Accessibility:

Arab youth, television and “affluenza”

Issue 6, Fall 2008

By Mark D. Harmon

Popularized by several books, articles, and even a stage play over the last several years, a hypothesis known as “affluenza” predicts that media consumption will correlate positively with higher levels of materialistic traits.  This paper re-analyzes data from a lifestyle survey administered to youth in Egypt and Saudi Arabia with an eye towards testing the affluenza hypothesis in light of the ongoing boom in Arab satellite television.  While the survey was not specifically designed to test for affluenza, and therefore not an optimal tool, it did collect data on television viewing and several lifestyle topics which have been linked to affluenza in previous studies.  Surprisingly, the data from this survey of Egyptian and Saudi youth did not show a link between increased television viewing and materialistic traits – in stark contrast to surveys conducted in the United States and Europe. 

Before 1990, when most Arabic television stations were state-controlled monopolies with limited transnational reach, it would not make much sense to consider Arab television in terms of materialism.  Programs, delivered by land-based transmitters, generally followed the political line of the state, rarely delivering programming that could be called daring.  As Abdallah Schleifer put it, “Arab television, which came into being during the high tide of republican police states, did not even attempt journalism. Its photographers covered only occasions of state, and there were no correspondents, since it was ‘information’ not news that was sought. Anchors could do the job of reading state news agency wire copy describing these ceremonial occasions while unedited footage was transmitted.”[1] Advertising existed, but was restricted heavily, and clustered between programs—not interrupting them.[2]

Free to air satellite TV networks, however, soon changed the media landscape. Dubai-based Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) debuted in 1991, Lebanese-based Future TV in 1995, Qatar-based al-Jazeera and Lebanese LBCI in 1996.  The Syrian-owned, London-based ANN started in 1997.  Lebanese al-Manar and NBN both came onboard during 2000, as did Tunisian al-Mustaqilla.  Zayn-TV and Egypt’s Dream TV started one year later.  In 2002 al-Mihwar and al-Khalifa joined the crowded satellite offerings, as did al-Arabiya in 2003.[3]

The new viewing options found success with formats borrowed from Western operators. MBC in 2000 had a hit show with Man Sa Yarbah al-Malyoun, an Arabic version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?  Al-Jazeera’s Al-Ittijah al-Muaakis (The Opposite Direction) is modeled after CNN’s now-defunct Crossfire.  ABC’s all-female hosted The View is mirrored in MBC’s Kalam Nawa’em.  Glitzy talent shows also came along for the ride.  Super Star, adapted from Pop Idol, began in 2003 on Future TV.  LBCI, a terrestrial broadcaster in Lebanon but also a satellite channel, countered with the phenomenally successful Star Academy in the summer of 2003.  By December of that year, viewers could follow their favorite contestants 24 hours a day on the LBC Reality network. Religious clerics objected to the show on many cultural grounds, but especially the social mixing of unmarried men and women.[4]

Marwan Kraidy notes that a small but vocal group of political activists and religious leaders routinely condemn all reality TV not only on social grounds, but also because it “facilitates cultural globalization characterized by Western values of individualism, consumerism, and sexual promiscuity.”[5]  The concern is hardly new.  As early as 1998 a Muslim orator, speaking in Mecca to worshippers, deemed satellite TV “poison.”[6]

Ratings and viewing habits

Getting precise figures on audience size and advertising revenues for Arabic television remains difficult.  One 2005 estimate put entire Arab world advertising at a mere $1.5 billion for all media, and deduced that most forms must still rely on government dollars or wealthy patrons.[7]  On the positive side, MBC by 1998 had an estimated audience of two million for popular programs, making it the both the most watched and the most attractive to advertisers.  Exact numbers on dish ownership are also shaky, but one 2002 estimate had a range of 20 to 60 percent household penetration in most Arab countries.[8] 

Hugh Miles demonstrated the wide range of estimates for TV advertising expenditures in the Middle East.  The monitoring service Ipsos-Stat said the 1999 total was $240 million; the Pan Arab Research Center said $100 million; and the trade magazine ArabAd claimed just $55 million.  What is clear is that the satellite services are splitting an advertising pot of hundreds of millions of dollars among a rapidly growing number of outlets.  By the end of 1999 in most of the Middle East one could receive at least 60 terrestrial and free-to-air satellite channels in Arabic, another five in English, and six in Hindi.[9]   By May 2007 one author tallied 280 Arabic language satellite TV offerings, including foreign broadcasters such as Deutche Welle, BBC, France 24, and Russia TV Today.[10]

Imad Karam’s research on television consumption habits among people aged 16-27 in the Arab world also provides valuable new data.[11]  More than half the 200 respondents to his surveys reported watching television up to three hours a day on a typical school or work day.  Seventeen percent watched four to six hours a day, and seven percent watched more than six hours.  Only 24 percent reported watching less than an hour a day.  More than half were motivated to watch for entertainment, and one in ten admitted to using TV to pass time.  Movies are by far the most popular programming, followed by singing and music shows.  Karam’s focus groups show that Arab youth, though a large and growing demographic, do not feel that many news and public affairs programs take their concerns seriously, reflecting their lack of voice in school, home, or the wider world.  On entertainment programming, Walter Armbrust has observed that individuals who voice concern about the social effects of shows like Super Star often watch and enjoy the programs nonetheless.[12]               

Methods

Two major studies, one in the U.S. and another in Europe have tended to support the affluenza hypothesis.[13]  Given that Arab satellite networks are multiplying rapidly, attracting increased ad expenditures, and often mimic Western programming formats like reality TV and game shows, it seems logical to ask if materialist/consumerist values correlate with heavier television viewing among Arab viewers. 

To test the hypothesis, I re-analyzed data collected in a 2005 survey by the Association of Religion Data Archives entitled “Youth, Emotional Energy, and Political Violence: The Cases of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”[14] The survey targeted youth aged 18 to 25 using face-to-face interviews, conducted in Egypt May 5th to June 30th, 2005, and in Saudi Arabia during July 10th to 25th.  A representative sample of 928 youth were drawn from three Egyptian cities: Alexandria, Cairo, and El-Minya.  In Saudia Arabia the 954 young people were in Jedda, Riyadh, and Dammam/Khobar. 

The survey was designed to analyze certain cultural and sociopolitical attitudes of young Saudis and Egyptians, including: authorities they relied upon, awareness of development ideas, relationships between politics and religion, preferences for forms of government, attitudes toward Western culture, social status of women, and religiosity.  These sample sizes are large enough to assure high reliability that the findings represent the overall group under study.  The researchers neither used nor needed over-sampling techniques or weighting of the results.  Furthermore, the use of face-to-face interviews and paper-and-pencil questionnaires added both depth and generalizability.  One did not have to account for the unavailability of landline phones in some areas or income groups, or the preference of many young people for cell phones (whose numbers can be difficult to obtain or use for polling purposes).  The mean length of the interview was 57 minutes, allowing for some 223 question replies. One drawback of the survey was a slight gender imbalance; 56.6 percent of respondents were male. 

Past quantitative work on Arab youth has relied on school-based surveys, leaving out those who are not enrolled, attending, or are beyond their school years.[15]  School-based surveys and internet-based surveys have advantages, especially for certain topics and target audiences, but these face-to-face surveys seek a broader array of potential respondents.

Defining and measuring affluenza               

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[1] Abdallah Schleifer, “Media and Religion in the Arab-Islamic World,” edited version of 11th annual Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs, September 2006, appearing in Arab Media & Society, February 2007 [online].

[2] William A. Rugh, Arab Mass Media: Newspapers, Radio and Television in Arab Politics (London: Praeger, 2004) 181-199.

[3] Rugh, 219.

[4] Marwan M. Kraidy, “Idioms of Contention: Star Academy in Lebanon and Kuwait,” in Arab Media and Political Renewal: Community, Legitimacy and Public Life, ed. Naomi Sakr (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 44-55.

[5] Marwan Kraidy, “Reality Television and Politics in the Arab World: Preliminary Observations.” Arab Media & Society, Fall 2006 [online].

[6] U. S. State Department, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 1999, Feb. 25, 2000, Saudi Arabia section.

[7] United States Institute of Peace, “Arab Media: Tools of the Governments; Tools for the People?”  Virtual Diplomacy Series #18, released August 2005.  http://www.usip.org/virtualdiplomacy/publications/reports/18.html.

[8] Rugh, 219-220, 237.

[9] Hugh Miles, Al-Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel that is Challenging the West (New York: Grove Press, 2005), 66-67.

[10] Alan L. Heil Jr., “Rate of Arabic language TV start-ups shows no sign of abating,” Arab Media & Society, February 2007 [online].

[11] Imad Karam, “Satellite Television: A Breathing Space for Arab Youth?” in Arab Media and Political Renewal: Community, Legitimacy and Public Life, ed. Naomi Sakr (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007) 80-95.

[12] Walter Armbrust,  “What Would Sayyid Qutb Say?  Some Reflections on Video Clips,” TBS 14, Spring 2005 http://www.tbsjournal.com/Archives/Spring05/armbrust.html.  Accessed June 17, 2008. 

[13] Mark D. Harmon, “Affluenza: Television Use and Cultivation of Materialism,” Mass Communication & Society 4 (2001): 405-418; Mark D. Harmon, “Affluenza: A World Values Test,” International Communication Gazette 68 (2006): 119-130.

[14] http://www.thearda.com

[15] See for example: Yacoub Khallad,”Mate selection in Jordan: Effects of sex, socio-economic status, and culture.”  Journal of Social & Personal Relationships 22 (2): 155-168; or Ahmad Moh’d Al-Mulla, Sahar Abdou Helmy, Jawad Al-Lawati, Sami Al Nasser, Salah Ali Abdel Rahman, Ayesha Almutawa, Bassam Abi Saab, Abdullah Mohammed Al-Bedah, Abdullah Mohamed Al-Rabeah, Ahmed Ali Bahaj, Fatimah El-Awa, Charles W. Warren, Nathan R. Jones & Samira Asma,. “Prevalence of Tobacco Use Among Students Aged 13-15 Years in Health Ministers’ Council/Gulf Cooperation Council Member States, 2001-2004.” Journal of School Health 78 (6): 337-343.

[16] M. Joseph Sirgy, Dong-Jin Lee, Rustan Kosenko, H. Lee Meadow, Don Rahtz, Nuris Cicic, Guang Xi Jin, Duygun Yarsuvat, David L. Blenkhorn,  Newell Wright, (1998).  Does Television Viewership Play a Role in the Perception of Quality of Life?  Journal of Advertising, 27 (1), 125-142.

[17] Moniek Buijzen & Patti M. Valkenburg, (2003, October).  The Unintended Effects of Television Advertising: A Parent-Child Survey.  Communication Research 30 (5): 483-503; Moniek Buijzen & Patti M. Valkenburg, (2000).  The Impact of Television Advertising on Children's Christmas Wishes.  Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 44 (3): 456-470.

[18] Newell D. Wright & Val Larsen, (1993).  Materialism and Life Satisfaction: a Meta-Analysis. Journal of Consumer Satisfaction, Dissatisfaction and Complaining Behavior 6: 158-165.

[19] Walter Armbrust,  “What Would Sayyid Qutb Say?  Some Reflections on Video Clips,” TBS 14, Spring 2005 http://www.tbsjournal.com/Archives/Spring05/armbrust.html.  Accessed June 17, 2008.

[20] Mark D. Harmon and Nuria Cruz-Camara, “Does affluenza spread quickly.  A historical case study from Spain.”  International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics 4 (1): 87-92.