Al-Jazeera TV Leads the New Arab Free Press.” Now compare those with these recent headlines: “Bush’s New War Room”; “News or Propaganda? Courting Controversy”; “What the Muslim world is Watching.”

When Al-Jazeera became international headline news, its popularity was restricted to post September 11 coverage in which the station was pitted against American media and the ideals of Western objective journalism. The controversy about Al-Jazeera should be examined as a result of differing political perspectives and not as an extension of an essentialist conflict of cultures as many critics have so readily concluded. Fouad Ajami, director of the program in Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a frequently consulted source on Arab affairs on American media, is convinced Al-Jazeera has a political and religious agenda that is far from being innocuous. The station’s reporters, he complains, are “a fiercely opinionated group, most are pan-Arabists-nationalists of a leftist bend committed to the idea of a single nation across the many frontiers of the Arab world–or Islamists who draw their inspiration from the primacy of the Muslim faith in political life.” In a 6,000-word article in the New York Times titled: “What the Muslim World Is Watching,” the longest article to have appeared in the newspaper on Al-Jazeera and the most frequently cited as well, Ajami seems to be sounding the drums of doom, granting Al-Jazeera more credit than what it really deserves and using a sensational headline to compound the impact of the station that is limited to only Arabic-speaking viewers. The world Muslim population today is about 1 billion, 200 million, of which Arabs account only for 250 million.

While Al-Jazeera is not a perfect news channel–it is not clear whether such a thing exists or might exist–it has provided a much needed alternative to bland political reporting by state-controlled channels that are notorious among Arabs for their government twaddle and their detached and staid reporting style. Even a channel such as MBC, a satellite network owned by the brother-in-law of the king of Saudi Arabia and on the air since 1989, has failed to offer quality news programming critical of political regimes and popular culture. MBC has recently started a 24-news network to compete with Al-Jazeera, but its ownership already undermines the editorial independence of its reporters. In 1996, Al-Jazeera sprung up out of an aborted deal between the Saudi-owned channel Orbit and the Arabic service of the BBC. Most of Al-Jazeera’s reporters were working for the BBC, and many of them have been trained in England or the United States.

In fact, Al-Jazeera’s news style resembles that of any U.S. news network, including CNN and Fox News. One of its most popular news talk shows, Opposite Direction, is modeled after CNN’s Crossfire where guests with extremely opposite views engage in a heated and sometimes deafening discussion on such issues as religious extremism, polygamy, freedom of expression, women’s rights, Arab politics, Palestinian-Israeli conflict: all taboos on regular Arab television. Critics of Al-Jazeera charge that such programs are used by the station to inflame passions and galvanize anti-American and anti-semitic sentiments, already manifest in the “Arab Street.” While the charge is highly questionable as Al-Jazeera is only reflecting existing realities within the Arab world that are often understood outside of a larger context. The same can be said about some programs on American radio and television that feature guests with disparaging and highly controversial comments, which may or may not reflect the opinions of their audiences. If blame has to be assigned anywhere, then it should be directed at the demented world of 24-hour news networks that feeds on lurid coverage of news and issues to secure profits. Al-Jazeera is just another example of this trend, except that since 1996, the station has been swimming in uncharted waters in the Arab world with no real competition to put pressure on its performance.

Pressure has been coming rather from Arab governments dissatisfied with the station giving voice to political dissidents and digging for social problems. Many of these governments have either closed the Al-Jazeera bureau in their capitals or, as in the case of some Gulf countries, instructed their companies not to use Al-Jazeera for their advertising needs. When the United States joins this list, it puts itself in an incriminating position, which some Arabs might interpret as double standard politics, an already well-established view in the Middle East.

If the Arab world is to modernize and free itself from the social and cultural stagnation it has been mired in, then it needs more channels like, or better than Al-Jazeera. Arabs need to feel there is a public forum for the expression of their views, both extreme and moderate. Demonizing, instead of constructively criticizing, the only attempt to do so, particularly at this important historical juncture, will prove dangerous and counter productive. The recent satellite news explosion in the region is nothing but a deafening cacophony and an all too familiar story. The Saudi Al-Arabiyya and Al-Ekhbariya, the Emirati Abu-Dhabi Television, and the Lebanese Al-Hayat remain constrained by their direct state ownership and editorial control. The U.S. government has joined the melee recently by launching a multi-million dollar news network of which the name, Al-Hurra (‘The Free One’), reveals much about its expected performance in the region.

The old days of shortwave radio, as liberating as they were, are decidedly over, but would the television news alternative from the Arab world prove as vindicating of the old official line which seems to be hiding behind the sleek garb of technology? Al-Jazeera needs a real competitor so it never loses sight of its original mission to expose the other opinion.

Al-Jazeera TV
Al-Jazeera Privatization
More on Al-Jazeera Privatization

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Going Through the Paces

by: Mimi White / Northwestern University

I have been thinking about the pace of television, and wondering if I even know what the pace of television is. This is largely inspired by a phrase used to describe one of the aims of Flow, to offer “television criticism at the pace of television.” I consider this from my current position in Helsinki, Finland. I am just a visitor here, although for an extended stay; it is not my permanent location.

I am not thinking about certain stereotypical distinctions that are frequently made between American commercial-entertainment television and state television systems based in the public-service tradition. It is commonplace, and perhaps progressively obsolete or at least banal, to notice the “fast pace” of American television relative to the others, with its cultivation of sound bite culture, its crass consumerism, and its jarring collisions of programs, ads, promotions, etc. Indeed, in his seminal 1970s study, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Raymond Williams introduced the term “flow,” allegedly in response to his first encounter with American commercial programming and its shocking, disorienting impact in these terms.

Rather, I am thinking about the pace at which American programs officially appear on television outside the U.S. relative to when they first appear in the U.S. In Finland, and many countries around the globe, one can see plenty of American television programs (as well as programs from other countries) on broadcast and cable stations. But the programming from America is out of phase with its initial appearance in the U.S. So the pace is not just the same.

For example, what I can’t see right now, at least through normal channels — that is, by turning on my television at a fixed time each week: current episodes of the programs that I have routinely watched “at home” in the U.S., and any program that started on American television in the fall of 2004. No Desperate Housewives, Lost, Father of the Pride, Nanny 911, life as we know it, LAX, or big fat obnoxious bosses, to name only a few. Even generating this list gives me pause, since some of these are hits while others are apt to languish, and may already be cancelled. It isn’t necessarily the list that would be formulated by someone producing television criticism at the pace of television, at least in terms of having a sense of the pulse of the current U.S. television season.

At the same time, I can’t watch Finnish television at its own pace, since I don’t know the language. More accurately, I can (and sometimes do) watch Finnish programs, but I don’t know what is going on. Luckily for me, English language programs are subtitled here rather than dubbed. What I can see: last year’s episodes of many American series, including Friends, The Guardian, C.S.I., Law and Order, The West Wing, Everwood, The Sopranos, and Sex and the City (which aired its final episode just before Thanksgiving), among many others. I can watch two-year old episodes of Judging Amy; Las Vegas and The O.C. have recently premiered with what are, in the U.S., last year’s episodes. This is just a sampling of what is available.

When it comes to television, I am especially partial to dramatic fiction programs. So not watching these shows is not a good alternative, but neither is watching documentaries on Discovery. Yet there are constraints on my viewing. Despite the considerable range of English-language television programming on Finnish broadcast and cable stations, the choice for Anglophone viewers is still different from the range of choice in the U.S. Sometimes I end up watching the same shows I regularly watch in the U.S., even though for me they are reruns. I also end up watching American shows I haven’t ever seen before.

During my first extended stay in Finland, ten years ago, I started watching Beverly Hills 90210. After a few weeks, I realized that it was also airing on the Swedish television station included on my cable system. Based on the plot situations, it was obvious that the Swedish station was showing more recent episodes than the ones in Finland. Then I discovered that the Estonian television station (also on the cable system) had started airing the series, which I happened upon during what was clearly a very early episode. For about six weeks, I watched Beverly Hills 90210 three times a week, each episode from a different season. Two of these aired almost back to back on Sunday in the late afternoon. What was the pace of this television?

Whatever the pace was, it was based on my access to a fixed repertoire of channels available at the time on Helsinki cable. It was all “old” relative to what was then showing in the U.S. Each version was also “new” in the immediate national context where it was broadcast, but not necessarily once it crossed borders, which was institutionally enabled by cable television. For me — the American in Helsinki — it was all “new.” For Finnish viewers, the Estonian version might have been “old;” but if they followed the program on the Swedish station, even the Finnish episodes might be “old.”

My awareness of this particular pace, of these paces, was a result of my “estranged” relation to the available media. Otherwise, I would not have been watching BH90210 to begin with, let alone three times a week. But I am not convinced that the nature of pace that it highlights — as a relative, variable, redundant, and multiple phenomenon — is necessarily distinctive to my position as a visitor in Finland. Rather, I have started to realize that the same pace(s) is equally available through, even inscribed within, U.S. television.

There are so many ways to see and to re-see television. Multiply-paced television is available through a variety of circumstances: while channel surfing; when a program is in reruns on cable; when a friend buys the DVD. People regularly tape or TIVO programs for viewing at some indefinite later time, whether or not they actually watch. (I have the sense that a lot of TIVO ends up with only the machine “watching” the show.) There are all kinds of shows with multiple seasons available for viewing on television at the same time, both while they are still in first run and long after. Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, may be cancelled, but it is still on television, both in the U.S. and in many other countries, including Finland. It is also widely available on DVD.

These are all just normal ways of watching television, old and new, for the first or third time, from last week or from the 1980s, at home or away, in habitual viewing conditions or in unfamiliar situations. So the different paces I encounter here in Helsinki turn out to be a particular variant or manifestation of the multiple paces that constitute the pace of television in general.

Even though I mainly watch and write about American television, ultimately I am not willing to let current U.S. television — especially prime time series, and especially the newest shows to appear — set the pace of television. Certainly, the first run of American prime time series is one locus or measure of pace, in particular because so much of it does travel, sooner or later. It can be valuable to recognize, and talk about, the variations and innovations that are especially salient when new shows are on the air for the first time. But this is hardly the only locus or measure of the paces of television, particularly considering that some “new” shows will, inevitably, continue to reappear: they will persist as part of current, ongoing television programming, or may be available on DVD, even at the same time that they are cancelled. The pace of television includes programs that aren’t showing for the first time or only in one place, as well as programs that do not originate in the U.S. and may not ever show there.

While viewers and critics need to be aware of the institutional logics of the medium — including the institutional importance of viewers who are willing and able to keep pace with the pace of prime time television, watching the new shows when they first air, and being particularly interested in what is “new” — I am reluctant to let this logic finally determine or constrain how I watch, and especially the ways I think about, the medium. Understanding institutional values should not be the same as conceding to them.

At the same time, I must admit that when it comes to my personal viewing, I hope the shows I have routinely watched aren’t all cancelled before I get back to the U.S. In the meantime, here in Helsinki, I have started watching Nip/Tuck — last year’s episodes, of course — for the first time, on Tuesday nights, at the exact time when I have normally watched Judging Amy in the U.S. It isn’t just the same.

Finnish media
Finnish media landscape
Beverly Hills 90210 fansite
Nip/Tuck official site
Judging Amy official site

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Murdoch’s Munificence

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Critics roundly denounce Rupert Murdoch as the most rapacious media baron of the current era, yet few have commented upon the fact that Sir Rupert is also our greatest media philanthropist. In fact, Murdoch himself may not recognize this or, more to the point, he might not relish the fact that over the past decade News Corporation has lavished more resources on the development of Asian television than any other private concern, with estimates now running close to $2 billion. This largesse has furthermore spurred the development of competing commercial services and has stimulated reforms within state media, thereby dramatically expanding the range of information and entertainment now available to Asian audiences. Of course, Murdoch’s initial ambition was hardly philanthropic, yet in retrospect one strains to see it as a commercial venture, since both his Star and Phoenix satellite services are deeply in the red and have yet to prove themselves consistently profitable.

Murdoch stunned the media critics worldwide when he first mounted a billion dollar takeover of Star TV in 1993, putting him at the helm of the first pan-Asian satellite platform. So taken was he with the stratospheric rhetoric of satellite TV that he regaled the investment and advertising communities with heady prophecies of a new Asian millennium of three billion consumers and an end to authoritarian regimes everywhere. As one might imagine Chinese leaders didn’t share the latter enthusiasm, slapping a ban on foreign satellite services shortly thereafter and rolling out competitive cable services that were offered for a fraction of the cost Star’s services. A humbled Murdoch was accordingly reminded that his fortunes in Asia would be shaped by forces on the ground as much as technologies in the skies.

Yet one can perhaps forgive Murdoch’s initial enthusiasm, for his investment was made during an era of heady optimism about the power of satellite television to transcend national borders and usher in at long last the global village that many had reportedly been waiting to join. Maps of satellite footprints were perhaps the most intoxicating representations of this TV mania, as in the case of Star they suggested blanket coverage across Asia, from Lebanon to the Philippines and south to Indonesia. Yet today, News Corp’s Asia satellite services look more like a patchwork quilt, and a somewhat tattered one at that. Indeed, over the past decade, Star’s effective coverage was dramatically refigured by infrastructural, political, and textual forces on the ground. And the Chinese case serves as an instructive example.

At the infrastructural level, initial expectations regarding a pan-Asian market were dashed by the cultural and linguistic diversity of audiences and tough competition from local and national broadcasters. Likewise complexity of product distribution networks on the ground undermined the possibility of expansive advertising strategies in the sky, since advertisers only wanted to pay for airtime in markets where their goods were available. In the end, they preferred targeted ad buys over pan-Asian appeals.

At the political level, Murdoch found the Beijing government was far more complicated than popular conceptions of authoritarianism might suggest. Chinese leaders could initiate sweeping changes to media policy on relatively short notice, yet such policies were executed with significant discretion at the local level, forcing Star to expend considerable resources currying the favor of provincial officials in a bid to gain carriage on their new cable systems. Moreover, within the national government many factions vie for power, ranging from reformers who are bent on experimentation to guardians of Mao’s peasant revolution. In such a context, global capital can at turns be welcomed as a productive force or reviled as an exploitative foreign element. Star’s image has repeatedly shifted with the political winds and Murdoch has periodically been chilled by the breeze.

At the textual level, Star has been forced to refashion and multiply its services, carefully targeting audiences and branding its products to fit the competitive environment in local media markets. Rather than appealing to a pan-Asian audience or even a pan-Chinese audience, Star has had to content itself with carving out market niches and surprisingly, one of those niches is as a venue for serious political talk on its joint venture Phoenix channel, aiming at an audience of only 140 million viewers in the eastern part of the mainland.

These three levels press relentlessly on News Corp’s Asian satellite services, as they attempt to strike a balance between economies of scale and the local particularities of existing media markets. Star’s delicate balancing act is at work in other countries and markets, as well, such as India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Since Murdoch first purchased the five-channel satellite platform, he has multiplied its services at an astounding rate, so that the company now manages 19 brands on more than 60 satellite channels. Rather than a singular pan-Asian juggernaut, Star instead provides a host of niche services targeted at a diverse range of viewers, and the sum of the parts still does not add up to a consistently profitable whole.

Such uneven performance is no doubt troubling, for Murdoch’s stated ambition is to put together the first viable global satellite network and then float a public stock offering in hopes of recouping his company’s massive investments. An important part of that portfolio will be Star and Phoenix, but many media executives in Asia confidentially wonder if either service will prove profitable over the long run. Indeed, to witness Murdoch kowtowing to Chinese leaders, currying the favor of provincial bureaucrats, and pandering to nationalist sentiments of Chinese audiences seems indicative of his anxieties about the future of his Asian ventures. Such uneasiness should no doubt invite revision of the cheeky characterization of Murdoch’s generosity at the outset of this essay, but it should also encourage us to reconsider simplistic notions of power that paint Murdoch as an omnipotent global media baron.

News Corporation
Media in China blog
Inside China

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