Television in a Global Market
The U.S., especially, is the exporter of popular culture to other nations abroad, and many scholars see it as another form of Western imperialism, dubbing it “cultural imperialism” (as cited in Jin, 2007, p. 754). This is especially true in the case of television: there is a constant flow of U.S.-produced television to other nations abroad, but the opposite is not true. There are very few programs produced outside the U.S. that reach the cultural ubiquity inside the U.S., the few exceptions being relegated to specific ethnic programming channels, and even those are banished to a cable wasteland that isn't accessible to the majority of the population.
While some scholars argue that the cultural media dominance of the West is lessening because ethnic and native programming is on the rise, the smaller production companies simply cannot compete on the same level as the billion-dollar U.S. industry.
The Success of The Cosby Show
The show was incredibly popular in the U.S. during its run, but also incredibly expensive, and Viacom (the parent company who produced the show) needed to recoup some of their losses on the show (Havens, 2000, p. 378). They decided to sell it to international markets, and while the exact figures on the sale are not available, Viacom's exports increased exponentially after the sale of the international distribution rights to the show (Havens, 2000, p. 378).
Increased deregulation of the global media market and the political atmosphere towards the U.S. in the 1980's, where many were seeking to repair their relationship with the U.S., also contributed to the success of the sale of The Cosby Show, and set precedents for global television sales and acquisitions that are still in effect to this day (as cited in Havens, 2000, p. 379). Many countries now rely on U.S. programming to fill large parts of their domestic television schedules, and many countries simultaneously broadcast shows (like in the case of Canada) from the U.S. to their home countries (Havens, 2000, p. 375).
Saudi Arabia and Television
The influx of U.S. media has affected Saudi youth culture: the interest in the U.S. has increased dramatically, and many young people want to study or visit the United States because they are fascinated with the culture (Booth, 2010, December 7). In partnering with Effat University this semester this was obvious: when talking with Amal, a student from the university in Saudi Arabia, she repeatedly expressed her desire to visit the United States, although she had never traveled that far from her home before.
But all of this is not to say that there isn't a domestic market for television: there are people producing specific content for their own regions, whether that is the adaptation of U.S. reality television, or young people moving to the internet to make television-like content for their generation. Saudi Arabia especially has engaged in what media executives call "reversioning,” which is “producing local versions of popular American shows with local casts all over the world” (McDowell, 2006, October 17). From a Saudi version of America's Got Talent (itself an Americanized version of the original, Britain's Got Talent) to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, it seems that reality TV is the easiest genre to translate into different cultures abroad.
The issue arrises when Saudi Arabian cultural values and norms come into conflict with the central themes and messages of these programs. There are usually one of two outcomes: one, the show is neutered of many of its Westernized messages to be culturally acceptable for the country, or two, the show retains many of its countercultural messages but is subject to great controversy inside the country, and may prompt responses anywhere from boycotts to fatwas.
Star Academy gained incredible popularity in Saudi Arabia, becoming one of the highest-rated broadcasts in the country, but also became a lightning rod for many social issues going on in the nation in 2003 and 2004 (Kraidy, 2009, pp. 351-352). The government issued a fatwa (a religious ruling, specific to Islamic communities) against the program, citing that it engaged in serious evils like “the free mixing of the sexes, ...wanton display[s] and unveiling on the part of women displaying their charms...blatant promotion of immorality...[that] distanc[es] [Muslims] from good morals and virtue” (as cited in Kraidy, 2009, p. 352). The government even went so far as to prohibit the “watching, discussing, voting in, or participating in Star Academy, and exhorted businessmen not to finance this type of program” (Kraidy, 2009, p. 352). It was quickly dubbed “Satan Academy” by those opposed (Kraidy, 2009, p. 352).
On the other hand, many journalists were proponents of the show because it engaged in free voting practices for citizens in the Arab world. These journalists and other voices talked about the positive alternatives that Star Academy offered the youth of Saudi Arabia, and the light fun the show offered families (Kraidy, 2009, p. 354). The public, on the other hand, was much more ambivalent, with some being opposed to the program because of their strong religious convictions and others in the public seeing it as harmless television (Kraidy, 2009, p. 357). It seems that there is a disconnect between the religiously conservative Saudi government and the liberal-minded public, perhaps due to the influx of U.S. media that is slowly changing the viewpoints of Saudi Arabian youth (and Arab youth overall).
In the same vein as the cultural adaptation of Star Academy, Saudi Arabia recently began its own version of Britain's Got Talent called Arabs Got Talent, although it has its own touchstones unique to Saudi Arabian culture. The American and UK versions of the show both focus on talents like singing and dancing, as well as other “talents” that range anywhere from juggling to acrobatics. Unlike the US and UK versions, the Saudi version will allow contestants to “perform religious chants, recite poems and engage in sports events” but is not open to women (AFP, 2012, June 10).
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire
The first thing that is different in the Saudi Arabian version is the title. Instead of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, it is Who Will Earn A Million, falling in line with the religious traditions that govern the country, namely that Islam does not allow gambling or prizes without investment (Hetsroni & Tukachinsky, 2003, p. 168). The questions in the U.S. version pertain to pop culture and general knowledge of social, political and historical events. In Saudi Arabia, though, the show focuses on national identity as a way of fostering nationalism within the nation, and also “further emphasizes the pan-Arabic character of the nation by inviting non-Saudi Arabs to take part as contestants” (Hetsroni & Tukachinsky, 2003, p. 175). The cultural differences between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are on full display when looking at the two versions of the show: one provided as light, fun fair for daytime television watchers, and another that is shaped by religious and national views.
Television-Watching Habits and User-Generated Content
From talking to the female students from Effat University, an overwhelming majority of them enjoy western programming and listed it as their favorite forms of entertainment, much higher than Saudi Arabian-produced content (D. Dakhil & T. Al-Harkan, email, December 7, 2012). Revenge, Grey's Anatomy, and 2 Broke Girls numbered among their favorite programming, a complete reversal from the 1984 findings. It seems that the increased globalization of television has not only made US television easier to watch and acquire in other countries, but in the case of Saudi Arabia, has made it a more attractive form of programming for Saudi Arabian youth.
That is not to say that Saudi Arabian youth don't actively engage in their own forms of media content creation. The introduction of social media has continued to expand the role of local and ethnic programming by giving a low-budget forum with little government restrictions to voice opposing opinions as well as satire the politics of the day. One such show is On The Fly, which is a loose, informal show with a large audience on YouTube.
The creator, Omar Hussein, described it as a “socially responsible comedy” that riffs on the news and national chatter” (MacFarquhar, 2011, June 11). According to The New York Times, both On The Fly and another show in the similar vein called La Yekthar (Zip It), “exude a Comedy Central feel and have rejected television, fearful of being censored to avoid offending advertisers. Online, they can push the limits, although not too far” (MacFarquhar, 2011, June 11).
Bringing to mind the bitting satirical bend of US programming like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, these Saudi youth are turning to the internet to express their likes (and dislikes) with their government's choices. These satirical programs are also the beginning of a burgeoning comedy scene in Saudi Arabia, where stand-up is just beginning to take off, and it will be interesting to see where television and comedy in Saudi Arabia go in the next ten years.
U.S. Depictions of Arabs and Middle Easterners
The sympathies in the show lie with the two Caucasian main characters: Carrie (Claire Danes), a CIA analyst with a secret history of mental instability that may or may not be affecting her judgment choices on the job, and Brody, a returned POW from Iraq who may or may not be a terrorist working to take down key members in the U.S. government.
The show deals with potential terrorist plots against the U.S., and therefore because of the current U.S. political landscape deals with the Middle East. The Arabs portrayed on the show fall into three categories: either they are terrorists, abused or frightened third parties who are somehow connected to terrorists, or characters that have little to no screen time but represent outdated views of Arabs. There is a large pushback currently from "both Muslim advocacy groups in the US over depiction of Muslims in drama as well as the refusal by actors to play "sinister" Arabs" (Beaumont, 2012, October 13). The limited portrayal of Arab and Middle Eastern characters on Homeland is troubling. Take, for example, the following scene from season one.
At one point Carrie threatens a Saudi diplomat, whom the CIA had incriminating photos of with another man, with deporting his daughter back to Saudi Arabia where she would be forced to "wear a burkah for the rest of her miserable life" (Massad, 2012, October 25). Carrie, who had spent time in the Middle East, should have known that the idea she was threatening the diplomat with had little to do with the Saudi Arabia of today, where women enjoy many freedoms despite wearing different clothing than women in the United States. The scariest thing for this Saudi diplomat is that his daughter will get sent back to an oppressive land, one that from a current cultural standpoint may not even exist because it has been so overly fictionalized in this U.S. drama.
Another troubling portrayal is that of the main villain in the show, terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir. He is supposed to be an Al-Qaida leader and brings to mind Bin Laden and other U.S. terrorist antagonists over the years. According to one author, even his name is incorrect: Abu Nazir means "father of Nazir," but Nazir's first-born son's name is Aisa...itself an "Israeli corruption of an Arabic name 'Isa, meaning Jesus" (Massad, 2012, October 25). He is Palestinian, one sign by the author that the anti-Palestinian, pro-Israeli agenda is present in this U.S.-media, and by almost all of U.S. media (Massad, 2012, October 25). The other thing Homeland seems to represent is that "Palestinians, Iraqis, Saudis all share an agenda regardless of background, culture and history," that agenda being the takedown of the United States (Beaumont, 2012, October 13). The only positive on the show is that Islam is depicted, as practiced by a converted Brody, but there are no positive role models of Islam or even Arabs on the show, save for one peaceful Imam in the first season with only a peripheral connection to the main storyline.
There has also been controversy in the show with the depiction of Beirut: in one early season two episode Carrie travels to Beirut to get confidential information out of a source, and the Beirut she encounters is full of violence and militia, and not as "a lively [place] packed with cafes, book shops and pubs" (AP, 2012, October 19). For filming purposes, Tel Aviv in Israel had to stand-in for Beirut, and this choice and the depiction in the program ended up angering both the Lebanese and the Israelis for the show's focus on terrorist attacks, snipers and general disorder in the area.
From incorrect depictions of place to outdated and stereotypical portrayals of Arabs and people from the Middle East, Homeland has a lot to course-correct if it wants to show a nuanced and honest portrayal of these people and their nations. Like everything else, Homeland is a product of globalization: globalization that has led to stereotypes being generalized all over the world through the power of the satellite signal. One of the creators of Homeland, Howard Gordon, is aware of this and mentions the impact shows like his are having, "that by portraying Muslims strictly as terrorists on the show we were... unwittingly exploiting some of the fears of our audience members." He later said, "I think that the impact of our content or creative content is one of our greatest exports. It becomes a very powerful instrument for understanding each other in this terrible... divide we find ourselves in with the Muslim world" (Beaumont, 2012, October 13).
Hopefully the future of Homeland will entail a more balanced portrayal of the other side of the world, but until that time being aware of the factual inaccuracies in the show that U.S. President Obama cites as his favorite is essential when dealing with people of other nations and cultures.
AFP. (2012, June 10). Saudi Arabia's 'got talent' but no women or music. Retrieved from http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/06/10/219787.html
AP. (2012, October 19). TV show 'Homeland' irks Lebanese, Israelis. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/tv/2012/10/19/tv-homeland-lebanon-israel/1643183/
Beaumont, P. (2012, October 13). Homeland is brilliant drama. But does it present a crude image of Muslims? Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2012/oct/13/homeland-drama-offensive-portrayal-islam-arabs
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MacFarquhar, N. (2011, June 11). In Saudi Arabia, comedy cautiously pushes limits. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/12/world/middleeast/12saudi.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&
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McDowell, J. (2006). Helping TV hits translate overseas. Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1547027,00.html