Many of the practical-joke shows, this Ramadan season, seem intent on terrorizing their “guest stars”. On the First Tunisian public channel, al-Wataniya 1, a known personality is invited each evening to a fake talk-show program , entitled “Arrahina” (the hostage), aboard a leisure boat. As soon as the hostess of the show starts interviewing her “guests”, the candid camera show is interrupted by explosions and gunshots. Masked pirates storm the ship robbing the passengers at gun point and ordering the captain to steer the boat towards the Italian island of Lampeduda (the preferred destination of North African illegal immigrants).
Private channel Nessma broadcast a candid camera show of its own entitled “El Braquage” (the Hold Up). On their way to an interview site, a celebrity is arrested by gun-wielding police officers, and is wrongfully accused of drug trafficking.
Tunisian private channel “Ettounissiya’s” contribution to Ramadan’s candid camera shows is a show entitled “al Zilzal” (the Earthquake). Public figures are lured to a mock current-affairs radio program. In the middle of the interview, earthquake tremors are mechanically simulated by the producers. Political and religious figures are locked inside the studio while tremors test their mantle.
Before the Arab Spring
Some critics find the disproportionate interest of Tunisian television producers in the candid camera format quite puzzling. But one of the possible reasons for this enduring interest in Tunisia is the fact that producers have been able only in recent years to fully explore the possibilities of the genre. In the controlled media climate, prior to the 2011 uprisings, Hidden Camera programs were relatively tame. Nobody dared embarrass politicians or other public figures. Raouf Kouka, a Tunisian pioneer of the genre, says he used to produce his programs “in secrecy” until their broadcast.
For some of the private television channels, candid camera shows are, also, a crucial source of advertising revenue. The month of Ramadan constitutes traditionally the peak season for the consumption of entertainment programs and commercial advertising. The ratings of the candid camera shows, so far, have not been disappointing.
The fear factor
In all of the candid camera shows, however, celebrities end up confronted to their primal fears, as they are made to believe that their lives (or at least their freedom) is in real jeopardy.
The search for thrills in fearful situations is an old entertainment concept. In 1949, Alfred Hitchcock explained that moviegoers “identify themselves with fictitious characters who are experiencing fear, and experience, themselves, the same fear sensations … but without paying the price.” Scary entertainment has since grown into an industry.
In the Arab world, including the Maghreb, the scary pranks of “Hidden Camera” shows of Egypt’s Ramez Galal have been a major inspiration, in the sense of pushing the “scare tactics” to higher levels of tension.
Although thrill-seekers in Tunisia, believe their local shows have not yet to reach the terror levels of Ramez’s “Desert Fox” or “Lionheart” shows, the fear tactics of the Tunisian Hidden Camera shows are already described as “excessive” by local media critics. Even if the guns, explosions, police chases, and casualties were fake, the unwitting “victims” of the candid camera shows looked in real anguish and sometimes in great physical pain.
Tunisian news website Assabah News complains: “Hidden Cameras were supposed to bring joy to participants and viewers, through comic situations, not to instil them with terror though the sound of bullet shots and the sight of bloodshed.” It then asks: “Is violence and terror really necessary to provoke the laughter of Tunisians?” The Tunisian Human Rights League even issued a statement denouncing the violent content of the “Arrahina” candid camera show and its impact on viewers especially children. It called upon public television to stop broadcasting the show. “This program,” it said, “propagates violence, terror and crime ... and tries to persuade people that such events are normal occurrences to which they have to get accustomed.”
Does courage in front of a wild animal or an earthquake necessarily make a political figure a better candidate for high public office?
Critics argue that violence-laden programming exacerbates the already-high stress level in society where turbulent circumstances are a source of constant anguish for many. In Tunisia and despite the relative improvement of the security situation during the last year or so, most polls show that the public is still concerned about the risks of strife and violence. The country’s security institutions, themselves in a midst of an on-going transition, have still to cope with a variety of threats, old and new. If that is the situation, why would viewers then sit comfortably in their sofas, after Iftar (the breaking fast meal), to watch scared celebrities squirm?
Viewers, in Tunisia and elsewhere in today’s turbulent Arab world, can ironically find relief in the instant resolution of the scary situations offered by candid camera shows and other forms of “scary entertainment”. Seeing dangerous situation quickly defused can be soothingly cathartic. Horror film director Wes Craven explains the process. “Audiences”, he says, “don't pay to be scared, they pay to have their fears exorcised. Fear is typically repressed by the psyche until such a time that it can be vented in a safe way. That's what therapy does.”
It would be, in any case, unrealistic to expect the media and entertainment industry not to bear any influence from the violence marking surrounding society and politics. Najwa Al Hidri, a commentator for Al Shorouq Arabic daily newspaper sees in some of the Ramadan programs “a cloning of current political realities in the country”. The old media adage “if it bleeds, it leads,” has never been so true as in the news coverage of recent regional events. The fallouts from everyday violence in entertainment programs is a reality in all regions of the world.
“The practical joking itself has intensified in both volume and crudeness, explains candid camera veteran Peter Funt. “This is in part a result of desensitizing among viewers, for whom the barrage of clips becomes so overwhelming that it’s easy to lose track of the inherent risks involved.”
The public figure trap
The participation of celebrities and public figures in candid camera shows however raises additional issues. In the race for ratings, the “entrapment” of celebrities has become a common practice around the world (a departure from the reliance on ordinary people as “victims” of practical jokes in the early candid camera shows).
Known artists and football stars are in high demand for pranks. Celebrities (and their PR agents) are not shying away from such appearances because of perceived publicity dividends. But the results have been uneven.
Chelsea defender David Luiz was brought to tears when he was made to believe that he had caused bodily harm to a bowler; while Athletico Madrid’s Radamel Falcao remained incredibly calm even when he was led to believe his Ferrari was totally wrecked. In Tunisia, this month, international football player and Esperance Sportive de Tunis defender Walid Hichri became a Facebook sensation when he stood up to the candid camera’s fictitious pirates. He had in fact to be restrained so that he does not physically harm his armed assailants.
Promotional campaigns as well as genuine social media reactions can make some of the candid camera celebrity appearances global sensations. But the convergence of traditional media and new information technologies creates higher stakes for celebrities and public figures in terms of reputation management. The “global buzz” can give wider publicity to brief moments of “courage”; but it can also amplify embarrassing situations or render them absolutely tragic. Last December, a prank by two Australian radio DJs (pretending to be Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles) led to the suicide of a nurse in the UK. Pranksters are to be held “accountable”, point out Peter Funt. But he adds, “in the digital age, the burden of responsibility also lies with those who use the echo chamber to amplify things to the point of distortion and stress.”
Dealing with political figures in candid camera shows is particularly risk-laden. Personalities showing “courage” or “strong religious faith” in the face of danger are more favorably perceived than those who panic or run for their lives. This is all the more true in the holy month of Ramadan. Talking about the effect of the show on the political fortunes of the participants in the “Earthquake” show, Tunisian commentator Mohamed Saleh Rab’aoui writes: “al Zilzal will boost the popularity of certain figures while denting that of others, including some reputed to be leaders.”
An example of a public figure whose reputation improved greatly after appearing on the show is Sheikh Farid al-Baji, president of Dar Al Hadith. Remaining unperturbed and praying God “to protect Tunisia” in the middle of the simulated earthquake tremors, he earned high marks among viewers. For some, his performance reinforced the argument that “religious figures had more spine than secularists”. For others, it was an occasion to take a jibe at ultra-conservative preachers which Sheikh al-Baji often criticizes. Arraqmia news website said the sheikh’s performance showed Tunisians “what true Islam is; the Islam taught to us for generations by eminent scholars and by the equally eminent school of al-Zaytouna.” But in a juncture where differences of opinion over religious identity are potential sources of polarization, the sheikh’s performance did not only provoke favorable reviews. There were also skeptics who argued the “heroic stand in the face of danger” taken by the sheikh was staged by the producers for the purpose of bestowing undeserved credit on him and his religious creed.
If past experience in such places as the United States is any indication, the participation of politicians and public figures in candid camera shows is hardly-politically neutral or risk-free. Political agendas and reputation management considerations sooner or later rear their heads. Even when the entertainment programs are not slanted, candid camera shows can have a distorting effect on politics. Does courage in front of a wild animal or an earthquake necessarily make a political figure a better candidate for high public office? Political actors can always try to extract political propaganda-value from entertainment programs, but a good performance during a candid camera show is neither a reliable test of character nor a reflection of greater political wisdom.
American sociologist Gary Alan Fine cautions that if “candid camera politics” continue to proliferate, “it is certain that in the end the joke will be on us.”
Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. A former Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University in Washington DC, he served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. Appointed as minister in 2009, he is known as one of the best Tunisian communication specialists. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.