Saturday, April 05, 2003
Is a pro-American Arabic TV network really a good idea? Robert Satloff thinks not.
To combat what is widely viewed as the slanted news coverage of Arab satellite stations, the White House and Congress are joining forces to spend tens -- perhaps hundreds -- of millions of dollars to launch an official Arabic-language U.S. government competitor. Unfortunately, it has a chance of turning out to be one of this country's most ill-conceived and wasteful experiments ever in public diplomacy. [...]
METN will fail for the same reason that Radio Sawa appears to have succeeded. Whereas the Middle East radio market is tightly controlled by local regimes, with very few transnational options available (such as the BBC or Radio Monte Carlo), the regional television market is overflowing with choice. Basic satellite service in a country such as Morocco, for example, without any paid or pirated supplement, provides access to five satellites with dozens of Arabic-language stations. At any moment of the day, one can watch news shows, documentaries, sitcoms, soap operas, MTV imitators or dubbed Hollywood movies. Precisely which niche is METN supposed to fill?
As for content, the problem is that no conceivable programming for METN news shows would meet the dual test of popularity abroad and political correctness at home. Al-Jazeera and other Arabic satellite news channels won popularity because of their lurid sensationalism and no-holds-barred debates. Viewers tune in to see graphic details of the bloody side of Israeli retaliation to Palestinian terrorism and talk shows that feature the most outlandish radicals, such as spokesmen for the Taliban, Hezbollah or Saddam Hussein, duking it out with establishment mandarins.
Surely METN cannot try to be more sensationalist than al-Jazeera. Few in Congress are going to like subsidizing TV time for Iranian mullahs or the proud parents of Palestinian suicide bombers. The alternative would be PBS-style highbrow, high-quality news shows. That sounds great, but the reality is that such shows are likely to gain even fewer viewers in the saturated Middle East satellite market than PBS does in the U.S. market.