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Blending in: Arab Television and the Search for Programming Ideas

From the 1890s until the 1950s, the inventors of television thought of it as a means for disseminating information in a fashion similar to print, radio, and film. By the early '60s, media use and consumption emerged as a cultural concern in the debates on the "consumer society." The '70s saw the emergence of a debate on the one-way program flow; causing much resistance to media liberalization in the '80s. In the '90s, television became an industry that is international, prolific, and deregulated. 

The beginning of the twenty-first century is a challenging time for trying to understand television programming strategies, practices, and exchange. This paper is an exploration of a particular aspect of program exchange as seen on satellite stations broadcasting from the Middle East. After providing an overview of the theories and definitions governing program exchange as practiced by programmers, this study will focus on three main aspects of that process: (a) television plagiarism as witnessed on Lebanese Television; (b) licensed productions, as represented by game shows of international appeal such as Ya Leyl Ya Ayn and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and (c) programs that "pay homage" to Western productions such as Waznak Dahab (Your Weight in Gold).(1)

The Study of Program Export

The traditional study of program exchange is still influenced by the traditions of cultural imperialism. As early as the 1960s, Schiller and others argued that transnational communication was dominated by the United States and a few other industrialized countries. This domination leads to imposing economic, cultural, and political values on the developing countries. Schiller's thesis was controversial when it appeared and it fueled much of the debate that led, eventually, to the McBride Commission. This UNESCO-appointed commission concluded with insisting that developing countries had the right to place "nation building" as an objective of their media activities. Of course, these and other issues caused a much heated debate within the US and other Western countries. The main focus of these theorists was on the programs exported by the countries of the North and imported by the countries of the South.(2)

One particular aspect of program exchange that has escaped scrutiny is that of "format adaptation." This has been a "constantly recurring feature of international television."(3) In 1998, Albert Moran coined the term "copycat television" and tried to study this practice that goes back to radio, "the mother of many television formats."(4) Format, according to Moran, is a "cultural technology which governs the flow of ideas across time and space."(5) This study adopts Moran's definition in trying to explore program format adaptation in the Arab world. Specifically, this study is interested in the case of game shows: a "reality" type of television programming which has witnessed an international resurgence over the past five years and where format adaptation is worthy of close scrutiny.(6)


Television program format transfer occurs when the basic idea or ingredient of a program is used to produce a new version of the program. One of the rules that guide the work of television program directors is the belief that if a formula worked in the past it is most likely to work well in the future. While success has not always been the case, program re-makes have "occurred historically inside particular national television systems."(7) This is a phenomenon that has grown in scope and significance over the last few years as television programs are re-made in the television industry of another nation. In the Arab world, some of these programs are taking the audience by storm, locking them in their houses glued to their sets and causing them to desert the streets.(8)

Traditionally, the practice of television programming suggests the existence of a programming department divided into three broad work areas-acquisitions, production, and scheduling.(9) In the case of satellite stations covering the Middle East, programs produced in the West and bought by these channels fall under the prerogatives of the acquisitions department. This study is interested in a more subtle, indirect, and highly significant type of program exchange, whereby formats are created in the West and are bought for, adapted by, or inspire the work of, the production department in the non-West. Scheduling is the practice of putting both acquired and produced programs into a programming grid.

Ask any programmer and they will tell you that unless they are expected to generate money, most programs will not be produced. As Turrow suggests, programmers are guided by their relationship with two clients--audience and advertisers. On one hand, they try to achieve high ratings. This translates into a greater number of viewers or a first client satisfaction. On the other hand, they try to deliver that audience to a second client, the advertisers.(10) This is an important practice in the case of stations that rely on advertising revenue as a means of survival. In the Middle East, satellite channels rely either on advertising revenue or government subsidy for financial revenue. While the financial structure of television channels is beyond the scope of this paper, it is important to note that our discussion will focus on the practices of some of the fully commercial TV channels such as MBC, LBCI, Abu Dhabi Television and others.


Moran notes that "there is a tendency to assume that adaptations are [a] mechanical repetition of the initial format."(11) The process of nationalizing a television program involves various activities such as adapting, amending, improvising-even creating-elements, with the original format as a guide. This is "undoubtedly (a) more subtle and complex than some commentary would have made believe."(12) Consequently, this study adapts the acknowledgement or not of the original format as a basis of suspicion of plagiarism. My interest is not in accusing the players but in mapping out a practice and drawing conclusions. I will concentrate in tracing a pattern in Lebanese television as the Lebanese channels are important players in the Arab media scene. A careful examination shows two patterns of practice emerging.

Prior to the Broadcasting Act of 1994, the Lebanese television scene witnessed a clear and defiant infringement of international copyright. Series, TV movies, news programs, music videos, and game shows were re-transmitted by the fifty-four or so television stations that ruled the airwaves between 1991 and 1994. At least two cases emerged as direct plagiarism of international game shows: Tele-Liban, Lebanon's now government-owned station, made an exact Arabic translation of Wheel of Fortune, producing Dulab al Hazz. Due to lack of sponsorship interest the show was short lived. Meanwhile, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation produced an Arabic copy of Win, Loose, or Draw under the name Meen Qaddak.

A second pattern emerged in the body of work of the producer/director Simon Asmar. Classic hits of Lebanese television like Iftah ya Simsim (Open Sesame), Laylat Hazz (Night of Fortune) can be traced to French and Turkish formats. Two of Asmar's early successes were Laqta 'al Hawa (Live Snapshot) and Qalbi Dalili (My Heart Is My Guide). Their genesis can be found in The Dating Gameand Matchmaker respectively. The genius of Asmar remains his ability to pick up the basis of a format and re-formulate it, making the end product almost unrecognizable to the uncritical viewer.

In the post Broadcasting Act era, such plagiarism is being challenged. First, the Middle East and North Africa are falling under close scrutiny by copyright enforcement bodies.(13) This has lead to several Arab countries ratifying their intellectual property laws. Moreover, one of the implications of the new economy of pan-Arab television is that programs are produced to be broadcast for the whole region. Consequently, any similarities are easily noted by viewers and critics alike.

At this stage, it is still too early to predict when and if this practice will stop completely. This process of "inspiration"--as program producers like to call it--has turned to less visible channels for adaptation sources. Producers are learning Spanish and Italian and are carefully monitoring the multitude of channels currently available at their disposal in these languages.

Licensed productions

The earliest successful attempt to license a program to the Middle East was in 1997 with the program Family Feud. Produced in Lebanon by Murr Television (MTV), Kel Mayleh Ayleh, was aired five days a week for over four years. The success of that particular game show paved the way for other shows to be produced by the same channel (and others) over the years. To name a few, MTV produced the Quiz Show; LBC produced Greed and Fort Boyard; and Future TV produced The Weakest Link and The Trap.(14)

By any standard, game show formats have proven themselves the best adapted to crossing cultures. Game shows like Jeopardy have been produced in more than seventy countries worldwide. Yet it was not until the mid-nineties that this production approach caught on in the Middle East. Game shows help programmers fill their 24-hour schedules with relatively cheap productions while achieving a maximum audience by assuring a pan-Arab viewership, either via call-ins or through actual participation.

It also took a world wide phenomenon like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to encourage Middle East producers to catch on and buy/license the format.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, developed by Celador, made its British ITV debut in 1998. It instantly became a worldwide phenomenon, licensed to more than seventy countries. In 2000, the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), at the time based in London, bought the license to produce the show. Interestingly, the license was granted for the Middle East and North Africa area, consisting entirely, with the exception of Greece and Cyprus, of Arabic-speaking territories. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was first broadcast to this audience in November 2000. Originally produced by the same British crew and in the same British studio as the original version; only three non-British employees worked on the show--the host, the producer, and question writer. Due to operational difficulties and in the hope of reducing the production budget, the show moved from the UK to France in June 2001. This attempt helped increase the size of the Arabic-speaking crew in the hope for a full transfer of the production to Egypt. This transfer came as part of a repatriation of MBC to the Arab world-including its main headquarters to Dubai--and a division of major productions between the Beirut and Cairo offices in February 2002. In summary, the licensed show started with a British crew and transferred to an Arab crew, yet the concept and format of the show remained largely the same. Decisions concerning the look of the show, the talent and the participants, were also determined by the licensees.

Similarly, there has been a solid move towards a more liberal adaptation of a format. When licensors allowed it, local programmers were encouraged to capitalize on an Arab appeal for their shows.

Ya Layl Ya Ayn was a variety game show broadcast on LBCI since 1999. Over the years the show owed much of its popularity to its presenters, participants, and guests, but the primary reason behind its success was the basic format idea. A closer look at the show's ingredients and structure reveals its kinship with the French program La Fureur. The format is simple: dance, play, sing and "set the world on fire" as the show's promotions claim! In fact, between 1999 and 2002, the show featured 3000 songs, 500 dances, 150 artists, 800 participants, and more than US$ 2,500,000 in gifts.

Over the years and due to its pan-Arab success, the show developed some major variations, independent of the original format, which nevertheless remained a source of inspiration. The basic games of La Fureur remained: the rhythm game, guess the tune, video clues, tricks, and the signals. However, the show differed from the original format in that it played on the battle of the sexes, guys vs. girls. For many, the show's appeal is due in part to the sexual tension that is played out throughout the episode.

It should be noted that one of the more successful ventures of the program was its relocation to Egypt for a series of episodes. This temporary move was justified on three levels: (1) higher ratings would be achievable as it now reached an Egyptian audience of 60 million; (2) it could attract the best of Egyptian celebrities; and (3) it was more economical to fly the crew home and be a guest of Egypt's Media City.

Interviews with producers suggest that (1) when budget permits, the show will be produced in the country of origin to guarantee full adherence to the format; and (2) the production staff-primarily the director, producer, and host-are trained by the original format staff. The Arabic version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is a show that made the full transition, while the Arabic versions of Family Feud, Weakest Link, Greed, and others benefited from an exchange of expertise in the form of technical and creative assistance from the original format creators. The case of the show Fort Boyard, dubbed Hella we Htalla, is unique as it is produced by a French team with Lebanese hosts and Arab participants.

The benefits of buying the license to produce a format are numerous. It is a tried and tested show. First, programmers cut down on the stresses of development both in creative effort and time spent testing concepts. The challenges on creativity have become acute since the Middle Eastern viewer has become exposed to more and better programming through access to satellite channels (homegrown and foreign). Consequently, the time spent on pre-production and production design is cut dramatically since the licensors supply both their know-how and expertise to the production staff. Scripts, production sheets, computer software, set designs, etc., are all part of the material exchanged between the licensors and programmers.

Second, a licensed production provides the programmers with a pre-sold program. On the one hand, advertisers are familiar with the success of the show in its native country. Consequently, it becomes easier to commit to a media plan that estimates a considerable viewership. On another hand, the viewers are may already be familiar with the show's success, may have seen the original "foreign" production, or are subject to a targeted promotional campaign to raise awareness of the program's appeal. Promotion producers attempt to use a combination of clips from the original show and the locally produced one using visuals and copy to entice viewers to "share the pleasure with millions of viewers around the world."

Unlicensed or "Cloned" Productions

Moran touches on the point that "a license fee has had to be modest for otherwise the format will tend to be copied without permission". Moreover licensors, producers, and advisors do not emphasize strict cloning for, as Moran points out, all cases involve considerable rearrangement of the elements such as sets, costumes, story-lines, music, etc. Unless they are a major player on the Middle East broadcasting scene, programmers are unlikely to be able to afford to buy regional rights. In this situation, programmers tap into the local talent to clone the original format. In a region where copyright laws and practices are virtually nonexistent, cloning has become a creative as well as an economic practice. The cloning of programs can be traced back to the 1950s with the birth of national TV systems in the Middle East. News, talk shows, drama, and other genres were copying Western programming and program ideas-understandably, given that television practitioners were taught and trained by the West and their media systems were molded on Western ones.

The introduction of satellite broadcasting was no different. As most of these channels were based in Europe, and even employed Westerners or Arab expatriates, their productions came to reflect these backgrounds. In the new world of satellite broadcasting the issue of copyright is of major concern. Consequently, programmers were challenged to find creative ways for their cloning. In so doing, programmers manage to achieve two objectives. On one hand they provide a unique opportunity for their first and second clients. On the other hand, their risks are minimal because cloning resembles the original idea which has been tried and tested.

Inspired Television

While cloning seems not to take into consideration the copyright liabilities that might limit the show's success, some programmers have been successful in being inspired by the international success of certain shows, especially game shows. Like an architect who finds the best land to build a dream house, the programmers seize the opportunity of a proven success--that of the recycling of game shows--to structure their program.

In this case, the programmers know that an audience as well as advertiser interest is available. Any success in this venture relies on the ability to (1) identify the key elements of success in the original program, and (2) build on the cultural and local sensitivities and interests.

While both licensed and plagiarized productions take into consideration these sensitivities, only the locally originating program can adapt easily and answer those needs. Instead of an inductive reasoning, producers in this category are guided by deductive reasoning. Consequently, their productions should come to reflect Western know-how applied to a local idea. In theory, this should prove successful with the audience; yet this has not always been the case. However, one success is worth studying, that of Waznak Dahab (Your Weight in Gold) on Abu Dhabi TV (ADTV).

Waznak Dahab, in which contestants answer a series of general knowledge questions leading up to the possibility of a grand prize of winning their weight in gold, was launched by ADTV in 1999. The show has almost the same ingredients as the Millionaire show-the same host, pan-Arab contestants, the same layout and graphics.

Waznak Dahab capitalizes on a number of culturally important elements that makes it a success. First, the title of the show is of prime significance where the simple mention of gold lures the imagination of the viewers. Arab mythology is full of stories about princes giving away gold prizes amounting to the weight of those who solve riddles, and this game show is nothing but a modern version of these tales. The striking golden colors of the set come to remind us of that aspect, coupled with the modern-looking female guardians of gold (reminiscent of the prince's harem). Second, the show's presenter is a famous actor turned TV host, a common practice in the Arab world since male presenters are a rare commodity.

Waznak Dahab's development was not entirely Arab. The show's basic structure and look were entrusted to Larry Parker, an American director with a good knowledge of Middle Eastern customs and politics. The original assignment was to format a game show, not copy or license, and this is what Larry and a team of western educated Arabs managed to achieve.

Some Conclusions

Fiske identifies two economies of television: the financial and the cultural. Fiske acknowledges that to the producers, television programs are products with material values. But the receivers of these products have a cultural economy that is associated with deriving pleasure and meaning. These two economies work simultaneously, yet while the financial economy favors homogenization and incorporation, the cultural economy calls for resistance and difference.

The current media landscape promises the future development of licensed programs. Programmers in the Middle East are paying a closer look at successful programs on international satellite networks available in the Middle East. Will they translate this into a balance between the need for resistance and difference and homogenization and incorporation?


1. The use of programs that have ceased to air is intentional on the part of author. It was considered important to assess the historical significance of a trend or in this case a show.
2. Williams in Didsbury, Jr. 1982, 107. Williams mentions that the one-way flow of information and the unbalanced flow of information were first considered and entered the vocabulary of modern communications in the famous UNESCO meeting in Montreal, Canada, June 1969. The interest of such an organization opened the way for important research and the findings generated by the MacBride committee were dramatic. These findings surprised “even the occidental observers who could not understand how, in the name of international legality, their governors reject today the same resolutions they adopted yesterday.”
3. Albert Moran, Copycat Television: Globalization, Program Formats, and Cultural Identity. University of Luton Press, 1998.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. A range of game shows invaded prime time Arab television during the years 1999 to 2002. This paved the way for the current wave of reality-based game shows and competitions.
7. Moran, 1998.
8. Or so one of the promotional clips for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire humorously claimed during the show’s final days on MBC.
9. For more discussion on programming strategies consult Donald M. Davis Electronic Media Programming Strategies and Decision Making. New York: McGraw Hill, 1993 and Eastman, Susan Tyler, et al. Broadcast Programming: Strategies for Winning Television and Radio Audiences. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1989.
10. Joseph Turow Media Systems in Society: Understanding Industries, Strategies and Power. Logman, 1992.
11. Ibid Moran, 1998.
12. Ibid Moran, 1998.
13. The year 2004 saw a clear alliance between governments and program producers and distributors to make sure copyright laws are abided by.
14. Currently LBCI is leading the way with reality-based game shows.
15. For more information on the success of this show, see www.celador.co.uk
16. Moran, 1998.
17. John Fiske Television Culture. New York: Methuen, 1987.

About Joe F. Khalil

Joe F. Khalil is a PhD student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. He has more than 12 years of professional television experience as director, executive producer and consultant with CNBC Arabiya, MBC, MTV and Orbit. As a media professional, he has travelled on assignments in Italy, USA, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. For seven years, he was an instructor at the Lebanese American University where his teaching and research focused on transnational broadcasting, programming and production.

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