Can reality TV 'survive' in the Middle East?
Adaptations of 'American Idol' and 'Fear Factor' are hits in the Arab world even as they gently test social mores.
BEIRUT AND ADMA, LEBANON, AND DAMASCUS, SYRIA
At a new TV studio tucked in the hills north of Beirut, a young audience - mostly teenagers of the spiked ankle boot set - takes up a deafening chant. "Ahmad! Ahmad!" It's Friday night, or "Prime" time for "Star Academy," one of the hottest incarnations of reality TV in the Arab world. There's no sex, no alcohol, and no swearing, but that hasn't diminished the enthusiasm of fans.Skip to next paragraph
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Airing 24 hours a day on a satellite channel, "Star Academy" features 16 contestants cloistered in a villa, who attend singing, dancing, and acting lessons, devour take-out pasta, and compete for a recording contract. Each week, viewers dial their cellphones to vote off one of two candidates. Results are announced Friday, after a live performance. This week Ahmad, a dimpled Tunisian, is up against Muhammad, a lanky Saudi Arabian.
"Star Academy," produced by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), is on the crest of a wave of Western reality formats to debut in the region in recent months. Arabs with satellite dishes can now watch other Arabs navigating their way through foreign cities in a version of the British "Three for the Road," Arabs auditioning to be the next "Superstar," Arabs swimming with snakes on "Fear Factor," and soon Arabs jostling to be the next "Survivor."
But reality TV's entry here has not been entirely smooth. Early this month, the Middle East Broadcasting Center canceled an Arab "Big Brother" in its second week - amid cries of immorality from Islamists in Bahrain, where the show was filmed. At the same time, some viewers complained that restrictions, such as bans on kissing, rendered the show "very boring."
"In the Middle East ... there's reality TV [only] to a certain limit." says Christine Jammal, executive producer of "Superstar," in her Beirut office. Still, she and other producers and media experts say these new programs are gently nudging the boundaries of a conservative culture. If reality TV in the West has evolved into an unbridled frat party with de rigueur steamy Jacuzzi scenes, the emerging Arab equivalant is a jacket-and-tie dinner with the occasional rowdy guest.
The media are full of reality show buzz, positive and negative. "There's no one in Lebanon who hasn't heard of ['Star Academy']," says Maythem Shamesdine, a Beirut college student. Or anyone in Saudi Arabia, according to five young women who traveled from Jeddah to support Muhammad. They shrug when told that a college dean in Kuwait has issued a fatwa against "Star Academy" - everyone they know, except their grandparents, is hooked.
For Arab producers, certain changes to the Western formats were a given. When water is involved on "Fear Factor," females don full-body wet suits. Cameras were removed from bathrooms, and bedrooms were segregated on "Star Academy." Arab "Big Brother" went further, providing separate common rooms and separate prayer rooms for men and women and forbidding candidates to enter bedrooms of the opposite sex. For the rest, many producers rely on the participants' common sense.
"They've all grown up in Middle Eastern homes," says Roula Saad, producer and director of "Star Academy." "They know what's acceptable."
But both "Big Brother" and "Star Academy" still required single men and women to live together under the same roof - a notion new to most viewers and illegal in many Arab countries. Three girls leaving a trendy store in Damascus say that, initially, the idea of a coed house bugged them. But they developed a die-hard devotion to "Big Brother" and to "Star Academy." They all voted for Ahmad.