Survey: U.S. Middle East broadcasts making headway

When the U.S. government set up its own broadcast network, Alhurra, in the Middle East in February, skeptics doubted that American-sponsored programming could take hold in that part of the world. But Alhurra claims that a new study of viewer attitudes toward the network tells a different story.

The network commissioned a survey in the region by ACNielsen to find out just what satellite viewers really thought about the American broadcast operation. According to Alhurra, the data reveals that 71% of viewers ages 15 and older in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates considered the information relayed on Alhurra to be “reliable.”

Norman Pattiz, chairman of radio conglomerate Westwood One and the man who conceived Alhurra, said, “For an American station to gain an audience at a time when America’s popularity is at an all-time low, and for a majority of that audience to find the station’s information reliable, that’s success.”

The ACNielsen numbers, which come only from satellite homes and do not reflect the large number of Arabs who watch satellite TV on the street and in cafes, range from 12% in Egypt to 33% in Kuwait, with the other countries in the 20% range.

But some experts in the region are skeptical about the findings. Avi Jorisch, senior fellow at Foundation for the Democracies and author of “Beacon of Hatred: Inside Hizballah’s al-Manar Television,” said that “there is no exact method of obtaining viewer numbers for any network in that region.” But he believes some people see Alhurra as direct access to the U.S. government, and to gain that access some do watch the network.

Echoing the view that the American operation is making some headway is Magda Abu-Fadil, director of the Institute for Professional Journalists at Lebanese American University in Beirut and a journalist who covered Washington and the Middle East for 25 years. “Alhurra has an audience in the Arab world, but I wouldn’t call it a following,” Abu-Fadil said. “There are no accurate Nielsen-like ratings to quantify market share. Alhurra is different in that it presents a slant favored by the U.S. government, and Arabs are very aware of that.”

Alhurra is funded by a $62 million first-year budget, paid by taxpayer dollars. In 2000, as chair of the language review committee for the U.S. Broadcasting board of governors, Pattiz was asked by the board to expand America’s commitment to Arabic-language broadcasting in the Middle East. Alhurra’s programming today includes news, talk shows, current affairs magazines as well as outsourced programming — 75% of which is U.S.-made — and includes Bravo’s “Inside the Actors Studio” as well as documentaries, travel, fashion, health and science shows.

Said Pattiz: “It’s important for us to compete in the marketplace of ideas and to get people’s attention. If we don’t do that, we stand no chance of turning anyone around.”

That, according to Harold Pachios, who serves on the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, is key to the American broadcast operation. “The Arab audience may not agree with some of the American opinions expressed on Alhurra, but the key point is, Alhurra has an Arab audience.”

Source: The Hollywood Reporter - November 16, 2004

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