Reality Television and Arab Politics: Contention in Public Life
Reality television in the Arab world has become a platform for rival political points of view, according to Marwan Kraidy, a scholar of global communication and expert on Arab media and politics. In the context of his recently released book, Reality Television and Arab Politics: Contention in Public Life, Kraidy discussed how entertainment television becomes politicized and transforms public discourse.
The Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a book talk with Kraidy, Associate Professor, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania and Former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center on March 29, 2010. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Kraidy indicated the pervasiveness of reality television in the Arab world is a "total social fact" because nearly everyone watches these entertainment shows, from teenagers to Kraidy's own grandmother. Noting that his book describes Arab politics from 2003-2008 in general and reality television in particular, Kraidy provided specific examples that highlight how different groups have used the medium of reality television to further their agenda and how popular culture can become political currency.
Regarding the cancellation of the show "Big Brother" or "Al Ra'is" as it was known in Bahrain, Kraidy described the parliamentary debate about whether the show was good or bad for the country's reputation. He indicted that most members of the Bahraini parliament agreed that the show was a negative influence because it violated Islamic principles and values. Some economic liberals, however, argued that cancelling the show demonstrated that the country was not ready for business and, thus, hindered potential economic growth.
In Saudi Arabia, Kraidy said there were hundreds of columns, op-eds and letters to the editor in response to the prolific show "Star Academy" that made social and political points through the prism of reality television. He also discussed how the obsession with voting in reality shows derives from the belief that the results are reflective of actual voting. Unable to say outright that Arab elections are often rigged, individuals expressed such a sentiment through commentary on entertainment television.
The show "Star Academy" also prompted a response from the Algerian government that began replacing the show with more conservative versions until it became a Qur'anic recitation show. Kraidy discussed this localization of reality television in aligning with sanctioned local values and how these controversies arise when groups and individuals disagree about what it means to be Arab and modern at the same time.
Kraidy commented on the role of nationalism in determining the popularity or success of show participants by examining the show "Superstar" and the role of women in national debates about identity by looking at examples in Kuwait, Iraq, and Syria. He also noted the rise of poetry competition shows in the Arab world reflect how poetry remains popular in the region as a vibrant art form.
He concluded by reiterating that reality television is based on transformative social and political narratives. Reality television can also serve as a catalyst for discussing sensitive topics in the Arab world and provide an idiom of contention.
Drafted by Kendra Heideman on behalf of the Middle East Program