Egypt’s new golden age of television

Egypt’s new golden age of television

Posted January 11th, 2008  Satellite TV has created something of a media revolution in Egypt. With some help from the blogosphere, the ordinary citizens and their concerns have suddenly become a market.

In 2007, the number of free Egyptian satellite channels reached a total of six: al-Mehwar, Dream1, Dream2, OTV, As-Saa, and Modern, all owned by private businessmen.

With the birth of so many private satellite channels, talk shows have returned with a vengeance, bringing back the golden age of television to Egypt. What”s more, the talk shows have managed to grab the attention of  the average Egyptian citizen, who is not interested in the independent press despite its recent success.

It all started with the regime establishing a free media zone, Media Production City, in January 2000, and the investors’ will to pour EGP250 million ($46 million) into the launch of Egypt”s first private satellite channel, Al-Mehwar (The Axis), in 2001.

Among the initial investors was Ahmad Bahjat, who left the channel a year later to set up two new channels, Dream 1 and Dream 2, with a capital of EGP40 million ($7.3 million).

Dream started broadcasting many popular shows, including “Lika’ maa al-Oustaz” (Meeting with the Master), with the infamous Mohamad Hassanen Haykal, who later went to al-Jazeera, first as a guest then as the host of his own program, after he had enough of dealing with Dream.

Dream also presented Hamdi Qandil with the program “Ra’is Tahrir” (Editor-in-chief), before he transferred to Dubai TV with “Al-Haqiqa” (The Truth) with the then-director of the channel, Hala Serhan. Nowadays, the program is presented by journalist Wael Ibrashi and it is one of the most popular talk-shows  in the Arab world.

Winds of change

Dream always had a wide Arabic audience, even before the relationship between Bahjat and the government became strained as a result of Bahjat”s tendency to push the boundaries of freedom.

All Egyptians remember Dream”s live transmission of a speech by Haykal at the American University of Cairo, in which he talked about political legacy in Egypt, not to mention Hala Serhan’s episode about masturbation, which sparked a violent campaign from the liberal Al-Wafed newspaper against the channel, resulting in Dream having to get rid of three of its most eminent figures.

By the end of 2004, the political movement for change in Egypt had become to important to be ignored. The private media were put before a choice: cover the events, or loose all credibility as happened with Egypt”s state-run television.

As a result, every channel had to have its own political talk show. Dream had “Al-Ashira masa’an” (10 p.m) with Mona Shathili, and al-Mehwar had “90 daqiqa” (90 minutes) with Moataz Damirdash and Mey Sharbini on al-Mehwar, which initially attracted a high number of viewers but gradually withered away despite attempts to revive it (twenty-two different hosts have presented the program since its launching).

Talk shows quickly became the most popular programs in the history of satellite channels, with each channel trying to be unique and exceptional, and covering the most controversial topics. It became normal to see the vans of live transmission running in the streets of Cairo with reporters looking for scoops and new topics to keep the viewers interested from (and their fingers off the remote control).

Live interaction with the viewers gave a boost to some programs, such as “Ala al-Hawa” (On The Air) on subscription-only Orbit, where journalist Jamal Inayat combined journalistic reporting with televised investigation, leading some critics to say that he had crossed the line into variety programming.

The race for the ratings led to some discussion about talk show integrity. According to al-Mehwar”s Moataz Damirdash, impartiality and diversity had to be the guiding principles. He felt it was the talk show”s duty to present issues to the public that politicians could then solve. As for Tamer Amin, who transferred from the news department to the program “al-Bayt Baytak” (Our Home Is Your Home), he felt it was his duty to always take the side of the average citizen.

When blogs became essential to satellite TV

2007 saw the year in which blogs firmly imposed themselves on the Egyptian media landscape, with the help of satellite TV .

To be sure, blogging was not a new phenomenon to Egypt. The Egyptian blogosphere – with a current 7,000 blogs –, went through many phases, starting with the anger over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Haykal”s comments about the importance of blogging in 2005, and more recently, the rise of Muslim Brotherhood bloggers.

But 2007 was the year in which satellite TV discovered how blogs culd be useful to them. Blogs and talk shows started to interact, with talk show hosts embracing blogs as a new source of news, instead of confronting them as some of the mainstream print media did.

In 2007, blogs started treating more and more hot social and political topics, opening up investigations and launching campaigns, and the talk shows hosts followed their cue and listened to the opinions of the blog owners.

Bloggers – but not bloggers alone – made television pay attention to the ordinary citizen whose opinion had been largely ignored in the past. With the price of a satellite subscription at less than three dollars, the ordinary citizen had become a target audience, with the TV channels competing for their attention.

This competition was the fiercest between Dream and Al-Mehwar, with the two channels programming their main talk shows at the same time. Throughout the year, both shows focused their attention almost exclusively on labor demonstrations, police torture and what the government was doing to help the people.

Citizen TV

Many new channels are expected to be launched this year, with at least two new music and movie channels in the running. Media Production City is studying a plan to launch a new satellite channel of its own, while many Arabic satellite channels are already broadcasting from there.

Some critics have suggested that the government”s apparent decision to allow so much freedom of speech on satellite TV – while at the same time cracking down on the independent press –, comes from its fear that the anger of the citizens is best expressed there, instead of in massive street demonstrations that could lead to a popular revolt against the regime.

According to Dr. Siham Nassar, a professor in media, “The importance of the talk shows lies in their creativity, in the form, and in their presentation of issues that interest the population and reflects all the currents and opinions.”

Whatever it may be, it cannot be denied that the citizen’s interest in news has seen a huge increase in 2007, after years of being bored to death by the repetitiveness and monotony of state-run TV.

And something that was unimaginable before has now become commonplace. It has become a normal thing for an Egyptian minister to personally call into a TV talk show to defend himself against an accusation.