Arab satellite television emerged in the context of the 1991 Gulf War. Since then, the evolution of the industry has evinced two changes of direction. First, there was a shift, in the 1990s, from officially sanctioned national broadcasting systems to a process of regional media integration. The second shift occurred around 2000, toward specialization and niche markets. The years 1991, 1996, and 2003 witnessed industry milestones. First, politically connected Saudi entrepreneurs launched the Middle East Broadcasting System (MBC) in London, and the Egyptian government launched the Egyptian Satellite Channel (ESC) in 1991. Then came the launch of Al Jazeera and the initiation of satellite operations by Lebanese broadcasters LBC and Future TV in 1996. In 2003, Al Arabiya went on the air as a Saudi-financed rival to Al Jazeera. As of 2007, there were more than 250 Arabic-language, transnational satellite television channels.
Though Arab satellite channels began broadcasting in the 1990s, the policy and technical infrastructure of Arab satellite television had developed over three decades. The Arab satellite organization ARABSAT was established in April 1976 as an organization affiliated with the Arab League. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia bankrolled ARABSAT, and the Saudi capital Riyadh housed ARABSAT’s headquarters. First-generation satellites were launched in the 1980s, and several generations have been put into orbit since. In 1998, the Egyptian government, long a political rival of the Saudi royal family for pan-Arab leadership, launched the satellite NILESAT. Pan-Arab broadcasters could also use the European satellite HOTBIRD and still others. In the 1990s, Arab states either removed or stopped enforcing restrictions on satellite dish ownership, and some states developed “media cities” with financial and labor incentives to national, Arab, and western companies. Dubai leads the way, with other less influential cities operating in Egypt and Jordan.
The combination of satellite technology, war, and economic considerations led to a regionalization of Arab television, aided by the presence of more than 200 million viewers living on a vast stretch of land from Morocco to Iraq and sharing the Arabic language. The new satellite channels attempted at first to replace terrestrial channels with a general format, mixing news and entertainment.
In news, transnationalization led to the “anywhere but here” news phenomenon, where each channel took the opportunity to criticize all countries and policies except the country in which that channel was based or that financed its operations. Al Jazeera, the much-hyped Qatari news channel critical of US policies on the Middle East, is credited with creating a pan-Arab public sphere, and criticized for neglecting local issues specific to countries or communities. The channel occasionally featured dissidents discussing sensitive political topics, but because of the need to retain a transnational audience, a small number of “big” issues such as the Arab– Israeli conflict and the US occupation of Iraq took the lion’s share of news attention, at the expense of local issues.
The most significant genre on Arab news channels was the political talk show. Though national broadcasters in Lebanon and Egypt aired this type of programming in the 1970s, the satellite era witnessed a proliferation of talk shows featuring charismatic, opinionated, and antagonistic guests. The most famous is Al Jazeera’s Al-Ittijah Al-Mu’akiss (“The Opposite Direction”), a spin-off from CNN’s now defunct Crossfire. The verbally aggressive journalist Faisal Al-Qasim hosted two guests in a pugilistic debate on issues varying from the attacks of September 11, 2001, to cultural globalization, to the impotence of Arab regimes, to US policies in the Middle East. Other shows have featured feminists debating clerics, dissidents arguing with regime representatives, and controversial artists defending their work. These talk shows were a dramatic illustration of the variety of opinions aired in Arab public discourse. Specialized satellite channels also attempted to lure niche audiences. This was especially the case with economically oriented channels, for example focusing on real estate (Al ’Iqariyya), or business news (CNBC Arabiya). This has led industry leaders Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya to increase their coverage of stock markets and commodity prices.
Arab satellite television presents a unique case of a regional media industry developing rapidly both qualitatively and quantitatively, and creating a vibrant and complex regional sphere of information and culture. Relying on a transient and transnational workforce working increasingly on format-based productions destined for the pan-Arab market, and concentrated in Beirut, Cairo, and Dubai, Arab satellite television has established a strong regional, and even global, presence, especially in the case of Al Jazeera, which has penetrated the elite club of global news channels and challenged western hegemony over international news.
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