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Whose Reality is Real? Ethical Reality TV Trend Offers ‘Culturally Authentic’ Alternative to Western Formats

Islamists have been some of the most ardent foes of reality programs on Arab television, forcing MBC’s Al Ra’is (Big Brother) off the air and staging protests or boycotts against LBC’s Star Academy and Al Wadi (The Farm). But now it seems at least some Islamists have decided to adopt a different approach: If you can’t beat them, join them.

As producers prepare for the 2006 launch of a new Islamic channel, Al Risella (The Message), they are scheduling several reality shows in prime time. It is part of a heavy dose of "ethical" entertainment programming, designed to compete both with religious channels like Iqraa and Al Magd and with more liberal variety channels like Saudi-owned MBC and Beirut-based LBC.

“What’s presented now on TV is not reflecting the society,” says Ahmed Abu Haiba, the manager of Risella in Cairo. “This is a new field and a lot of people are searching for this—something you can watch and enjoy but keep your values.” Iqraa and Al Magd are “too dull” and general variety channels like MBC are “too liberated” for conservative Arab society, Abu Haiba explains, drawing a line on a piece of paper with Iqraa and Magd on one end, and MBC and LBC on the other. “We’re here in the gray area,” he says, writing “Al Risella” in the middle of the two polls.

“You have to attract an audience,” Abu Haiba goes on. “The people who are working in the Islamic media, they thought that by just putting a sheikh in front of the camera, it’s enough. The people should listen to the Quran, they should listen to what the prophet says.” But Abu Haiba argues it is not enough, especially when Islamists are competing with secular entertainment channels for viewers.

“I consider myself a religious man,” he says. “But I don’t spend all my time in front of sheikhs speaking about the Quran because I don’t like the way they’re speaking. I’m bored! It’s natural. I do not consider myself against Islam if I don’t want to watch a sheikh talking. If you got the most religious man on earth and brought him to listen to the Quran, I don’t think he could stand it for more than five or six hours. And if he’s such a religious man, he would just listen to Quran for spiritual reasons. But we are speaking about media now, about television, and we are sitting in our living room with our family, trying to see something nice. So I have to present to this family something nice. That’s why now, on Risella, we are starting to think more about entertainment.”

Accordingly, Risella’s lineup will include comedy, late-night talk shows, game shows, documentaries, soap operas, video clips and women’s programs starring veiled pop stars and actresses, all of which must meet an “ethical” standard that producers deem to be in accord with the region’s religious and cultural values.

This goes for reality TV as well, of course. Instead of sexy crooners cohabitating in a mansion and competing for a record deal, Risella envisions a Super Star for Islamic singers performing wholesome songs about faith and family like those of hot young Muslim singing sensation Sami Youssif. The audience will be asked to assess the singers not only for their talent, but also their values. “We’re looking for people who have ethics, not just religion,” says Abu Haiba, adding, with a smile, that “belly dancing naked women will not be accepted.”

Another prime-time reality show slated to air on Risella is Tariq al-Risella (The Path of the Message), a program in which a group of young men will take a Road Rules-style trip across the globe, following the historic path of Islam’s spread, from Medina to Syria to Spain and elsewhere. Each talented in a different field, such as poetry, music, or acting, the youths will travel with a camera crew and undertake challenges in different villages and cities where they stop to learn about Islamic history and teachings. In the final stage, there’s a prize, yet-to-be announced.

A third show, modeled loosely on Donald Trump’s The Apprentice, is slated to star the popular Kuwaiti preacher Tarik Suwaidan, who will teach a group of young people leadership skills, testing them through practical exercises and allowing the audience to vote who among the contestants is the best leader. Although details are still being worked out, Abu Haiba says the plan is for the winners to be awarded with chances to work at big companies or research institutes.

Other programs on Risella may not be full-fledged reality shows, but many of them have “reality” elements or other interactive features built into them. As Joe Khalil notes elsewhere in this volume, “As a programming genre, ‘reality’ has become such an infatuation that the mere mentioning of the word triggers smiles throughout corporate advertising meeting rooms.” The same concept works for Islamist media projects and their creators, who are eager to attract all Arab and Muslim audiences, especially those who might not otherwise be interested in tuning in to a “religious” channel. In fact, Abu Haiba would be happy if Risella could escape the religious label completely and stand on its own as an attractive product in an increasingly competitive market.

“An Islamic program doesn’t have to speak about the Quran or the Prophet,” Abu Haiba told TBS. “I consider that speaking about friendship is Islamic, speaking about love is Islamic, about sex is Islamic. What matters is what I’m going to do behind that. The values. I think this is the real border to differentiate between Islamic material or not, that I consider that Islamic material should have a value behind it.”

Risella is gambling that there’s a niche for such value-based entertainment programming in the Arab satellite milieu and they’re not the only channel that is ready to make that bet. In fact, one of the first networks to get into the “ethical” reality TV trend was secular Dubai TV with its 2005 program Green Light, a charity reality show that followed a team of four young people every week as they tackled a different philanthropic project, such as staging a fund-raising concert to benefit Palestinian refugees, collecting food for the poor, or sending school supplies to needy Iraqi children—all without a budget. "The atmosphere on set was really great, " said Feyrouz Seihal, one of the show's producers. "So much positive energy." Although Green Light's ratings do not yet warrant a second season, other secular channels are taking note of such proactive reality shows and beginning to follow suit.

According to MBC programming director Abdelfatah El-Masry, his network’s reality TV offerings this year reflect a new trend of producing reality shows perceived as being more sensitive to Arab religious and cultural values. MBC’s last two major reality productions were The Investor, based on The Apprentice, and Min Jedid (Starting Over), a show about a group of women between the ages of 19 and 50 who live in the same house and try to start their lives over with the aid of life coaches, psychologists, dieticians, educators and stylists. Starting Over was such a success that MBC is planning a second season.

“Well, first of all we’re a family network, so this is one thing,” El-Masry told TBS. “Second, I think these shows are doing well and they’re feel-good type of shows so they have a better impact among viewers and on people. It’s a trend that now a lot of stations are moving into it. It has to do with making people feel good and creating something for themselves. Plus, you still have the reality element.”

El-Masry denies that MBC, whose first venture into reality TV ended with the forced cancellation of Big Brother when images of unmarried men and women sharing the same home in Bahrain proved too much for Arab audiences, now has a specific set of ethical guidelines for its reality programs. But he admits that there are ground rules. Producers and executives try to choose projects that “fit our society more.”

Shows “have to be acceptable to the Islamic and the Arab world, and present something with good taste, that is decent, not indecent,” he says. “This basically means avoiding as much as you can issues or appearances related to sexual situations or offending people on religious grounds.”

To that end, MBC’s next reality show, currently in production, is a version of the American weight-loss competition program The Biggest Loser, but MBC has renamed it The Biggest Winner. “We wanted to keep it positive, not to add a negative twist,” explains El-Masry. “In the Arab world they perceive these things somewhat differently… I think the programs that we’ve been creating or that we’re doing now, they’re more or less feel-good type of shows.” Such programs are not just a good moral choice for the network, he says. They also are good business. “I think people are adapting to this and actually these programs are getting good ratings.”

The emergence of an “ethical” reality TV trend reflects a larger political and cultural negotiation taking place between socially conservative Islamists and more liberal secular elements in the Arab world. Both are struggling to define the norms people live by in society, or, to put it more precisely in this case, to define whose version of “reality” is more authentically “real.”

The entertainment industry has long been a nexus of this debate. The cases of Al Ra’is, Star Academy clearly demonstrate the effect of the Islamist “backlash” against reality TV production on secular entertainment networks. For such channels, a compromise can be found in the rise of ‘ethical’ reality shows at MBC, Dubai TV and other secular networks. But it is a game of give-and-take, not a straightforward cultural tug-of-war with a clear winner and loser. These networks’ successes in adapting the genre of reality TV for Arab audiences have had their influence on the Islamists as well. Several years ago, many Islamist leaders were busy condemning actresses and pop singers and calling for them to veil and retire from the “immoral” media. Now channels like Risella are bringing many of these former stars out of retirement to host a variety of entertainment and talk show programs. But the return of retired actresses in the service of Islamic media, like the appropriation the reality genre, is not simply a concession; it is a solid marketing strategy.

“The Islamists for a long, long time considered the media as something forbidden, haram, so you didn’t have any Islamic productions in this field,” Abu Haiba says. “And when we started to make Islamic media, we depended for a very long time on a very traditional way, some artificial way to present Islam, and it was far from exciting or interesting. Just the sheikh is sitting on a chair and there is one camera fixed on his head and he is just saying a lot of things.” This led to Islamic media misrepresenting itself and its message, as well as failing to attract a large audience share, he says. “So now at Risella, it is our hope that we can make this transition, that we can make Islamic media not just as good, but much, much more interesting than the most interesting programs on other channels.”

About Lindsay Wise

Lindsay Wise is former managing editor of Transnational Broadcasting Studies (TBS). She has a B.A. in English and Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia and an M.Phil. in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from St. Antony's College, University of Oxford, where she earned distinction for her thesis on popular Egyptian da'iya Amr Khaled. Titled "Words from the Heart: New Forms of Islamic Preaching in Egypt," the thesis explored the recent rise of “tele-Islamists” through satellite television and the Internet. In addition to her work with TBS, she also is a freelance journalist in Cairo.

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