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National TV Stations in the Middle East – Missing a Trick

March 12, 2011

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for national TV stations in Africa and the Middle East. Not because I’m transfixed by the content – in fact I can only manage about ten minutes of viewing at a time before I get the urge to flip on to the next channel. It’s largely because there’s always the chance of a hilarious surprise waiting round the corner.

A good example was the time when the credits came up at the end of a programme on Zimbabwean TV. A succession of large hairy hands appeared from the right of the screen holding pieces of cardboard with the names of the presenters and producer. Rather like one of those animated sequences from Monty Python, but with a real hand.

Speaking of Monty Python, John Cleese and company clearly had some admirers in Saudi Arabia. Back in the 80s the staple fare on Saudi TV was the news story in which the King or one of the senior Princes receives guests at some formal event. Each in turn kisses the royal shoulder and moves on. All the while a jaunty tune – seemingly at odds with the dignity of the occasion – is playing in the background.

The favourite ditty at that time was an old Yankee march called The Liberty Bell. It was composed in the late nineteenth century, and has been used for public occasions ever since – most recently the inaugurations of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama.

But in the 70s and 80s The Liberty Bell was known around the English-speaking world as the opening and closing theme tune for the Monty Python TV series. At the beginning of every show, a few bars of the tune would be snuffed out by a stomping foot and a loud splat.

So it was hard to watch these agonisingly long sequences without waiting for the splat and thinking of dead parrots and the Ministry of Silly Walks. The only thing that kept me watching was a little game of “spot the prince” in which I tested my ability to recognise the dignitaries – usually with the family tree section from Robert Lacey’s The Kingdom open in front of me. Sad really.

Fast forward to 2011, and you can still see these ceremonies on national stations across the Gulf. Commentary such as “His Royal Highness Prince such-and-such today received the congratulations of the senior representatives of such-and-such on the occasion of such-and-such’s birthday.” Then followed by “In another development, His Royal Highness sent a telegram to the Emir of such-and-such on the occasion of the country’s National Day.” And so on.

I love the use of the phrase “in another development”. You would expect it to be used in connection with some momentous event. For example “this morning, Col Gaddafi’s forces continued to pound Zahwiya with tanks, artillery and air strikes. In another development, The UN Security Council scheduled a meeting in two days’ time to discuss the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone on Libyan airspace….”. But sending a telegram??

Yesterday, when thinking about this post, I sampled a few of the national stations. It’s pretty obvious that most of them still function primarily as the instruments of the state ministries of information. And pretty unsubtle instruments they are, too. I watched a story on the English-language Saudi TV2 about an injured  soldier being evacuated from the Eastern Province to Riyadh. As he was being loaded on to the ambulance, a senior prince was seen next to him offering effusive messages of sympathy and encouragement. Such a fuss being made of a single wounded soldier struck me as rather odd. The fact that the presenter made no attempt to explain how the soldier was injured  – and why – was even odder, though probably par for the course.  The Ministry was clearly eager to show how well the Kingdom cares for its armed forces, but reluctant to draw attention to the cause. But I wonder whether if it was a coincidence that the evacuation took place the day after what was reported as a minor disturbance in Qatif. I’m sure that the average Saudi viewer is better at reading the subtext than I am. The same story appeared in yesterday’s Arab News.

Following that story there was a program called “Good Morning KSA”. Two chirpy young female presenters opened the show by telling us how we must start the day with a good attitude to life, and make sure that we didn’t utter any harsh words to our families or colleagues that we might afterwards regret. They also wanted us to avoid sleeping away the day, especially as we might miss prayer times. Dawn and dusk, they said were beautiful times of the day.

In the background was a garden, with the occasional jump-suited maintenance man wandering aimlessly past the window

They then introduced us to a more mature who was going to give us a cooking demonstration – something sweet for breakfast, they said. The motherly chef – bringiong to mind Mrs Doubtfire in a hijab – started rattling on about cinnamon muffins, and I moved swiftly on.

Back to Saudi TV in the evening, and another of those unforgettable moments. A comedy involving some awkward family situation. The usual rather gauche acting, or should I say overacting in the grand Cairo tradition. Rolling eyes, downcast expressions and hand gestures so vigorous that they dragged the whole body into an explosion of movement. But what made this unmissable – at least for five minutes – was that it was dubbed into English. Well, a form of English anyway. The characters spoke with very odd and almost indecipherable American accents in the style of a 50s Disney cartoon.

Onwards to Bahrain TV. As you would expect from a state-operated station, much of the content is about the current crisis. Patriotic tunes, animated national flags, chat programmes discussing the current situation, and the inevitable majlis scene. In this case, the King was receiving a report from Sheikh Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa about his meeting with representatives of the youth of Bahrain. As the King addresses the Majlis, there is an English commentary, which ended by saying that Sheikh Nasser had written a poem for the occasion. A full thirty seconds of silence, before the Sheikh delivers his poem – in Arabic to his father, the King.

We then left the Majlis and heard a presenter delivering in English one of those statements that could only have come directly from the Ministry of Information. If you go to the Bahrain News Agency website, you’ll see an example of Ministry-speak. Streams of stilted, polysyllabic verbiage that you have to read at least twice to understand. Our presenter delivered it at breakneck speed. It was as if he couldn’t wait to get through it.

I checked Bahrain a couple of other times during the day. In the morning, an animated cartoon about as far in sophistication from the stuff your kids might see on Cartoon Network as a wooden cart is from a Cadillac. A chat show, in Arabic, again on the subject of the crisis. Even if you don’t speak Arabic, there is usually one sure way of telling the subject matter – wait for the word shabab, which means youth. If you hear it ten times a minute, you know what they’re talking about.

Later on there was a video of Sheikh Nasser’s meeting with the shabab. Not, as you might expect in the West, a round-table discussion or some form of focus group – though for all I know that might have happened elsewhere – but one of those typical conference formats. A large conference hall with a stage and podium.  Rows of people with ID lanyards. In the front row, Sheikh Nasser with other dignitaries. A succession of young people would go up to the podium to say their piece. All in the full glare of TV lights and multiple camera crews.

It wasn’t exactly a forum conducive to debate. Later on there was some footage of demonstrations, and the inevitable flag-swirling mood music again.

Now I must point out that the intended audience for these little vignettes clearly was not the likes of me. And I would understand if the producers of these programmes were to take exception to the way I have described them. My purpose is not to get a cheap laugh or two about some content that we in the West might think was somewhat unsophisticated. I mean no disrespect to Sheikh Nasser, King Hamad and the rulers of Saudi Arabia. But I do believe that they are being let down by their national broadcasters.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Al Jazeera’s popularity, and the fine line its managers have to tread to maintain a reputation for objectivity. The good news for viewers is that the state TV stations  make no pretence of objectivity in their content. They are with the state. So everyone watching knows roughly what they are going to hear and whose opinions will prevail. The content may be unsophisticated, but at least it’s unequivocal.

The bad news for the national stations and the bureaucrats feeding them with information is that many people look elsewhere to find out what is really going on in their countries. They look at the Arabic satellite channels, at the BBC, CNN and other international stations. And almost inevitably the content – in terms of production techniques and delivery – is far, far more sophisticated than what is available on the national stations. And if viewers  don’t like what they see and hear on TV, they can always go to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

So whereas thirty years ago, the local TV audience had to rely exclusively on the national channels for their content, today they have a choice. I asked a Bahraini friend what was the general opinion of Bahraini TV among the population. He said that most people, if given the choice, watch other channels. And he added that even in the poorest areas of the island, there is ready access to satellite TV. From conversations I have had with Saudis, I get the impression that the same applies across the causeway.

So why do the national channels seem to compare so unfavourably with the satellite channels? Is it that these stations are starved of funding? That they have given up trying to compete for viewers with the likes of Al Jazeera, CNN and Cartoon Network? Are they resolved to stick to their knitting and seek to be nothing more than an outlet for government propaganda?

I come from the UK, where the BBC – the original state broadcaster – has, over the 90 years of existence, done a pretty good job of fulfilling the terms of its charter by providing content free of domestic political bias. Much – though by no means all – of its programming has been the envy of the world.

In the USA, there is no state broadcaster. The only organisation remotely resembling one  is the Public Broadcasting Service, which is a network of not-for-profit stations funded by grants from a number of sources including charities, state agencies and universities. But the commercial networks produce a large quantity of vibrant content – as well as some unspeakable dross.

In countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, to a lesser or greater extent controlled by ruling families, it would be unthinkable to adopt a model comparable to those in the UK or the USA. There must always be an outlet for official communications.

But it seems to me that there is such a gap in sophistication between the national stations and the satellite channels that the governments are effectively working with one hand behind their backs in trying to tell their side of the story.

Yes, in both countries, there is airtime for debate on controversial issues – far more than thirty years ago. But the dull, formulaic and often cack-handed way in which these stations put forward the official line tends, I believe, to work against the interests of their sponsors.

Even in countries like Bahrain, which have severe budgetary constraints, it should still be possible for a state TV channel to engage its viewers, provide them with a platform for their opinions and provide a high quality of content without sacrificing one of its primary functions as a mouthpiece for its government.

A lighter and more subtle hand on the government communications, combined with more creative and imaginative programming, would surely bring many viewers back to the national stations, and serve the long-term interests of the countries concerned far better than operating stations that many people simply don’t want to watch.

From → Media, Middle East, Social, UK, USA

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