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Inside Arab Reality Television: Development, Definitions and Demystification

Nearly everybody agrees that reality television in the Arab world has changed the way we, as viewers, relate to television. This programming genre has been the center of much debate ever since the first group of reality participants was locked up in a villa. These views can be divided in four categories:

° Judging by the popularity of reality TV in the Arab world, many Western journalists welcomed and praised its “democratic” values and modern, taboo-shattering appeal.(1)

° Both religious groups and intellectual/creative elites were critical of the genre. The prior view reality TV as threatening Islamic values and traditions while the latter see in it a decadent, low-brow form of art. At best, these views were rejectionist and condemnatory.(2)

° Professionals in television and advertising celebrated the increase of audiences in prime-time television as this translates into financial rewards. There was a renewed faith in a production that could be truly Pan-Arab, both in terms of participants and audiences.

° In a true academic tradition, very few scholars addressed this emerging popular culture phenomenon. Yet it now is generating a debate within academic circles.

Much of this article started as a journal describing my meetings with “reality” colleagues and students when I was (un)lucky enough to consult or be consulted on various shows and formats. These scattered notes provided a starting point for an articulation and exploration of the phenomenon of reality television in the Arab world. What has resulted is an attempt to look at the process of continuity and change within a vibrant industry.

Understandably, it is difficult to establish a perfect vantage point in order to assert the definite direction of the genre. Will reality television remain established and popular? And what exactly are the implications of this new genre? Indeed, the the term “Arab reality television” itself seems to be cause much confusion. This study is a contribution to the emerging assessment of this programming genre.

I will start by tracing the history and development of reality television in the region. What you will be reading is an account—not the history—of reality television from the inside. What does reality television in the Arab World mean to those involved in the selection, production and selling of those programs? What factors contributed to the flourishing of the genre? What roles did the successes of some shows and the failures of others have on future productions? Central to these questions is the belief that the popularity of these shows is multifaceted, contested and still unfolding.

In other words, reality television is a representation of reality. Inaccessible in its raw form, reality or its tele-visual representation becomes available once selected and processed by the producers of reality television. The unfolding of reality, as we see it on the screen, is a process involving a number of people. This paper is concerned with this group of programmers, producers, technicians and advertising salespersons. As a matter of fact, understanding this genre starts by looking at the processes by which it came to be planned, produced and broadcast.

History and Development

In previous research(3) , I have examined program adaptations of Western franchises that were produced on Arab television channels. That study evaluated the nature, continuity and change in program transfer after the introduction of television technology in the region. As a summary of those findings, I observed the growth of a “live on air” television drama in the 60s. A decade later, programmers started producing classical dramatic works of Arab and world literature,(4)but they also were beginning to look at Western shows for either inspiration or plagiarism. By the '80s, a practice Albert Moran refers to as ”copycat TV”(5) had become common, in which major successes were “Arabized” versions of predominantly European and American shows. In the '90s, it became common for the concept of a Western show, its rights and production bible, to be bought and locally reproduced for regional consumption. For a price, the format came with a plethora of consultants (creative and technical) and various computer software and machinery. Overall, the study also discussed the wholesale cloning and licensing of programs in the case of variety/game shows, but it did not approach reality television as it had only recently been introduced to the Arabic television milieu at the time.

I would like to approach this study of reality television by establishing some essential premises. First, producing reality shows involves a variety of managerial, creative and technical aspects. Second, reality shows are mostly licensed formats that programmers buy for a particular region or territory, in this case the Arab world. These reality shows by nature have a multitude of influences, including an important economic component. The practice of “paying for” a format as opposed to “freely” imitating or cloning a show makes economic considerations central. At this stage, the following questions seem de rigueur: How new is reality television in the Arab world? And is the buying of a licensed format the starting point for this discussion?

The Lebanese station Murr Television (MTV) was a pioneer in buying internationally successful reality TV formats as early as the fall of 1996. Known for its adventurous programming tactics, this channel viewed some of the game-show formats as a means of capturing audiences in preparation for its Pan-Arab broadcast. For five years, MTV was producing Arabic versions of French and Dutch formatted game shows such as Family Feud and Everybody’s Equal. During the same period, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) and the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) respectively produced the Arabic versions of the French Fort Boyard and the British Who Wants to be a Millionaire. This experience paved the way for the possibility of buying an international format, training the technical team and producing and promoting it as a “local” show. In addition, management and advertising executives became convinced of the financial reward of buying a format given both audiences and clients interest. This industry trend should not be isolated from other factors such as an increase in monitoring intellectual property violation and a boom in satellite broadcasting capabilities. In fact, it is during that same period that the United States was leading a movement towards adopting stricter anti-piracy and copyright laws, while both NileSat and ArabSat were providing incentives to terrestrial channels to broadcast on satellite.

In 2002, MTV, LBC, Future Television (FTV) and MBC were all in negotiations to buy reality television formats.(6) These negotiations were focused primarily on the financial viability of these shows. The growing interest in formatted shows in general had caused licensing fees to increase tremendously. As an illustration, the licensing fee per episode rose 1,500 percent between the first game show format Family Feud, in 1996, and the latest reality license for The Apprentice, which was to go to production in 2005.(7) Program buyers for all these stations were keeping a close eye on the international markets and their competitors. It was just a matter of time before one station ventured into the production of reality television.

Any in-depth discussion of reality television should not reduce it to a recent phenomenon linked to the rise of the genre in the Western world. The cause-effect relationship results in a very narrow view. Instead, I would argue that the rise of reality TV in the Arab world was a two-phase development. First came a “foundation era” in which producers and marketers at Arab channels became used to or convinced of the strategy of buying Western formatted programs and game shows. Secondly, a “developmental era” witnessed a major buzz as public awareness of the genre grew and even controversies that erupted over the first reality TV programs added to the hype. Format adaptation acts, then, as a turning point between the two eras. On one hand, the industry became watchful of the international markets, as well as open to the discussion of format-buying as a source for programming. At the same time, the audience’s reception of formatted shows offered a de facto proof of popularity.

The “foundation era” can be traced to the early Arab television of the 1950s and the 1960s, when the need for a large number of programs, coupled with the lack of video recording technologies, gave rise to a unique genre of “real drama.” The shows were mostly broadcast live, so one actor could not always predict what the other would say or do. Consequently, those actors, mostly amateurs and poorly trained, developed a certain level of improvisation and wit to enable them to deal with the real, unexpected dramatic situation. Playwrights would sketch out a situation, flesh out the characters and sit behind the camera operators. As the improvisation unfolded live before their eyes, they injected characters and scenes or even suggested lines. In Lebanon for example, this practice was common with the works of Shushu, Abu Salim and Abu Melham. Personal conversations with actors and various anecdotal incidences confirm this practice.(8) This experience of early television suggests a sketchy resemblance to today’s reality television.

While the '70s saw the rise of grand masterpiece drama, the '80s offered what many consider as the first reality TV show: Candid Camera.(9) (See the article on Egypt’s version of Candid Camera in this issue) That show was produced in almost every Arabic country at some point during the 1980s and the 1990s. Following the same American pattern, this show put real people in ridiculous situations and recorded their reactions. In Lebanon, LBC was pioneer in offering several seasons of this show during the '80s, as did Tele-Liban, MTV and FTV in the '90s. Because of privacy concerns, other more conservative parts of the Arab world, like Kuwait, concentrated on situations featuring celebrities. Candid Camerawas produced with basic technology relying on people's simplicity and lack of television literacy.

One of the stars of LBC's Candid Camera, Tony Khoury, went on to present two distinctly different shows that set the stage for a wider acceptance of reality television. The first was called Wakkef Ta Kellak (Stop So I Tell You). The premise is simple: the presenter roams the streets with a special truck, stops a person randomly and asks him/her to execute a request in order to win the contents of the truck. The tasks ranged from collecting certain products to organizing a rally, but all were captured, edited and presented in this one-hour show. The second show was originally designed as a special one-off New Year's Eve program, but soon became a fixed yearly event. On the eve of the new millennium, audiences were hooked by a human interest story—the dream of a family come true. The show followed the same presenter of Wakkef Ta Kellak as he tried to help a family reunite, find a loved one, or achieve a level of happiness. More like a docudrama, the show could not sustain its success. Interestingly, the last special aired on the eve of 2003 to be replaced the following year by the launch of Star Academy in its first season.(10)

The transition to the “development era” did not happen overnight. From 2002 to 2003, Arab, and particularly Lebanese, channels were experimented with reality as an emerging genre. In fact, there was a period of adjustment, featuring a process of trial and error. To illustrate, one of the under-researched television channels is Zen TV. Launched in December 2001, the channel offered a fresh mix of programs produced, presented and managed by a young team of recent graduates who were ready to experiment with new ideas and technology. Various Music Television (MTV)-style shows were created, including a variation on MTV’s Road Rules. Zen TV was essentially experimental. It provided a platform for young talent to learn on the job and an interactive forum for this staff to interact with Arab audiences. It also tested various docu-drama approaches.

Introduced in January 2003, Super Star quickly became the most significant show of that era. Broadcast on FTV and licensed by FermantleMedia’s British version of Pop Idol,(11)Super Star attempted a transparent Pan-Arab search for the next star singer, using casting calls, judges, live performances and, most importantly, the audience’s right to vote.(12) Arguably, the show is a cross between a reality and a variety show. While the search for the possible super star definitely captured real moments, feelings and events, the weekly performance show is in the pure tradition of variety shows. Undeniably, the contribution of Super Star is multifold:

1. It re-emphasized the commercial viability and value of the format

2. it proved again that an all-Arab show can be successfully produced

3. It was the first Idol franchise to feature contestants from different countries

4. It allowed for an unprecedented interactivity between the audience and television(13)

5. It showed an audience united in watching the show but divided along nationalist lines when voting for the ‘superstar’(14)

6. Its success sped up the competitive exploration of reality television.

In February 2003, LBC launched its first reality show in preparation for the selection of Miss Lebanon. Following a national casting call, the finalists lived together in “The House” (a luxurious villa and spa). For six of the eight weeks, the public, including Pan-Arab audiences, voted for the removal of two candidates each week. Meanwhile, the girls were being monitored by cameras that transmitted their lives live on a 24-hour channel.(15) The experimental nature of this Miss Lebanon special was present on four levels:

1. It was a training field for the team in charge of preparing for another upcoming reality show, Star Academy

2. It introduced a new kind of interactivity in the form of short text messaging from mobile phones

3. It provided an opportunity to test the set of rules of conduct in respecting “Arab values” as cameras filmed participants around the clock

4. It took the pulse of advertising and marketing interest for such programs. While this experiment was repeated the following year between June and August, it was only treated as summer filler with not much hype or success.

By November 2003, LBC and MBC were racing towards a target launch date for two Endemol(16) reality productions respectively: Star Academy and Big Brother. Additionally, an unexpected competitor joined the race—Arab Radio and Television (ART) dedicated one of its Al Awael channels to a 24-hour reality show Al Hawa Sawa (On Air Together). Beginning December 2003, this reality matchmaking show featured girls courting a marriage proposal on air for three months, 24-hours a day. This exposure was important in launching the reality wave because:

1. It tested the conservative audience reception

2. Participants with no special talents had the potential to become celebrities

3. It was a format completely re-adapted to consider “Arab values.”(17) 

But the primary importance of this show was its adoption by ART, owned by the Saudi company Dallah El Baraka and known for a conservative approach to broadcasting./span>

The last day of December 2003 witnessed the birth of the most successful Arab reality show: Star Academy. Following Endemol’s format for the French version,(18) Star Academy’s team identified a group of talented Arabs and invited them to join the Academy, where they lived and trained to become star singers. A “graduation process” allowed the instructors at the academy to nominate two candidates and the public would vote for one of them to stay in the Academy. Star Academy stretched the limits of reality television because of its unprecedented popularity and because it represented the full realization of a marketing and sales potential that included various ancillary activities discussed in detail below. Perhaps the show’s main impact, however, remains its consistent audience loyalty to both the “prime”(19) episodes as well as the 24-hour dedicated channel.

At the same time, another show also was in preparation, this time in Bahrain. Broadcast for just over a week between February and March 2004, Al Ra’is (Big Brother) was a shocking “reality check” to many in the industry. Another Endemol format, the show was a popularity contest between a group of girls and guys living together in a purpose-built villa. While effort was made to re-adapt the show to accommodate cultural and religious sensitivities, Al Ra’isnevertheless caused a wave of uproar in the Arab media which resulted in its cancellation. Three main realizations came out of the Big Brother experience:

1. !t was the first and last attempt to produce a 24-hour reality show outside of Lebanon

2. It revealed a divisive nature of reality television along conservative religious versus liberal lines

3. It revealed the unpredictability of the genre. These realizations will factor in further discussion below.

In an attempt to renew its commitment to reality television after the scandal of Al Ra’is, MBC made a comeback with an Arabic version of Fear Factor renamed Thadda El Khouf(Defy Fear). Produced in Argentina during the spring of 2004, the show lasted for only one season. Consequently, its impact was limited to allowing MBC to remain in competition by offering a new reality TV show. Interestingly, MBC appeared to have learned a lesson from the failure of Al Ra’is. Starting with Fear Factor, MBC’s reality shows were all based on a controlled environment, with a flexibility to edit before broadcasting. Also during June of the same year, MBC produced the long-standing international format of Star Search, renaming it Najem el Noujom. This singing talent show included some reality sequences but primarily was a variety show.

By the first weeks of January 2004, LBC was preparing for a fall replacement for Star Academy—an Arab version of Survivor. The show, produced in Kenya, used a crew composed of French, Lebanese and Kenyans. The French team already had worked on the French version of the show, while some of the Lebanese crew had worked on Fort Boyard. The Kenyans were local scouts who provided general assistance. As noted, this was not LBC's first experience outsourcing a production to a third party. It had done that with a French team for Fort Boyard and it gathered members of that same team for Survivor. The show aired between September and December 2004, earning only limited success. Several elements contributed to this disappointment, including the absence of a live component with games and audience participation. Furthermore, the location was completely alien to the viewers. These very same elements now are being taken into consideration prior to starting work on an improbable second season.

The rest of 2004 witnessed a proliferation of reality shows as the phenomenon came into full swing. In addition to a second season of Super Star, Future TV (FTV) ventured into various new reality formats, some of which gained relative success. In Wedding Express, for example, a couple was offered a fixed amount of money to negotiate their wedding ceremony and the camera followed them as they negotiated with suppliers. FTV also introduced a special Ramadan program starring actor Adel Karam, who would hit the streets and ask people to answer questions or perform stunts in return for cash. In so doing, FTV managed to (1) introduce a cost-effective reality production; (2) interact with the viewers on the street; and (3) combine reality with an element of the game show genre.(20) In spite of the setback caused by the death of its owner Lebanon’s prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, Future Television also re-launched the third season of Super Star in September 2005.

Interestingly, the Future Television experience was imitated in 2005 on a newly revamped Dubai Television. Lead by the previous manager of Future Television and executed by a number of his assistants and producers, Dubai television offered several reality shows.(21) The much talked about Al Daw al Akhdar (The Green Light) monitored the progress of a group of contestants as they collaborated on a “goodwill” activity. The show had no winners or losers, but depicted a socially responsible activity such as raising money for Palestinian refugees and offered an “ethical” alternative to racier reality TV like Big Brother and Super Star.

In 2005, LBC produced a relatively less successful third season of Star Academy, and halted the production of an Arabic version of the The Apprentice a few weeks before the start of filming. LBC also postponed the decision to produce the second season of Survivorand did not produce Miss Lebanon because of Lebanese security concerns. However, LBC produced two celebrity reality shows: Al Wadi (The Farm); and Dayf al-Beit (The House Guest). Both shows constitute a major turning point in the course of reality television: Celebrities are the participants in these shows. In Al Wadi, a group of Arab celebrities come to assist the singer Hayfa Wehbeh in maintaining her farm, while in the second show, a celebrity spends a day taking care of a family, particularly the kids.(22)

MBC started 2005 with a production of Worlds Apart which it renamed El Beyt Mish Beytack (This House is Not Yours). Essentially, the show transplanted an Arab family into an alien community such as Kenya, Ghana or Mongolia. The audience got to monitor the family’s survival instincts, their adaptation skills, frustrations and the new friendships. The show was consistent with MBC’s approach to reality television, echoing its slogan “The World Through Arab Eyes.” Moreover, it coincided with the channel’s move towards becoming the “Arab family channel.” Almost simultaneously, MBC introduced Starting Over with a literal Arabic translation as Min Jedid.(23) The show followed a group of women trying to overcome their problems and make a positive change in their lives. Assisted by various professionals, these women lived together and engaged the audience through a weekly special episode, where host Rania Barghout updates the women’s progress and debates the audience and the professionals on the main themes of the week. The show introduced a new “reality” approach close to the soap opera with women's stories narrated as a series with dramatic cliffhangers at the end of every episode.(24)

In short, from 2003 to 2005, reality television became an established programming genre in the Arab world. Competition between LBC and MBC meant that each channel produced at least three shows a year. Interestingly, ART never produced another reality show again after Al Hawa Sawa. Following an experimental stage, each channel developed its own niche; LBC maintained a consistent delivery of shows involving a “Prime” show and a 24-hour dedicated channel. After the devastating Big Brother experience, MBC limited itself to daily or weekly episodes showcasing the participants “activities” while maintaining close control on production, editing and broadcasting. Aside from Super Star, Future Television did not produce any significant reality television shows. Finally, the following conclusions may be drawn:

• Lebanon was a breeding ground for the production of reality television. The very few shows produced outside Lebanon had Lebanese managerial, creative and technical crews.

• Reality television is an overarching term which includes various genres. In the Arab world, it primarily started as talent searches and then reality game shows. Gradually, other formats were introduced, including lifestyle programs and celebrity “docu-soaps.”

• One company Endemol almost dominated the licensing of reality shows. At one time, it had two shows under production: MBC with Big Brother, and LBC with Star Academy.

• Apart from Candid Camera, which was a Ramadan staple, reality shows are not produced or broadcast during the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan, despite the fact that it is a prime period for TV viewing and advertising.

The Definition of Reality Television in the Arab World

There is an inherent hybrid nature in the conception, execution and promotion of reality television shows and in this the Arab world is no exception. Consequently, the term “reality TV” itself is too general and has taken on different meanings to those who use it. Essentially, reality television has become the two words that advertising sales, programmers, producers and technicians use to create a buzz around their programs. In the following, I am offering a definition of reality television from the creative, technical and advertising perspectives. It is beyond the scope of this study to offer a comparative definition of reality television that merges an Arabian and the more common European or American definitions, but I will explore what the genre means for the developers of reality television in the Arab world.

Primarily, the role of television programmers often is elided in the examination of the end product, but their role should not be marginalized. Particularly in the case of format licensing, it is the programmers who spot, decide, negotiate and sometimes force the production of these reality shows. They have witnessed the success of the format in other countries, monitored the episodes; made an appropriate financial offer and want “Arab audiences to experience the international successes of reality television.”(25) In other words, the buying of a previously tried and tested Western format is generally a reliable way of ensuring programs can compete and win ratings. Once they sign the format deal, programmers look for two talents: a producer who can carry the weight of the show and a presenter who can incarnate the spirit of the show.(26)

Reality television is a producer’s genre. As a team, the producers set the stage for an activity that they direct, frame and edit.(27) To the producers, the definition of reality television often hides behind a jargon that refers to the origination, combination or presence of reality elements within any show. For instance, they refer to shows depending on their shooting location “on the road” or in a “purpose-built” studio environment. They talk about presence or absence of a host, celebrity or “voice of God” (announcer or narrator) and almost always their production is promoted as a “never seen before” novelty. Although by definition reality TV is “unscripted,” in fact many elements are tightly controlled. In this sense, reality television producers are storytellers—by planning tasks, selecting sequences, editing and combining elements, they define “reality.”

For the technicians, every show is a challenge to their wit, expertise and ability to challenge the "foreigners." The presence of foreign consultants is always an occasion for the technicians to learn and to prove that they can outdo their competitors. Audio engineers, cameramen and technicians try to adapt their equipment and experience to the requirements of the show and for these technicians, reality has come to mean an exciting and competitive challenge.

Before the show is even produced, an army of advertising sales people try to get the word out. Primarily, they look for the following ingredients: first, that the show is a proven international success; second, that it has Pan-Arab audience appeal; and the program is entertaining. In fact, the word “reality” has become synonymous with a sure success. Usually, it is by simply adding to the word ‘reality’ that sales pitch is complete. For instance, advertising people will talk about a “reality” sequence within a talk show, a “reality” approach to an interview, or a “reality” style for the camera work. As a programming genre, “reality” has become such an infatuation that the mere mentioning of the word triggers smiles throughout corporate advertising meeting rooms.

To summarize, then, reality television is a format that is bought from one of several Western companies. Ideally, the show should have been produced in at least one other country to allow for comparison, evaluation and possible training. The format has to have the potential of being Pan-Arab. For instance, its contestants should be selected from a number of representative Arab countries. The most common pool of participants come from countries either considered liberal (such as Egypt, Lebanon or Jordan) or from those with solid advertising bases (such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait). Moreover, the show should have a familiar or exotic setting. However, it should not oppose Arabic values. To explain this situation, both programmers and advertising sales agree that the show should be confined to what is permissible by “Islamic standards.” This rather complex Islamic/Pan Arab nature of formats will be discussed in detail in a later section of this paper.

The Creators

The introduction of reality television to the Arab region has changed the way programmers and advertising sales persons addressed production. Up until the reality era, television directors used to make all the creative and organizational decisions related to the production. It was a tradition inherited from filmmaking, in which the director was the source of all decisions and the role of producers was restricted to an accountancy or management job. With the early reality formats, an emerging role for the producer began to take shape under the primary influence of contractual bindings. Licensing agreements follow a particular production bible that calls for the position of a producer to handle the organization as well as the editorial control of a particular show. But it was not until the “development” era of reality television that we witnessed the establishment of a significant role for the producer. As pointed out earlier, this change was taking place primarily in Lebanon where most of these productions and their staff are located.

The most important change in the organizational control of the production process in Arab television is that the variety of production positions have become professionalized since it became important to coordinate the various creative and production activities to succeed in producing reality television in the Arab world. Consequently, a relative margin of freedom has been given to executive producers in casting, hiring and packaging their shows. At the same time, these “liberties” were attached to a series of innovative advertising practices. When combined, these practices produced the most expensive television genre to be executed in the region.(28)

Just where did these producers come from? What lay behind this loosening of financial and creative control? And how did advertising influence this creative process? As argued, programmers paid for a “reliable” idea -- a secure road to success. This reliance on Western format purchasing undoubtedly is due to a combination of the Arab world’s fascination with Western media and the sound business reasoning that a proven format guarantees a return on investment, allowing programmers to release anywhere between $5,000 to $70,000 as licensing fee per episode. Such prices were inflated by competitive bidding by various channels. This battle for rights to produce formats requires further study, but suffice it to say that the evaluation of financial risk or promise partially explains the environment in which producers flourished and helps explain the way in which these producers were recruited, trained and managed.

Reality television came at a time when the pool of underemployed or unemployed creative labor in the Arab media was getting larger because of a number of interrelated factors. By September 2002, the Lebanese government had shut down one the country's most vibrant television channels, MTV, leaving more than 400 employees without jobs. In addition, Zen TV’s productions scaled down dramatically after the main partner on the project pulled out. Meanwhile, more and more universities were graduating students majoring in journalism, mass communication and the audio-visual arts. While there are no official numbers of graduates, a safe estimate will put those above one hundred per year in Lebanon alone. On the Pan-Arab market, the Gulf-based channels seemed stagnant except for the transition of MBC and the establishment of Al Arabyia, while the long-awaited re-launch of Dubai Television and Al Jazeera’s promised documentary channel was causing frustrations amongst graduates interested in more serious work.

In addition to this glut of journalism graduates and media talent, three main elements contributed to the growing number of reality television producers. First, the nature of reality television does not require extensive experience in any particular form of mass media. In fact, producers came from various backgrounds, including fresh graduates, but also journalists, entertainment producers, news reporters etc. The main criterion was the ability to work under pressure and long hours -- something many were willing to do in order to get a foot in the door. Secondly, given the hybrid nature of reality television, each producer attempted to use it as a platform for his or her own creative pursuits, or at least to demonstrate skill. Thirdly, the training and exposure to new technology was an added value to working in this field. For instance, LBC trained its core reality staff on Miss Lebanon before moving them to Star Academy. As expected, some of those producers remained with the show while others sought opportunities with other channels given their new-found “expertise” in the genre. 

Having noted this growing presence and status of producers in the reality TV genre, the following discussion will address the increasing interest of programmers and advertising sales in reality television—an interest which translated into lucrative investments. Undoubtedly, the Western success of reality television triggered the original interest of programmers in the genre. It was impossible to escape the euphoria created around reality shows at television market exhibition such as Le Marché International des Programmes de Télévision (MIPTV- the International Market for Television Programmes) in France. These shows were bought because they provided various opportunities with a low-risk and high-return investment. Programmers know they are minimizing their risk when they adapt a show that has appealed to various target audiences around the globe. In addition, they are assured high production values, given both the available technology and the presence of foreign consultants since being a licensee entails having access to technical support, training and supervision. Therefore, both licenser and licensee have a vested interest to maintain a higher production value.

At the same time, programmers are tempted by reality television's potential for high ratings, which in turn can be translated into financial rewards. Given the archaic status of audience research methods, programmers rely on a combination of gut feeling and tested formats to make their buying decisions. Reality television draws its participants from the Arab world, particularly ones that are considered advertising targets. The financial success of these shows is more often then not linked to the success—or at least perceived success—of the nationals of those countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Egypt. Furthermore, the ancillary programming that accompanies or is inspired by the reality shows is another valued asset of reality television. Programmers increasingly are interested in filling their airtime with rehashed or re-packaged material. Some of these practices include the development of a daily show, wraps and/or the launch of 24-hour channel created for the show. Probably, this trend can be witnessed in the institutionalization of Star Academy with concerts, CD's, music videos, and other paraphernalia, all revolving around the show's themes and stars.

Added to this income is the revenue from advertising. A 30-second commercial costs between $10,000 to $12,000, compared to an average of $5,000 for other prime-time shows. Advertisers also are encouraged to sign onto exclusive or co-sponsored agreements. Reality’s Pan-Arab appeal attracted major advertisers willing to spend anywhere between $250,000 to a couple of million for a sponsorship package. A system of branding and product placement also was developed to cater for both the sponsors as well as other advertisers' needs. As a result, it is not unusual to listen to a conversation between two participants about a particular brand and even less unusual to see the participants parading various sponsored products on air. Another growing area of advertising revenue is related to interactivity. Increasingly, text messaging is used for voting participants in or out of a show and for sending messages that will be displayed on a scroller in the lower third of the screen. A typical deal would involve three or four parties: two mobile telecoms in the calling and receiving country, the television channel and possibly a fourth party that handles the voting/display/censorship system. The channels receive a cents-per-call figure usually ranging between 10 to 40 cents.

All the above illustrates a positive contribution to the state of television production in the region, including increasing job opportunities, entrepreneurial programming spirit and advertising revenue. Nevertheless, one should not forget three essential observations relating to the working conditions and the evolution of the television business. There are over a hundred positions directly related to reality television in the region. Should the audience become less attracted by the genre, what would happen to those employees?

Similarly, Arab channels’ reliance on formatted shows, particularly in terms of reality television, has resulted in a peculiar situation. One on hand, most of those producers are working out of an already existing production bible, potentially affecting their ability or willingness to develop their own ideas. On the other hand, programmers may be less reluctant to pursue a locally developed format which they would ordinarily consider a risky adventure. This often works against the development of local talent.

The Continuing Debate

I started this paper by examining a wide spectrum of views concerning reality television in the Arab World, ranging from condemnation to celebration. In addition, I have suggested the need for further serious study. In the previous sections, I traced the development of the genre with an emphasis on factors relating to the nature of television in the region. Particularly, I was concerned with managerial, creative and technical forces that presented this genre to the Arab audience. In the following, I hope to address that debate and offer an idea worth exploring.

As I have noted, reality television is produced almost entirely by Lebanese for an Arab audience. The historical development suggests that culturally and economically Lebanon was a ripe ground for the ferment of reality television. On one hand, the Lebanese social context is open to exploring Western ideas and on the other hand, a pool of talent is readily available and affordable. At the same time, I have stressed the structural needs for respecting Islamic, particularly Saudi, values because of the powerful influence of sensitive and conservative Gulf-based advertisers and viewers. Creative and advertising personnel working on reality TV programs in the Arab world cautiously interpret and continuously rewrite the rules of what can and cannot be broadcast. The dilemmas of how and whether creative producers should or should not faithfully adhere to original formats, which I am exploring in a different study, suggests that socio-cultural elements, specifically Lebanese and Islamic, are at the centre of format adaptation for the Arab World—its Arabization.

The Arabization of an international format involves as much adherence to a Lebanonization as does Islamization. My use of Arabization refers to the repackaging of Western formats to Arabic-speaking audiences. The process of Lebanonization involves the staffing, the aesthetic and editorial treatment of the format, while Islamization refers to the various codes that producers apply in evaluating their stories. In other words, Lebanonization is not a reductionist notion; rather it helps explain the introduction of words like the French 'nomine'for nominee in Star Academy, and the Western looks and language on Al Wadi. At the same time, Islamization justifies the prayer rooms in Big Brother, and the taboo subject of religion in Star Academy.

In the Arabization of an international format, both programmers and advertising salespersons have a vested interest in balancing Lebanonization and Islamization. In doing so, they achieve a Pan-Arab audience appeal while maintaining an Islamic “safe margin” that guarantees continuous advertising support. One can argue that Big Brother's failure is partly due to a lack of Arabization—the show failed to strike a balance. Through Lebanonization, it achieved its first few days of success when the audience was getting hooked on the characters. This was followed by an Islamization stage where participants were afraid to touch, play or even talk to each other. The inability to strike a balance was instrumental in the cancellation of the show.

The success of the Arabization of these shows needs further study. For instance, what would explain the success of these reality shows at a time when a more real, harsh and bitter truth was offered on Al Jazeera and Al Arabyia? It was during and after the latest Iraqi war that reality television flourished. It is true that programmers were eager to maintain an audience that was shifting from general entertainment channels to news channels. But while this explanation might satisfy the business, programming and production angles; but it does not answer questions about those in the audience who watched and voted.

Just like game shows, reality television is a format—a patented product with a reproduction permit that is sold in return for money and copyright recognition. Issues of flows, meanings, globalization and "hybridity” are central to a better understanding of this format. In other words, the boom in reality television in the Arab world is closely related to issues of structure and reception. Ignoring one or the other robs the phenomenon of its full significance.

In attempting to avoid the danger of overemphasizing the “democratic freedom” of the reality TV audience, it is important to note that primarily private media is supporting reality television government media is still cautiously exercising creative control. Central to this point is the role of advertising in encouraging, promoting and indirectly bankrolling reality television. The potential risks of reality television are twofold: financial loss and a public relations crisis. The Big Brother case embodies the problems encountered when a reality TV show stumbles into both pitfalls, but significantly, it did not hinder MBC from producing more than five other reality shows.

As I argued earlier, reality television purports to represent reality, but in fact it represents many complex and competing “realities.” The task therefore, is first and foremost to develop the perspectives and knowledge for us to explore fully the possibilities offered by this new genre. On the knowledge front, this study offered an account of the development of the medium. This account was not exhaustive, but rather selective. A more detailed history needs to be written. On the perspective front, this study was concerned with the developers of reality television. The framework of “Arabization” will need more theorizing as structural issues pertaining to the political economy of the media in the region. I hope this contribution will encourage further studies and contribute to this ongoing debate.


1. This is primarily in reference to numerous articles that appeared in the Western press, particularly the views of Melik Kaylan, James S. Robbins, Carla Power and others. In their view, reality television is a means of spreading democracy, fighting religious fundamentalism and introducing the West to Islam.

2. Religious clerics in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait released religious fatwa condemning some of the rituals associated with reality television. On the other hand, Arab journalists, actors and directors were very vocal concerning their dismay and disdain of the cultural quality of reality television.

3. For a more detailed analysis of the transfer of program ideas please refer to another article by the author which appeared under the title “Blending in: Arab Television and the Search for Programming Ideas,” TBS Vol. 13, Fall/Winter 2004. http://archived.tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com/Archives/Fall04/fall04.html

4. During the ’70s, Beirut and Cairo were producing classic works of French and English authors translated into Arabic but also series on the lifes of classic Arab figures from the arts and sciences. This came at time when Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf, gained their independence and were eager to feature Arab works on their newly founded television channels.

5. Albert Moran, Copycat Television: Globalization, Program Formats, and Cultural Identity. University of Luton Press, 1998.

6. All channels pursued their negotiations except for MTV, which was shut down in September by a court order. 

7. This difference is between Family Feud and The Apprentice. The latter was going to be produced during the spring of 2005. The project is pending a replacement for Mohammad el Abbar who was going to act as the show’s host.

8. One writer in particular Salah Tizani, known as Abu Salim, always told stories about how difficult it was for him to recruit new actors because everybody was acting improvised plots. 
A newcomer always found him/herself unable to move in front of the camera, resulting in awkward silences. 

9. Each channel came up with their own different name for the show, but the basic structure and logistics are very similar to those in the US version. To avoid confusion, all shows following the same format are discussed by reference to the channel, not to the show.

10. The show was cancelled because of the last special which involved the search for a missing person. When the show’s team was unable to locate the person or even provide a conclusive answer, LBC was left with negative publicity and decided that the show would not be produced again. 

11. While the main show’s format is the same as American Idol, licensing companies offer their license from a particular ‘territory’ to another. In this case, the license of the Pan-Arab Super Star is in reference to the British Pop Idol. 

12. Talent search shows in the region date as far the early ’70s, but unlike Super Star, a judging committee was in charge of selecting the winners. 

13. Future television sources reveal that the number of votes received for the first season’s finale amounted to 4 million.

14. In 2003, the 4.8 million voters for Super Star voted along nationalist lines with Jordan leading the votes for its Diana Karazon, the show’s winner. A massive spontaneous voting campaign involved the Jordanian king, the mobile companies, private businesses and individuals. Unlike the European song contest Eurovision, the candidates were not selected as country representatives but still, Arab voters were somehow more concerned with the nationality of the winner than with their performance. 

15. For all its 24-hour reality shows, LBC converts its pay channel Nagham into a dedicated channel for the duration of the reality show. It has done that for Miss Liban , Star Academyand The Farm.

16. Along with FermantleMedia, Endemol is the second main format show provider and both are located in Europe. FermantleMedia is based in London and is part of RTL group while Endemol is based in the Netherlands.

17. ART’s owner Sheikh Saleh Kamel is a Saudi businessman known for sponsoring religious channels like Iqraa.

18. Cf note 9. In this case the license of the Pan-Arab Star Academy was in reference to the French version Star Academy. 

19. Prime episodes are two hours episodes associated with a 24-hour type of a reality show. Characterized by its spectacle nature, the Prime is typically the occasion to vote someone out or in the show. Editorially, it also involves the best stories of the week, while commercially, it is considered the most-viewed and consequently, most expensive advertising window.

20. To many people, this show was not too new, as it resembled LBC’s Wakef Ta Kellak.

21. It is important to consider the fact that Ali Jaber as well as many of his close associates, the producers, and directors had been previous employees of Future Television or Zen TV. 

22. At the time of writing this study, it was deemed too early to assess the impact of both shows.

23. Originally the show, was going to be the Swan. I did meet with the team working on the initial proposal. While casting started off along the lines of a possible Swan, halfway through, an more acceptable format was bought, which was Starting Over. This is a currently produced program in the US and has nothing to do with the Swan. Starting Over is a daytime syndicated reality show in its US third season.

24. Ibid.

25. This is how the first season of Star Academy was promoted using for visual support clips from the various productions of Star Academy around the world but with particular focus on clips from the French Star Academy. Interestingly, the French version was occasionally broadcast in Lebanon on MTV during the first and the second season (2000 and 2001) as part of a deal with the French channel TF1.

26. I am not offering a discussion on the role of the presenter since many of these shows do not have a one, or when they do, his or her role is very much restricted. 

27. The term producer here refers to the various titles including executive producers and their assistances, creative producers and story producers. It is beyond the scope of this paper to outline the differences between each; however, this will be part of future research looking at the work of the creative personnel and reality television.

28. Unlike the US, where a half hour sitcom could cost a couple of million dollars, the Arab world acting and drama production does not cost as much. On the other hand, reality show’s one hour has the same drama cost in addition to more staff, travel, special equipment and license fee. While a drama episode might cost anywhere between $10-100,000, a reality show license alone could consume half of the $100,000. 

29. The largest bidders are MBC and LBC. Companies like Endemol are constantly approaching both channels knowing that both will be willing to pay for a sure product. In my minor interaction with Endemol consultant in Bahrain (2004), it was obvious that the Middle East was becoming a excellent prospect with great potential.

30. Dubai Media City withdrew from its partnership with FTV. Currently ZenTV is understaffed music channel with no specific programs.

31. A major television market exhibition held in Cannes, France. This is primarily where most Arab programmers seek to buy shows including formats and series.

32. This is an important area for future studies, particularly the packages for exclusive sponsors and the issues of exclusivity, product placement, etc.

33. It is interesting to note that some of the current jobs involved in reality television are not handled by Arabs. For instance, the director, choreographer and some of the dancers of Star Academy’s Prime are not Arabs.

34. This framework articulated here is part of a forthcoming paper dealing with issues of creative identity and creative control in the Arab media in general.

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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