BOB GARFIELD: Judging by the story of TV Africa, creating a 24 hour lineup for a transnational audience is a Herculean task. Or is it? There is, after all, one region of the world where transnational television has proved not only viable but hugely influential. I'm talking of course, about the Middle East, where satellite technology cleared the path for pan-Arab TV and transformed the region's historically repressed and parochial media landscape. The most prominent channel, Al Jazeera, has even shed the stigma of its state sponsorship. And other channels, most notably that of the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, have shown that, despite the experience of TV Africa, entertainment programs can cross national borders.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: American University Professor Marwan Kraidy is a scholar of Arab media, one among many writing about the impact of pan-Arab satellite channels on Mideast political life. But it's not the explicitly political programming that he's interested in. It's the entertainment programming, where the impact is inversely proportional to its cost. So cheap, so much bang for the buck. Case in point, an unprecedented regional hit produced by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation called Star Academy.
MARWAN KRAIDY: Perhaps the best way to describe it would be Big Brother meets American Idol. You have eight men and eight women living together for four months in a four-story building, completely isolated from the outside world. They spend their week taking lessons in dance, singing, oral interpretation, even cooking, fashion, aerobics - very much a school for the performing arts. And then on Friday evening, they put together a show, and at the end, one of the contestants is voted out by audience members. Now what's, what's very interesting about the show is that LBC devoted a satellite channel to the show, so at any time of the day or the night, you could check in and see what's going on. There were about 60 cameras in the building. Every corner was covered except the bathrooms. So it's, it's truly an unprecedented media event in the region.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was enormously popular. It captured more than 50 percent of the pan-Arab audience, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, across all demographics?
MARWAN KRAIDY: You know, audience data in the Arab world is notoriously difficult to come by, at least the reliable sort. But we know for a fact that in Lebanon, which is the only country that has people meters in the households, in other words where we can know for a fact what channel is on at a given time, we know that the audience was 80 percent in the age bracket of the 18 to 35. From my own research, it seems to be that it was across social-economic groups, both men and women, both Christians and Muslims in Lebanon. It was very, very popular.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you account for the success?
MARWAN KRAIDY: You know, for youth groups, there was a sense that this was something very special, mainly because people could participate in it. If the audience does not call and vote, then the show cannot go on. There was a sense that the program seems to provide young people the picture of a meritocracy, with contrasted to their daily lives. A lot of the people I spoke with were having problems finding jobs, because they didn't have connections, were having problems paying for college tuition, and obviously the idea of political participation was something that was very much on people's minds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you talk about participatory democracy in this program, did it seem like a kind of model?
MARWAN KRAIDY: A lot of columnists suggested this. In other words, if people get used to choosing contestants, that is quite equivalent to voting for politicians. But I think what we really need to look at is how fans of different contestants organized, they set up web sites, they set up all kinds of chains, using mobile phones to mobilize each other and mobilize others to vote for one contestant as opposed to the other. Now, we saw also that these informal networks of people who are joined by common interest can be converted for use in a political arena. We saw that happening to some extent after the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri in Lebanon, whereby groups of young people used mobile phones to organize, and even I have pictures of some demonstrators in downtown Beirut who used the language of Star Academy to make their point. The most representative, perhaps, is a young man carrying a poster. In the middle, there's a picture of Emil Lahoud, the current president of Lebanon, whose mandate was extended last year, with Syrian support. On top of the picture, it says Nominee - in other words, this is a nominee to be voted out, like on the show. And under the picture it says, Call 1559. 1559, if you recall, is the number of the UN resolution calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Usually, on the show, you get a four digit number that audience members can call to vote a candidate out. So people understood that language, because the program was so popular.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The show has generated its share of controversy. I mean it did cause a dustup in, say, Saudi Arabia, didn't it?
MARWAN KRAIDY: In Saudi Arabia, the way the show was received was incredible. A very official committee of clerics issued a very long fatwa - the first fatwa completely dedicated to one television show. The gravest problem with the show, in their opinion, was the issue [Arab phrase] which is gender-mixing, which is men and women, living together, talking together. But look, if the controversy did one thing, it was to boost the popularity of the show in Saudi Arabia. Also, there are competing business interests throughout the region that tend to become a countervailing force to the more conservative clerics, and so we see that economic interests are clashing with religious interests, and in this case, economic interest seems to have won.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, it's funny. In this country, when you have these sorts of media controversies, they have a way of devolving into sometimes pretty infantile debates. But in the case of Star Academy, you say that something very different happened.
MARWAN KRAIDY: Yes. In many ways, Star Academy became code word for debating, you know, male to female relations in the Arab world, for debating Western-Arab relations, human rights, the role of popular culture in society, and perhaps more importantly, the role of religious leaders in society. So that if you're reading a column in one of the big pan-Arab dailies, you will see somebody writing about the opposition in Egypt, and suddenly they throw the example of Star Academy in to illustrate one point or the other. There'll be a talk show on Al Jazeera or on Al Arabiya, and Star Academy again serves as an example to illustrate some of the issues that I just mentioned. These discussions had been going on, but at a much lower decibel level. You know, one of the things that these programs do is they provide a common platform. They bring people together. And by doing that, we know that for instance people in Morocco are more aware of Lebanon, of Iraq, of Saudi Arabia than they were in 1992, when the satellite industry was not what it is today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
MARWAN KRAIDY: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marwan Kraidy studies Arab media and teaches at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. [MUSIC]