Then years ago this tall a scattered audience of some 1,000 viewers grouped around some 200 spanking-new television receivers in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province settled down to watch a Muslim religious leader intone in sonorous Arabic the Koranic passage traditionally used to launch new projects. It begins: "Lo! We have given thee (O Muhammad) a signal victory."
The date was September 16, 1957, and for the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) and for Saudi Arabia it was a most important occasion. For Aramco it meant the inaugural of its newly-built television station. For Saudi Arabia—indeed for most of the Middle East—it meant the introduction of a system of communication that in the coming decade would sweep across the land with the force and inevitability of a desert shamal.
The transmission from Dhahran was not the first ever seen in the Middle East. A station in Baghdad had gone on the air just a few months before and the U.S. Military Training Mission at Dhahran International Airport had, then, a small English-language TV operation for its base personnel. And Aramco Television was introduced primarily for the company's 9,000 Saudi Arab employes and their families,—even though its 12-kilo-watt power was sufficient to reach 350,000 potential viewers in eastern Saudi Arabia and neighboring lands.
But from that year on, television has become a factor to be reckoned with throughout the Arab world. Antennae have sprouted into the traditional skyline of domes and minarets in the cities of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Aden, Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. And when such countries as Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar and Mauretania eventually have their own TV stations too, the Arab world will be able to boast of a unique distinction in the realm of broadcasting: the largest group of independent nations whose television stations speak the same language—Arabic.
Despite the common language, of course, and what is admittedly a strong homogeneity of interests, there are bound to be differences over such a vast land mass, especially with regard to the employment of a system of communication with the potential of television. In fact, the most important similarity among the new stations is the dedication of huge amounts of broadcast time—up to 30 per cent—to education and the promotion of national objectives. In Syria, for example, the prime-time 8:30 program is devoted to news and commentary. And the United Arab Republic makes certain that everybody with a set gets the latest news and views by telecasting them hourly every evening from 7 o'clock through 11. The UAR, furthermore, in an ambitious effort to bring the fellahin into the mainstream of Egyptian affairs, has installed 1,000 communal television sets in village TV clubs where farmers can watch Cairo programs on payment of a token fee.
Lebanese television, to the contrary, is a free-wheeling example (and the only one) of private enterprise—and the only one, too, which must pay its own way. The revenue to do this comes, naturally, from advertising, for which the Lebanese Government generously allows 25 per cent of air time. Fortunately for the viewer, owners of the media have hewed to a limit of 15 per cent—which works out very close to the eight minutes per hour of advertising inflicted on American TV audiences. On some programs which lack sponsor appeal the percentage is much lower. Until recently, in fact, viewers could often sit through an entire movie without a single commercial.
Advertising on Lebanese television tends to be more amusing (albeit unconsciously) than its counterpart in the United States. Night after night on one program last year sponsors ran the same commercial three times in a row—once in Arabic, once in French, and once in English.
Advertising breaks on Lebanese television, though less frequent, are often longer than those in the United States, so that a viewer may walk, instead of having to run, to the refrigerator for a tall glass of something cool. Otherwise, it's much the same, even to the American habit of shoving the volume up two notches during commercials to blast the viewer awake.
In Lebanon, advertising rates are computed on the basis of cost-per-1,000 homes reached per minute. An advertiser can thus buy a minute on Lebanese TV for from $40 to $160, as compared with an average U.S. network minute at $18,000 and a top of $33,000. Nevertheless, the cost-per-thousand-homes is approximately the same in both countries, and considerably more expensive than in Iraq ($10) and Syria ($6), both of which have greater populations than Lebanon. Significantly, of the $15 million spent annually on television advertising in Kuwait, Syria, Iraq (which accept advertising even though government-owned) and Lebanon, nearly $6 million is spent in Lebanon alone, This amount breaks down to $3.30 per capita, against an overall Middle East average of 43 cents.
A cosmopolitan Mediterranean land where, as a legacy of the French Mandate and American education, French and English are spoken almost as often as Arabic, Lebanon has two television stations which broadcast in all three tongues. The C.L.T. (Compagnie Libanaise de Télévision, S.A.L.), broadcasting mostly in French with a 60-kilowatt signal over channels 2, 4, 7 and 9 has had the French Government television company, ORTF as a major stockholder. Télé-Orient (Compagnie de Télévision du Liban et du Proche-Orient S.A.L.) which broadcasts with 100 kilowatts over channels 5 and 11, concentrates on Arabic and English, and is partly owned by British interests representing Lord Thompson. Both stations have isolated mountain-top transmitting towers high on the 6,000-foot Lebanon range which flanks the city of Beirut and so have some viewers in neighboring Syria, Jordan, Cyprus and Egypt.
In some ways, of course, the sharp differences in the social approach of Lebanese television stations tend to make Lebanon's essentially profit-minded approach seem frivolous. But according to the men who run the stations this contrast is more apparent than real.
In the first place, concentrating air time on such subjects as, say, reading or writing, is not necessary in Lebanon simply because illiteracy is no longer a major problem in that country. Similarly, it isn't necessary to teach basic agricultural and industrial skills or to exhort isolated villages to introduce modern practices affecting, for example, health. Moreover, by allowing the country's creative elements to experiment freely and by providing them with an audience eager for Arab culture, television, according to Dr. Lucien Dahdah, director general of Lebanon's Télé-Orient, has created a veritable revolution in the Arab arts.
"There's probably not a single major Arab art form," he says, "that has not benefited from the stimulus of television. The cinema, music, poetry and set design, not to mention dramatic writing, acting and production, have all flourished thanks to the mass audience created by television. The interchange of taped programs between Arabic-speaking countries diffuses Arab culture throughout the Middle East, which in turn helps to ignite the creative energies of young artists and, coming full circle, offers them a marketplace and an audience for their productions."
There has long been talk in the Lebanese press about the feasibility of a merger of the two privately-owned companies sometime in the future and about the possibility of limited government participation in the new corporation, and there are good arguments for a merger, at least. But whatever happens it seems likely that Lebanon's consumer-oriented broadcasters will continue to set the pace in the Middle East, if only because of their policy of filming and distributing live programs. According to Harold Jamieson, a British advisor to Télé-Orient, the station has "an extraordinary amount of live studio programming, far far higher than in the United Kingdom, where stations are obliged to have 15 per cent." The Lebanese station now schedules 50 to 60 per cent of its programming for live broadcasts in Arabic. "The sense of national identity in the Arab world creates a great desire for drama or comedy with an ethnic content," Jamieson adds. It is reflected, too, in such projects as the new series, "Our Heritage," a locally-produced program which depicts the Arab's ancient contributions to the rest of the world in such fields as cartography, exploration, science and mathematics.
Télé-Orient's studios are equipped to use both video tape (electronic) and kinescope (16-mm film) to record these live productions for export to eight Arab nations. Last year alone the station sold about 250 hours of programming in the Middle East.
The giant of Middle East television is Egypt, partly because of the reservoir of creative talent produced as a by-product of its thriving film industry, partly because of the size of its audience. Egypt's three channels, now two, used to broadcast a total of 25 hours daily. Seven transmitters cover nearly the entire Nile Valley, where more than two-thirds of Egypt's 30 million people live in some 4,000 villages. Cairo's Channel 5, powered at 160 kilowatts, sometimes even reaches viewers in Lebanon and parts of Syria.
Unique among Arab stations, Cairo television begins broadcasting in the morning, with the First Program going on the air at 10 o'clock. Six hours later, at 4 p.m., it is joined by the Second Program, both schedules leaning heavily on a variety of news, music, women's programs, serials, and Arabic and foreign films. The Third Program, like its BBC eponym, stresses culture and education, and begins at 6 p.m. News, press reviews and political commentary are broadcast at short and regular intervals on all channels. Together they constitute 15 per cent of the schedule, with variety programs accounting for another 18 per cent, foreign films an equal share (but a fat 40 per cent of the Third Program output), and live drama and cultural programs leading with 21 per cent. Arabic films, far and away the favorite fare in Egypt, occupy only 3.6 per cent of air time.
A built-in paradox of Egyptian television is that the government is beaming its programs mainly toward the rural population, whose standards of health, prosperity, and general education it desperately wishes to raise, but nevertheless must face the uneasy realization that it is precisely this largely illiterate class which has the least interest in the programming Cairo can offer. Foreign films about foreign problems have little appeal to the peasantry, and unless treated with great care and imagination the expanding role of women in Egyptian life, cultural developments, and international news draw even less response.
Television has been introduced to audiences in central and western Saudi Arabia by the Saudi Arabian Government. Channels in both the capital, Riyadh, and the large Red Sea port city of Jiddah, are now on the air an average of six hours every evening. They offer fare designed to instruct and to entertain, though not necessarily at the same time. Programs of local and world-wide news have become as much a fixed viewing habit in these two localities as the nightly appearances of Huntley-Brinkley in the United States. Many programs are put on live and, of course, in Arabic. Others, such as filmed nature and travel shows, have English sound and Arabic subtitles. Saudi Arab viewers who are tuned in to "Perry Mason" can either follow the conversation in Arabic subtitles or tune up their English sound. Some features, such as the U.S.-made series "Forest Rangers" are dubbed entirely in the Arabic language.
With television in Riyadh and Jiddah now well established (one Saudi newspaper recently estimated that there are now over 100,000 television sets in the kingdom), the Saudi Arabian Government plans to include the kingdom's other main population centers in its future TV development so that in the not-too-distant future there will be coast-to-coast communication via the electronic picture tube. By the end of 1968, according to the government's announced timetable, there will be new TV stations in Buraydah, Medina and Dammam, the east coast's principal port city, with micro-wave relays beamed from Jiddah into the holy city of Mecca and to Taif, high in the mountains just to the east of the Red Sea coast.
In Saudi Arabia, of course, it was Aramco's local television station that led the way. The oil company's pioneering effort in this field has demonstrated with startling clarity how quickly a people unacquainted with Western technology can master it when given an opportunity.
Aramco TV's initial telecast was produced entirely by a foreign staff. In the 10 years since, on-the-job training, supplemented in several instances by special schooling and practical TV work experience in the United States, has brought Saudi Arabs to the point where they fill 39 out of 45 positions on the station staff. Station Manager Saleh Mozaini, a Saudi Arab from Buraydah, supervises fellow countrymen who have learned to direct productions, write scripts, edit film, produce special sound and visual effects, and operate TV cameras in the studio and motion picture equipment on location.
Ironically, for a station with strong American associations, Aramco Television enjoys the distinction of being the only outlet in the Middle East to broadcast every one of its programs in the Arabic language. TV fare originally produced in English is dubbed into Arabic and the tape is then broadcast via a unique system of synchronization: English-speaking viewers can simply tune down the televised Arabic and listen to an English-language sound track on their radios.
Another concession to the station's host country is its schedule, which is based on Arabic time, shifting each day according to the hour of sunset. Each day's program continues to be opened with Koranic readings and the station is always off the air during prayer periods. Furthermore, all material to be telecast is selected to avoid any conflicts with the standards of Islamic morality. Films depicting drunkenness or extra-marital love, for example, are carefully edited.
In a part of the world where neither education on a broad scale nor Western-style entertainment had ever received much attention until recently, the question of how much air time to allot to instructive programming and how much to pure recreation always poses a problem to the staff of Aramco TV. Clearly in the entertainment column are the nine feature length films (five in Arabic and four adroitly-dubbed English-language movies) and episodes of such series familiar to U.S. audiences as "Rawhide," "Mr. Novak" and "Bachelor Father" which are shown during a typical broadcast week. For a people who as both participants and as spectators take athletics very seriously, the station puts on many sports programs of international import. Viewers of Aramco TV have watched world championship soccer matches from England, big-league wrestling from Chicago and Texas, and heavyweight boxing.
Aramco Television also brings into Eastern Province homes original news and documentary shows of professional quality and, when circumstances warrant it, at great speed. (The station has been known to put on the air an edited sound film of, for example, the ceremonial arrival of a visiting head of state at Dhahran International Airport as soon as three hours after the actual event has taken place.) Educational television occupies about one third of the 37 hours Dhahran's channels 2 and 13 are on the air each week. Mostly on film, programs in this category range from the highbrow to the popular, including a long-running series of instruction in the English language.
As is the case in Lebanon, locally-produced shows which emanate from Dhahran are receiving ever-increasing emphasis. Very popular now is a show originating in Aramco TV's studio called "Questions Have Answers," on which participants, chosen from among the company's Saudi Arab employes and the general public are quizzed on their general knowledge and compete for prizes in cash and merchandise. Arabic-speaking doctors from Aramco's Medical Department discuss pre- and post-natal care, personal hygiene, and how to keep cool in hot weather. An Arab lawyer and amateur critic discourses on literature. Arab women with a flair for public speaking put on "Happy Home," a show for female viewers that covers much the same ground as do the service departments of McCall's and the Ladies' Home Journal: food preparation, household hints, child psychology and interior decoration.
It is a mixed bag, with a balance of program content which attempts to offer something sometime during the week which appeals to every segment of the viewing audience. There are shortcomings, of course, but the station has one concrete measurement of the size and enthusiasm of its following. Last year it received about 250,000 pieces of mail, including contest answers. The letters contained compliments and complaints, program requests and suggestions, and even freelance scripts. It was a response that indicates that the station at least generates plenty of interest.
With little more than 10 years of experience behind even the oldest stations it would be remarkable if the Arab world had mastered all its problems in television. But if programs sometimes drag on 20 minutes to a half hour longer than the scheduled time or appear mysteriously the day before they are scheduled, if the lighting is often poor and if work outside the studio is sometimes less than professional, time is, nevertheless, gradually wearing away most of the rough edges.
Furthermore, most Arab television stations transmit on the 625-lines per-inch CCIR international European standard, which offers sharper and cleaner pictures—or will when remaining transmission problems are straightened out. Even color TV, though not economically promising, is already on the horizon. Lebanon, in fact, ran a successful two-week test of color transmission last year. Further in the future, but "just as soon as economically feasible," is a link with the four-satellite network which spanned 28 countries of the world for the first time last spring. "We will give every possible consideration to tying in," said one television official in Lebanon recently. "There is a tremendously exciting future for television in the Middle East, We simply couldn't let this kind of development pass us by."
Exactly what one would expect to hear from the Arabic-speaking television industry, which has let very little pass by in the ten short years since electronic pictures first crowded flying carpets out of the air over Baghdad.
Daniel da Cruz, a long-time resident of the Middle East, is a regular contributor to Aramco World Magazine. He has published one novel, written a second and is at work on a third.