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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

According to some viewers, even the older generation is coming around. Yasmina Fayed, an assistant producer at Future Television, says her father is no longer protesting the living arrangements on "Star Academy." But she's quick to add, "If I were to tell my dad that I wanted to live with a guy - never!"

Beyond domestic logistics, reality shows are also challenging ideas about privacy - something carefully guarded in Arab culture. Such feelings at first caused Ms. Jammal to wonder whether "Superstar," which concluded its first run last summer, would lack the emotional spontaneity of its British predecessor, "Pop Idol." "When I first saw the tape [of "Pop Idol"], I thought it would never happen in the Middle East ... Arabs are too private, too self-conscious," she says. "But if you have the right mood, you can change that."

Ultimately, "Superstar," which could be considered the first Middle East reality show, became popular for showing devastated candidates, despite attacks from the press that such footage was callous. Jammal says tears - of frustration, relief, and joy - have flowed only faster in the second "Superstar," which started Feb. 29.

Emotions and anxieties also leak out to an unprecedented degree on "Star Academy." Fans gossip with wide eyes about stressed female candidates accepting comfort from guys in their bedroom and with even wider eyes about male candidates who have shed a tear after a difficult day of training. "People are sort of wary about opening up," says Dima Dabbous-Sensenig, a communications professor at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. "If you're a young male doing that, showing emotions, you could be accused of being a homosexual - which happened to one guy on 'Star Academy.' "

And while romances between candidates are banned on all Arab reality shows, rumors are rampant about romantic feelings between Sofia, a Moroccan who was voted off "Star Academy," and Bashar, her competitor from Kuwait. The evidence: a few meaningful looks and a couple of intimate chats. It's a far cry from, say, a coed shower on MTV's "Real World," "but you can just tell [they like each other]," says a fan in the Adma audience.

Dr. Dabbous-Sensenig says that flirting is common on college campuses when students "are safe" from parents' and neighbors' watchful eyes. However, "[flirting] on camera is new and shocking."

Is the region's tight moral yarn starting to unwind? No way, say viewers and producers - not while satellite TV has to cater to the social codes of 22 Arab nations.

For one Lebanese company, Breeze Production, the best solution is an original reality format designed from the start to fit the Arab world. "Al Hawa Sawa" ("On Air Together") brought eight women together in one house to cook, exercise, shop, and otherwise display charm and skill as a potential wife. Male suitors were introduced via videotape. Pairs formed through a combination of viewer votes, candidate preference, and live discussions with the candidates' families. One couple walked away with a new home, honeymoon, and a wedding on TV - to be aired soon.

"We created something for the region by the people of the region," says Karim Assad, spokesman for Breeze. "Just like in a real Arab marriage, the whole family gets involved, even the neighbors."

"Al Hawa Sawa" winner Mervat Fouany says the process of selecting a fiancé took place in a traditional manner. She is sitting next to her new fiancé at an ice cream bar in downtown Beirut, wearing a pink leather hat and a rhinestone pendant the size of an appetizer plate. "The only difference," she says, "was that I was on TV and lots of people saw it."

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