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October 31, 2006

The Revolution Will Be Televised

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Two years ago, Islamic conservatives, shocked at the fact that male and female contestants were sharing the same house in the Arab version of Big Brother, forced the program off the air. The harrowing politics of the region have proved a dubious boon to one makeover show: Labor and Materials fixes up houses that have been destroyed by bombs or grenades in Iraq. Last year another program, Starting Over, focused on six women living in a luxury flat outside Beirut and working with a team of psychologists, career counselors, and personal stylists to help reshape their lives on-air. One woman overcame crippling shyness; another started her own business. The show's success, according to producers, came from the fact that reform--personal as well as political--is a current buzzword for women across the Middle East, who see sat TV as a means for questioning the status quo. "The Arab woman is thankful to find a voice," says Kalam Nawaem's Rania Bargout. "She's sick and tired of being told what to do. Now she's seeking answers to enable her to move forward." Women have been part of the Middle East's satellite-television revolution from the start. Over the past two years, as the number of Arab channels has more than doubled to over 200, women's shows have been a fast-growing niche in the booming market. The majority of viewers hail from the eight Gulf states, North Africa, and the Mediterranean, but with new satellite packages and internet TV, Arab channels are also finding limited viewership in Europe, America, and Asia. (Kalam Nawaem's viewers, for example, watch from Virginia and Malaysia as well as Lebanon.)

Last year, the Middle East Broadcasting Company debuted MBC4, the region's second all-women's channel, built around hit American imports such as Oprah and Dr. Phil, as well as reruns of Frasier and Mad About You.

Top shows are beamed out of Lebanon and Dubai, enclaves of liberalism in the region. The highest ratings, however, come from wealthy, conservative Gulf states, where women are more frequently veiled and housebound. "When satellite television was in its infancy, the Lebanese stations were competing for viewership," explains Naomi Sakr, an expert in Arab media at London's

University of Westminster. "They figured the best way to do it was to put pretty women on-screen for all the Gulf guys who never get to see women unveiled."

Today, the female talent on TV is more than mere eye-candy: "There's been a feminization of the industry in the last decade," says Diana Moukalled, a correspondent with Lebanon's Future Television. A survey by the American research company Intermedia found that two of the top five favorite news anchors in this region are women. Of course, the female media isn't universally welcomed. "In Lebanon, I've never had a problem being a woman working in television," says Moukalled, who has covered everything from Taliban rule to an interview with president Bush. "But in conservative countries, I've faced resistance. I was trying to interview these women in Kuwait, and they got really pissed off. They kept asking, 'Why are you working with men?'" Others view female reporters with pity, believing they are "forced" to work. "They ask, 'how could your parents send you here?'" says Najat Charaf Eddine, a Beirut-based correspondent who reported from the ground during the Iraq invasion of Kuwait.

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