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Reality Television and Politics in the Arab World: Preliminary ObservationsIcon indicating an associated article is peer reviewed

TBS Journal, Fall 2006

By Marwan Kraidy

Arab Reality TV: Promoting Pan-Arab love or stoking the flames of nationalism? (Photo of Star Academy courtesy IBA Media.)

Arab Reality TV: Promoting Pan-Arab love or stoking the flames of nationalism? (Photo of Star Academy courtesy IBA Media.)

Abstract

The most popular and controversial television programs in the Arab world are “reality” shows like Super Star and Star Academy, broadcast by satellite to viewers from Morocco to Iraq. These shows claim to be live, non-scripted and therefore "real". Many rely on audience participation in the form of voting for favorite contestants. In the wake of controversy triggered by Super Star and Star Academy, some observers have hailed reality television as a harbinger of democracy in the Arab world. This article explores the complex ways in which Arab reality television can be described as political and poses questions about the role of reality programs in the Pan-Arab public sphere. Based on fieldwork, textual analysis, and interviews with television producers and market researchers, this article concludes with preliminary observations on the political implications of Arab reality television.

Introduction

Reality television (1) entered Arab public discourse in the last five years at a time of significant turmoil in the region: escalating violence in Iraq, contested elections in Egypt, the struggle for women’s political rights in Kuwait, political assassinations in Lebanon, and the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict. This geo-political crisis environment that currently frames Arab politics and Arab-Western relations is the backdrop to the controversy surrounding the social and political impact of Arab reality television, which assumes religious, cultural or moral manifestations. This article explores the connections between Arab reality television and the political, economic and socio-cultural forces that animate contemporary Arab public discourse. It offers observations on how public contention about reality television articulates these forces to issues such as inter-Arab relations, democratization and political participation. The article concludes with questions, to be addressed in future research, about the ways in which public contention around reality television overlaps and spills into Arab political life.

Specifically, this article offers preliminary analysis of public discourse surrounding three reality television programs, Super Star, Al Ra’is, and Star Academy, used as comparative case-studies to map the dynamics of contention in the Pan-Arab public sphere. The analysis is based on seven months of fieldwork in Beirut and Dubai in 2004 and 2005, including more than 100 interviews with people involved in production, promotion, evaluation, and research on the audience of Arab reality television programs, in addition to textual analysis of around 50 hours of the programs themselves.(2) This initial research indicates that reactions to Arab reality television fall in two broad camps. On one hand, there is a large group of young people and adults who follow reality television programs, some of them more or less regular viewers, others avid fans, making some reality television shows the most popular programs in Arab television history. On the other hand, there is a relatively small but vocal minority of religious leaders and political activists who have condemned reality television because in their judgment it violates Islamic principles of social interaction and/or facilitates cultural globalization characterized by Western values of individualism, consumerism, and sexual promiscuity.

This article recognizes that opinions on reality television in the Arab region are more diverse than the two broad categories mentioned above, including those who dismiss reality television on the grounds that it is contrived dramatically, mediocre artistically, or simply not very interesting. To that end, it seeks to distinguish competing political, religious and economic discourses that are compelled into public debate on the impact of reality television on Arab societies. This article is drawn from a working book manuscript,(3) and therefore it is best construed as offering a set of preliminary observations rather that definite interpretation. These observations will focus on the overlaps between popular culture and politics in the context of the public controversy surrounding reality television, within the framework of the relationship between the broad categories of “politics” and “entertainment.”

Politics and Entertainment

 

Long treated as two distinct and separate spheres, the realms of politics and entertainment have become increasingly related in mass mediated societies where they both rely on celebrity and public recognition. The overlap is probably most pronounced in the United States since 1992, when presidential candidate William Jefferson Clinton played his saxophone on MTV. This issue took surreal dimensions nearly a decade later when World Wrestling Federation ex-star Jesse “The Body” Ventura won the governorship of Minnesota as a third party candidate against two powerful mainstream opponents. In the late 1990s, US television, from celebrity gossip shows to serious network news, was abuzz with rumors of Hollywood stars and business tycoons running for political office: Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood and Donald Trump were imputed political ambitions, rumors that most of them did nothing to undermine. Even after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, when pundits proclaimed the end of both innocence and insouciance, and the return to more serious matters of state, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Austrian-born Mister Universe turned Hollywood action hero, was elected governor of the American state of California. Michael Moore’s Academy Awards diatribe against George W. Bush in 2004 was watched by millions throughout the world, triggering widespread commentary in the international and Arab press. The United States continues to be, in the words of Neil Gabler, the “republic of mass entertainment.”(4)

Elsewhere in the world, the connection is less patent, but signs of it exist everywhere. The transformation of Cicciolina from porn-star to member of the Italian parliament, Bob Geldof’s crusade for debt relief in the developing world, and Indian movie stars dabbling in politics, are all indications of blurring boundaries between entertainment and politics, with most “cross-overs” being from the former to the latter. In Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, newspaper cartoons and comedic television programs have long been a platform for caustic political satire, with the special Ramadan broadcast of Tash ma Tash, a Saudi television comedy, stirring controversy in Saudi Arabia at the time of this writing.(5) The connection between politics and entertainment in the developing world sometimes takes indirect forms. In India, the television broadcasts of the historical Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, were concomitant with a changing political landscape, and by some accounts, to the redefinition of politics in India.(6) In Latin America, telenovelas often take on politicized socio-economic themes.

In most of the non-Western world, cultural production is an arena where various forces struggle to define national identity in ways that are more contentious than in the West. For example, the commoditization of the female body in popular culture, which in the West is often marginally discussed as a moral issue, creates major controversies in the non-Western world, where women’s roles are central to historical memory and national identity. In short, the impact of entertainment television on public discourse in developing countries(7) is explained by “popular culture’s ability to produce and articulate feelings [that] can become the basis of an identity, and that identity can be the source of political thought and action.”(8)

That popular culture creates identities with political potential, or perhaps more accurately, that it integrates already existing group identities and serves as a platform for their exaltation in public discourse, is made clear by the controversy surrounding Arab reality television. Reality television broadcasts are public events in Arab countries, compelling various actors to articulate competing social identities and political agendas in a process of public contention whose objective is to favor one or another vision of the good society.(9) Because of its high visibility, popular culture in general and reality television specifically, is a magnet for contentious politics because the upheaval over its implications for Arab societies stands for a larger, ongoing debate about Arab-Western relations and socio-cultural change. The overlap between popular culture and politics exposes fault-lines in Arab societies as the popularity and controversial status of reality television brings to the surface latent socio-political tensions.

To illustrate these processes of contention, this article takes three reality television shows as case-studies. The first is Super Star, the Arab version of Pop Idol or American Idol, the second is Star Academy, the Arab version of Fame Academy, and the third is Al Ra’is, the Arabic version of Big Brother(10) . The first was produced by Future Television, a Lebanese channel owned by the family of the late Rafiq al-Hariri; the second was launched by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC); the third was broadcast by the Dubai-based, Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC). Superstar and Star Academy were shot in Lebanon, Al Ra’is in Bahrain. The first two have been extremely popular among Arab audiences and have garnered record advertising rates, with Star Academy being unequivocally the most popular and probably the most controversial satellite television program in Arab history. The third program, Al Ra’is was shut down one week after it went on the air in 2004, due to intense controversy including street demonstrations in Manama, Bahrain’s capital. Public discourse around these programs illustrates how various groups use them to articulate and legitimate competing ideological agendas. In particular, after exploring the emergence of nationalist speech in tandem with reality television broadcasts, my observations focus on how business and religious leaders, among others, use the visibility of reality television to increase the public’s exposure to their views.

Reality Television and Inter-Arab Rivalries

Developments in the Arab media industry during the last 15 years are dominated by a trend towards regionalization.(11) Nationally oriented terrestrial television channels and national daily newspapers remain popular and influential in some Arab countries, but regional satellite television channels such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, LBC and MBC, and regional newspapers such as Al Hayat, Asharq Al Awsat and Al Quds Al Arabi, all three London-based, have a strong following and usually set the terms and rhythm of Pan-Arab public discourse. Like other regional media industries in Latin America and South East Asia, Arab satellite television tends to produce programs that appeal at once to city dwellers in Baghdad and Casablanca and to rural viewers in the Egyptian sa’id and the Lebanese jurd, although it is mostly focused on urban middle-class viewers that appeal to advertisers. Additional trends underscoring Arab satellite television’s trans-regional mode of address include (1) the development of what is now known as “white Arabic,” a media compatible, simplified version of Standard Modern Arabic that is becoming a lingua franca for regional public discourse, (2) the advent of stars with regional appeal (whether they are journalists, program hosts, singers, or to a lesser extent, actors) and (3) the standardization of production practices in Beirut, Cairo and Dubai.(12)

At another level, the rising popularity of television formats that Arab channels purchase from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom and then adapt to Arab audiences has brought to Arab screens a flurry of what can be called “hybrid” programs because they combine a “global” format developed in Western Europe or the United States, with “local” content that appeals to the cultural sensibilities of specific audiences. In 2004 and 2005, many media executives in Beirut and Dubai said to me that “the gossip in the [satellite television] industry used to be about who is creating what, and now the gossip is about who is purchasing which format.” In my interviews with satellite television professionals, there were no indications of dissatisfaction with this situation, since in most cases importing program ideas and adapting them is less arduous than creating original programs(13) Clearly, television format adaptation suits satellite television channels because it allows them to bypass several steps in the production process and to fashion programs for a Pan-Arab audience living between Rabat and Baghdad. The resulting productions mix elements from “East” and “West” and draw on the cultural repertoires of various Arab countries. The cultural hybridity of these programs, and many of them belong to the reality genre, contributes to unpredictable audience reactions and, as we shall see shortly, heated public debates.(14)

Regionalization is well established in the Arab satellite television industry as a business and marketing strategy. Many promotion and marketing managers I spoke with in Beirut and Dubai wax lyrical when conjuring up visions of a Pan-Arab audience whose millions of viewers transcend inter-Arab divisions. Politically and culturally, however, regionalization is skin deep, as demonstrated by expressions of rivalry between Arabs from different countries during the 2003 broadcast of Future Television’s Super Star. Launched with great success in 2003, this Arabic version of Pop Idol raised Future Television’s stature both nationally and regionally as thousands of Arabs auditioned to participate in the program and millions watched and voted for their favorite contestants. Super Star rested on the basic premise of singers performing on stage in front of three jurors. Elias al-Rahbani, member of Lebanon’s most famous musical family, donned edgy eyewear and black turtlenecks to play the role of juror-in-chief, a convincing if a bit contrived copycat of Simon Cowell, the acerbic music producer and jury leader in the American version of the show, American Idol.(15)

As it reached its final weeks, Super Star’s competition turned from an artistic competition between individual contestants to an international rivalry in which each contender was primarily performing as a representative of their country.(16) From the early weeks of the program, viewers could see the flag waving by the in-studio audience, and text messages feeding into television tickers depicted patriotic statements often accompanied by icons of national flags whose on-screen appearance was made possible by Multimedia Messaging Service. Even before the last couple of weeks when the competition intensified significantly, there were reports that voting was occurring on national bases, which meant that the wealthy inhabitants of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates) would give Super Star contestants from those countries an edge in the competition. However, with the presence of the jury, artistic talent was a determining factor,(17) and the three semi-finalists were a Jordanian woman, a Lebanese man and a Syrian man. This combination of nationalities created controversy. When the Lebanese competitor was eliminated in the semi-final, riots broke out in Beirut and fans stormed the stage in protest, as Lebanese converged to the studios in large demonstrations. Fuelling this discontent was a rampant rumor that Syrian political pressure led to the elimination of the Lebanese candidate. Syria, euphemistically dubbed by Western news agencies as Lebanon’s “power broker,” in fact micro-managed all Lebanese affairs until Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in April 2005 under the combined pressure of massive street demonstrations in Beirut and United Nations resolution 1559 co-sponsored by France and the United States. Until the withdrawal, the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon was the de facto ruler of the country, and the Lebanese believed that very little happened in Lebanon without Syrian approval or intervention. It was therefore not surprising that Lebanese viewers were suspicious about the transparency of the process that led to the elimination of their national contestant.

In addition to these complicating issues between Lebanon and Syria, modern Jordanian-Syrian relations have been riddled with tension for various political reasons, including Syrian resentment about the Hashemite monarchy’s historically compromising stance towards Israel. The voting frenzy surrounding Super Star became a competition between these countries. When Super Star fever reached Syria itself, telecommunications companies installed billboards on Damascus thoroughfares promoting the Syrian contestant and exhorting Syrians to perform their national duty and vote for him. In interviews with Western press agencies, Syrians on the street were unequivocal: They were voting for him because he was Syrian. The fact that he was a good performer was just fine, but his national identity was the primary motivation for their participation in the show.(18) Special mobile telephone lines were devoted to the endeavor. In Jordan, rumors spread of a full-fledged national mobilization. King Abdallah himself was reported to have instructed officers in the Jordanian armed forces to issue orders to the soldiers under their command to vote for Diana Carazon, the Jordanian candidate who ultimately was crowned “Superstar of the Arabs.” Businesses exploited the situation as a marketing opportunity, with an ice cream parlor offering free ice cream for those who vote for Diana Carazon, and a car dealership took an ad in the daily Al-Dustour advertising a 2003 sedan that it would give to Diana Carazon.(19) Jordan’s telecommunications companies, who were poised to make large profits from their share of the voting bills,(20) entered the fray, with Fastlink and Mobile Com pledging “full support” and launching a daily print advertising campaign urging readers to support the Jordanian contestant and vote for her(21) .

Super Star stimulated patriotic feelings among its viewers that were exploited by political leaders and the corporate world. As an Associated Press wire report described it, “Arab ‘Idol’ [was] a Battle of Nations.”(22) This battle was all the more visible because of the enormous Pan-Arab audience that Future Television’s flagship program attracted: More than 30 million viewers watched the finale of Super Star 1,(23) and 4.8 million voted, 52 percent for Diana Carazon.(24) The division of passions and votes according to national affiliations undermines claims that Pan-Arab satellite television is uniting Arabs “from the (Atlantic) Ocean the (Persian) Gulf” in one community of feeling. While there are burning issues with transnational appeal, such as the plight of Palestinians and Iraqis under occupation, they appear to cede the way, even if temporarily, to more provincial affirmations of patriotism in the course of voting in popular reality television programs such as Super Star.

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NOTES
1. The boundaries of the reality television genre are notoriously porous. In this article the moniker “reality television” refers to programs that have defined themselves as “reality television,” which applies more to Star Academy and Al Ra’is than to Super Star. However, the latter was included in discussions of reality television in Arab public discourse, and therefore in this study.
2. Because of space considerations, it is impossible to include verbatim material from the interviews and detailed textual analyses in this chapter, which will have to await the book-length treatment.
3. Marwan M. Kraidy, Screens of Contention: Arab Media and the Challenges of Modernity, book manuscript in progress.
4. Neil Gabler, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Everyday Life (New York, 1998).
5. Tash ma Tash is produced privately for Saudi TV, but was broadcast by MBC during the 2005 Ramadan season. Other controversial Ramadan programs include Al Hawr Al-Ayn, a Syrian dramatic series broaching the phenomenon of terrorism in Arab societies, also broadcast by MBC, which generated heated debate from the mainstream Saudi press to radical Islamist internet fora.
6. Arvind Rajagopal, Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India (Cambridge, 2001)
7. For discussions of this issue in various regions of the world see Nestor García-Canclini, Consumers and Citizens: Globalization and Multicultural Conflicts (Minneapolis, 2001) and Jesus Martín-Barbero, From the Media to Mediations: Communication, Culture and Hegemony (London, 1993) for Latin American; for India, Walter Armbrust, Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge, 1996) and Lila-Abu Lughod, Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt (Chicago, 2005), for Egypt; Marwan M. Kraidy, Hybridity, or the Cultural Logic of Globalization (Philadelphia, 2005), pp 116-147, for Lebanon, and Patrick D. Murphy and Marwan M. Kraidy, Global Media Studies: Ethnographic Perspectives (London, 2003) for various other regions and countries, including Lebanon and Mexico.
8. John Street, Politics and Popular Culture, (Philadelphia, 1997), p. 10. Also, the globalization of American political campaigning and electioneering practices, with their heavy reliance on television, should also be mentioned as a factor tightening the connections between politics and popular culture worldwide.
9. “Visions of the good society” include an Islamist order based on the life of the salaf, or ancestors from the early days of Islam, and the freedom to make money for media corporations.
10. The Arabic name adds another layer to the Orwellian connotation of the name Big Brother, since Al-Ra’is means “president” or “leader” in Arabic, and has the same root with the word ra’s, Arabic for “head.”
11. For more on the regionalization of Arab media, see Jon Alterman (1998) New Media, New Politics? (Washington, DC), Marwan M. Kraidy (2002). Arab Satellite Television Between Globalization and Regionalization, Global Media Journal, 1, 1, Naomi Sakr, Satellite Realms: Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East (London, 2002), and Marwan M. Kraidy and Joe F. Khalil (2006, forthcoming), “Current Trends in the Arab Television Industry,” in Media Globe: Trends in International Media, Y. Kamalipour and L. Artz (Eds.), Lanham, MD, Rowman and Littlefield.
12. Made possible by satellite technology, this regionalization is driven by economic calculations. In news, regionalization has created an “anywhere but here” trend whereby satellite television channels tend to criticize all governments, politicians, etc, except those from the country in which they are based. It is well known, for example, that Al Jazeera’s editorial line, which is critical of Arab governments, rarely raises questions about Qatari affairs, especially government performance. However, Al Jazeera’s relentless criticism of Saudi Arabia’s rulers creates a kind of “asymmetrical interdependence” between Qatar and Saudi Arabia by giving more influence to the former. In that context, the creation of Al Arabiya by the Saudis aims at restoring the asymmetry to its fullness between Qatar and Saudi Arabia by undermining Al Jazeera’s influence. For a detailed discussion of these issues, see Marwan M. Kraidy and Joe F. Khalil (2006, forthcoming), “Current Trends in the Arab Television Industry,” in Media Globe: Trends in International Media, Y. Kamalipour and L. Artz (Eds.), Lanham, MD, Rowman and Littlefield.
13. The logistical complexities inherent in reality television programs has led to the rise of the position of “executive producer” in Arab television to supervise all the “story producers” and other “producers” whose task focuses on a single aspect of a reality show. For this insight I am indebted to Joe Khalil, who was recently creative director for a reality television program at MBC in Dubai.
14. For a detailed discussion of hybrid media programs, see Marwan M. Kraidy, Hybridity, or, the Cultural Logic of Globalization (Philadelphia, 2005), pp 97-115.
15. The discussion will refer mostly to the first installment of Super Star in 2003, later dubbed Superstar 1 in light of newer seasons of the program. When subsequent installment are discussed, they are referred to as Super Star 2 or Super Star 3. Simon Cowell is the acerbic leader of the panel of judges in American Idol, the US version of the same program.
16. Among other reports on this issue, see Bassem Mroue, “Arab world’s version of American Idol has nationalistic bent”
17. I discovered that there is a consensus among media professionals and journalistic critics of television that Super Star featured “real voices,” while Star Academy featured contestants with flamboyant or camera-friendly personalities, but with lower-caliber voices. Press commentary expresses the same consensus.
18. “Arab Idol a Battle of Nations,” Beirut, Associated Press, 18 August 2003. For a more detailed treatment of how Super Star was received in Syria, see Tyler MacKenzie, The Best Hope for Democracy in the Arab World: a Crooning TV "Idol"? Transnational Broadcasting Studies (13), 2004.
19. “Arab Idol a Battle of Nations,” Beirut, Associated Press, 18 August 2003.
20. In order to vote, viewers call “toll” numbers, with a charge several times higher than the price of a normal phone call. Profits are divided according to pre-set agreements between television channels and telecommunications companies.
21. “Pan-Arab song contest fuels passions in Jordan,” 17 August 2003, Jordan Times.
22. Idol a Battle of Nations, Beirut, Associated Press, 18 August 2003.
23. Maalouf, Lynn (2004, January 14). “Western television craze makes assured debut on region’s networks,” Daily Star.
24. Abou Nasr, Maya (2004, 4 February). “Who wants to be a Superstar? 12,000 do,” Daily Star. According to the same source, the fever carried through into the next season: Responding to casting calls on the screens of Future Television, 60,000 people applied and 40,000 auditioned for Super Star 2.
25. Habeas, Abed, “Palestinian singing finalist tunes into nationalism,” Associated Press/ Boston Globe, 23 August 2004
26. These include Western press reports and newspaper articles throughout the Arab world.
27. MBC staff ––from management to the producers and directors involved in Al Ra’is–– were reluctant to discuss the issue during personal interviews I conducted in Dubai in 2004 and 2005. However, information gleaned in fieldwork leads me to believe that there were factors internal to MBC that contributed to the controversy, to be discussed in the book-length treatment. Other factors to be explored in the larger study could include ever-present tensions between the majority Shiis and ruling Sunnis in Bahrain.
28. MacFarqhar, Neil, “A kiss is not just a kiss to an angry Arab TV audience,” The New York Times, 5 March 2004.
29. Reality television’s claim to be “real” is an issue that has received significant scholarly attention, for example in Mark Andrejevic, Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched (Lanham, MD, 2004) and Annette Hill, Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television (London, 2005). In my ongoing book project mentioned in the first note, I argue that this issue is even more important in the Arab context where defining social reality is a highly contentious matter as it is at the heart of issues of cultural and religious authenticity and Arab and Islamic relations with the Western world.
30. MacFarqhar, Neil, “A kiss is not just a kiss to an angry Arab TV audience,” The New York Times, 5 March 2004.
31. “The reality of Reality TV in the Middle East,” www.albawaba.com/ news/printArticle.php3?sid= 271966&lang=e, 7 March 2004.
32. “The reality of Reality TV in the Middle East,” www.albawaba.com/ news/printArticle.php3?sid= 271966&lang=e, 7 March 2004.
33. “The reality of Reality TV in the Middle East,” www.albawaba.com/ news/printArticle.php3?sid= 271966&lang=e, 7 March 2004.
34. The socio-economic arguments could be described as “emergent” while Islamist claims can be said to be “established,” a distinction admittedly in need of elaboration. While in this case the show was canceled, the fact that Gulf Arab politicians opposed public claims that shroud themselves in religion is significant, as is MBC’s rhetorical gesture to use “Arab” as “opposed” to “Islamic” in its corporate statement, even when there is connotative overlap between the two adjectives.
35. “The reality of Reality TV in the Middle East,” www.albawaba.com/ news/printArticle.php3?sid= 271966&lang=e, 7 March 2004.
36. Al Hawa Sawa was a match-making program produced by Arab Radio and Television (ART) in which 8 single women competed for a marriage proposal. The program was shot in Lebanon.
37. MacFarqhar, Neil, “A kiss is not just a kiss to an angry Arab TV audience,” The New York Times, 5 March 2004. Al-Hawa Sawa, an Arab reality television pioneer, featured a group pf unmarried women competing for a husband.
38. Because a large section of the Lebanese population is Francophone and some of it Francophile, the low-cost pirate cable operations offer a variety of French channel as part of their line-up.
39. While the discussion moves between Star Academy 1 (2003-2004) and Star Academy 2 (2004-2005), the first installment was a greater Pan-Arab media event, but the latter was more explicitly politicized in the wake of Hariri’s assassination.
40. Personal interview with Roula Saad, Director of Promotion, Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, Adma, Lebanon, 5 July 2005.
41. In addition to LBC boss Pierre al-Daher, whom I interviewed on July 5, 2005 and August 21, 2005, and Director of Promotion Roula Saad (5 July 2005), these include Sebouh Alavanthian (5 July 2005), director of the programming department, and Ronny Jazzar, president of Star Wave, an LBC affiliated production and promotion house (mid-July 2005).
42. Personal interviews I conducted with audience researchers at IPSOS-STAT OMD and PARC in Dubai and Beirut, June 2004 and June 2005, confirm what Sebouh Alavanthian, Director of the Programming Department at LBC, claimed: that Star Academy was successful with all demographic segments, although it particularly drew young viewers.
43. The overwhelming majority of text messages come from countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, mostly from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, which suggests a positive link between income levels and volume of text-messages.
44. Personal interviews conducted by the author with audience researchers at IPSOS-STAT OMD and PARC in Dubai and Beirut, June 2004 and June 2005.
45. The Kuwaiti information minister did lose his job in March 2005, in a cabinet reshuffle triggered by (among other factors) the powerful Islamic bloc in parliament wanted him out, and the new Minister stated he will reactivate a “unit” at the Ministry to “monitor” music videos and reality TV shows for offensive content. It is useful that Kuwait was then witnessing the peak of the struggle for women’s political rights, which mobilized the Islamist political constituency.
46. Al-Dakhil, Mounira Mohammad, “Destructive Academy is Harmful to the Family,” al-Riyadh, 27 February 2005.
47. This site was very active during the first season of Star Academy but has since then been taken off the World Wide Web.
48. While the Permanent Committee has issued opinion about mass media issues in the past, this is to my knowledge the first time that an entire fatwa is devoted to a single television program.
49. Technical developments such as Multimedia Messaging System (MMS) have encouraged national identification by inserting on the television ticker, a coloured flag of the country from which the call was made.
50. Interviews with five media professionals involved in the program indicate that there are other factors having to do with the interlocking media and political elites in Saudi Arabia, but these sources requested anonymity and asked that this issue not be discussed in detail at this time.
51. In a compromise with the Islamists, Star Academy 2 finalists did not give a concert in Kuwait. The concert given by Star Academy 1 finalists in Kuwait was the lightening rod of the Islamists. Some might also say that the law giving Kuwait women their political rights compromised with the Islamists when it stipulated that women’s political participation was to be framed by vaguely mentioned “Islamic principles.”
52. See for instance, the 7 March 2004, episode of the news show Al-Hadath, in which a Saudi journalist, a Lebanese advertising executive, a Lebanese psychoanalyst and LBC’s Director of Promotion and Marketing, debated the program, interspersed with reports about the reception of Star Academy in various Arab countries.
53. There were many articles in the Western and Arab press presenting this argument, the latest being Carla Power, “Look Who’s Talking,” Newsweek International, 8 August 2005, pp 50-51. While this argument is worth considering, we should certainly be cautious not to exaggerate the democratizing impact of reality television, or at least give some time for systematic research on the topic before we make optimistic claims.
54. Again, caution is advisable in evaluating the political impact of this video clip, in distinction from its political connotations.
55. In hindsight, the visuals of the video clip bear an uncanny resemblance to the Beirut demonstrations in the spring of 2005, with the exception that in the video clip many Arab flags were waived while in Beirut all flags were Lebanese.
56. Various news stories in the Lebanese and Pan-Arab press in the second half of February 2005, including Annahar, Assafir and Al-Hayat.
57. At that time tensions between Syria and Lebanon reached their peak since the early 1990s, as there was a widespread suspicion that Syria contributed one way or another to al-Hariri’s death. What occurred on the Star Academy 2 stage reflected popular discontent with Syria in Lebanon. Contrary to the clapping and dancing that usually accompanies the exit of a losing contestant, the amphitheater where the primes are shot was fully silent as the Syrian contestant stepped out.
58. I am referring here to Tyler MacKenzie, The Best Hope for Democracy in the Arab World: a Crooning TV "Idol"? Transnational Broadcasting Studies (13), 2004.
59. The amount of profit derived from voting is the best-guarded secret in the industry, and even journalists who cover the media offer informed speculation. Everyone I interviewed however agrees that significant profits are made from voting, and that in some cases they exceed advertising revenues.
60. " In Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, as in most other Arab countries, the media elite interlocks with the political elite, either through business or family relations."
61. A detailed discussion of the many ebbs and flows of this debate can be found in Patrick D. Murphy and Marwan M. Kraidy, Editors (2003). Global Media Studies: Ethnographic Perspectives. London: Routledge.