Reality TV spices Arab politics

First, mix “American Idol” with “The Real World.” Pour the contestants into the same house, stir in the same grungy, bubble gum pop outfits, and watch their reaction. Then ice with a singing contest in which voters decide the winner.

The result would appear to be just another reality TV show, except that all contestants are from Middle Eastern countries, the setting is Lebanon, and the show is reflecting social and political upheaval in its broadcast countries.

The Arab reality show “Star Academy,” is in its seventh season on the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) and remains one of the most popular shows in the Arab world - one of many to reflect the changing landscape of Arab culture.

“It has opened up a new avenue for public participation - for men and women,” said Marwan Kraidy, an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Reality Television and Arab Politics: Contention in Public Life.”

The book reveals the pull between traditional cultural values and the modernization of Arab society, and the ways in which reality television in the Islamic world is communicating the ideas behind modern beliefs.

Mr. Kraidy said Arab views are evolving, not necessarily into an imitation of the West, but somewhere between that and the culture’s traditional, conservative ways - “creating something new.”

“It’s really about the debate about what it means to be Arab and modern and Muslim at the same time,” Mr. Kraidy explained.

“After years of watching pugilistic talk shows on al-Jazeera, Arab viewers were turning in droves to new and exciting reality TV (Arabic: telfizion al-waqi’) programs served up by entertainment channels, stirring wide-ranging controversies - some of which Mansour captured in his stinging indictment - and confirming Jon Altermans quip that ‘If al-Jazeera indicates that news can be entertainment, LBC indicates that entertainment can be news,’ ” Mr. Kraidy wrote in the book.

Mr. Kraidy who started researching the phenomenon in 2003 and 2004 said the reality shows affect public debate because when people discuss the shows, issues about the broader world inevitably get involved.

He cited instances in Kuwait in which citizens began to argue that because women could be involved and vote on reality shows, they could become a part of the political system. Women gained the right to vote in the conservative Persian Gulf emirate and run in political elections in 2005.

“In each country the case was slightly different,” he said, but added that the shows are most controversial in the Persian Gulf countries, on religious grounds.

In 2004 the Arab version of “Big Brother,” “Al-Ra’is,” was suspended in the island-nation of Bahrain, where it was being filmed. Citizens were outraged over the show’s male and female contestants lived in the same house (even though they were barred from each others’ sleeping quarters) and over a kiss on the cheek that a male contestant gave a female contestant on the show. Although some argued that the show should stay on to improve tourism in the country, which would boost the economy.

But despite such liberalizing tendencies and the power to censor that many of the traditional regimes have and often use, Mr. Kraidy said some regime officials actually favor the shows because often participants are from an array of Arab countries. And with contestants representing their countries of origin, “you have the issue of nationalism,” which can make it very difficult to censor the shows.

Mr. Kraidy who said he watched 600 to 700 hours of television researching for his book, stressed he doesn’t think the reality shows are actually implanting the idea of modernization in Muslim culture.

The trend “started in 2003 and 2004 and it’s still going on,” he said.”I do think these shows reflect social reality in many ways. It’s not that reality TV is creating that [social change], its just reflecting it,” he said.

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