Despite popular Western beliefs, television in the Arab world is no stranger to controversy. From reality shows to talk shows and the in-betweens (music videos, news reports, dramas and comedies), television controversies traditionally fueled other media such as newspaper columns or motivated some groups to demonstrate. Last week, one television show, Al Arabiya’s al Thamena with Daoud al-Shiriyan, caught my attention because it revealed how such controversies are increasingly moving to Twitter.
The show’s controversy aside, here I am interested in few rather basic questions: what should we make of the rise of Twitter as a platform of engagement with Arab television programs, hosts, producers, and of course the Tweeters? How much interest do Arab audiences really have in not only watching television, but also tweeting about it? And finally what does it all really mean for Arab TV?
Some historical perspective
The fascination with interactivity on Arab television is not new. The introduction of satellite television in the early 1990s encouraged four tools for interactivity: letters, faxes, calls, and SMS. Given the poor state of most Arab postal services, letters, when delivered, were read live on television while photos and works of art were screened and shared with the wider audiences. Until recently, faxing was a way of communicating instantly with TV hosts, whether to ask a question or make a comment. Faxes, as some might recall, contributed to both the rise and demise of the first iteration of BBC’s first Arabic television service.
The telephone is perhaps the most popular tool for connecting audiences from around the region with hostsJoe Khalil
The telephone is perhaps the most popular tool for connecting audiences from around the region with hosts. Taking radio call-in formats and applying them to television proved very popular. As a result, viewers would call in with a question (to health shows, for example), a comment (to socio-political programs), a request (for particular music videos) or a combination of these (to game shows). Today’s satellite landscape is still populated with shows driven by audience phone calls. With music channels and reality television, text messages (SMS) dominated interactivity with votes cast for contestants or requests transcribed and scrolled on screen. So much so that SMS (value-added services in industry jargon) proved a lucrative business for telecommunications operators and television producers.
These interactive tools were incorporated into the televisual world. They became a world within a world. Like other forms of content on television, these tools were also vulnerable to abuse, control and censorship, sometimes in the name of “proper” language. Letters and faxes were ignored, phones were cut off live on-air, text messages did not reach the screen. Surely viewers had access, but they never had control over the broadcast of their text messages.
By wedding the speed and brevity of text messaging with the reach of social media, Twitter escaped the confinements of these traditional tools of interaction and provided a parallel universe for television chatter. There is perhaps no better way to examine this parallel universe than by considering its presence in reality television and/or talk shows.
With reality television, program executives and fans work in concert to create a fandom universe of informing, sharing, commenting and increasing the popular base. Browsing through official and “unofficial” feeds of Star Academy, Stars of Science, Arabs Got Talent and The Voice, we find clear threads of gender, national (sometimes tribal), cultural and political debates, which can easily evolve into “trending” controversies.
With talk shows, the hosts, guests and the Tweeting public take the conversation to a personal, “intimate” and sometimes more interesting area than the actual televised version. A recent example of this post-television debate is the episode of Al Thamena with Daoud al-Shiryian in which he attacked a number of religious figures for their support of jihad in Syria. Al-Sharyian and his supporters continued their criticism of Salman al-Ouda and others who, in turn, took to Twitter with their responses. In this environment “unbound” from television’s structures, constraints and decorum, these various groups were able to take the gloves off. But is it only the ability to be more controversial that drives Twitter’s appeal?
A good way to gauge Twitter’s appeal draws on “uses and gratifications” theory, which focuses on what people do with the media rather than what the media do to people. It argues that audiences are free to pick and choose from a wide range of media to satisfy their own needs. If that’s the case, then perhaps television’s promises failed to materialize and Twitter offers specific uses that ensure certain gratifications.
There is enough evidence to suggest that those of us who embraced Twitter have seen it remake our habits. We now expect news, gossip included, in real time with pictures, and can spend all day re-tweeting, commenting, speculating and discussing. Twitter’s “always-on” nature means that these bits of news and chatter fill up the hours (or days) between each broadcast episode.
In the absence of traditional audience feedback, Twitter offers venues for “unfettered” expression on a two-way street that sometimes feels more like a roundabout. Users ask each other questions and comment on each other’s tweets, but they also turn in circles, bump into each other and risk serious accidents. A scan of reality television or talk show Twitter feeds reveal a need for self-expression and acknowledgment of personal opinion, which often manifests as verbal diarrhea.
Young viewers, who are Twitter’s core users, no longer see the difference between watching a show on TV and watching it online. It’s all content! They want control and they’ve got it – just do a quick browse of Shahid and YouTube. But that’s for recorded content! Live content is still television’s domain and Twitter is where that content is monitored, discussed, criticized and often dismissed. What’s in it for the viewers? Again, it’s control: they can support a talent, an idea or a course of action. More likely, their “voice” will get lost in the incessant flow of tweets. But that doesn’t matter--they said it, it’s out there and perhaps, if the tweet was sufficiently creative or poignant, it will “trend.”
An immediate question then comes to mind: is this parallel and pseudo television space a good and healthy environment?
For television programmers, this is a blessing and a curse. Through Twitter, they are able to promote their programs, influence reception, gauge opinions and in many cases defend a position. If negative, Twitter’s instant feedback and word of mouth can destroy a show. As producers increasingly take notice, Twitter’s potential influence on scheduling and production may extend beyond those audiences who choose simply to watch the show without tweeting along.
For television audiences, Twitter may not just be a place to vent but also a place to act about television. This eight-year-old service made its regional fame mobilizing, informing, disseminating, and sharing facts, emotions, documents, and pictures around the various squares of the “Arab Uprisings.” These movements have populated social media with active, critical, and creative voices. These active audiences may be able to provide the pressure groups needed to curb certain media practices and advocate for others. The chatter is building steam; is action only a matter of time?
Joe F. Khalil, Ph.D., is an associate professor in residence at Northwestern University and visiting research fellow at the London School of Economics. He has more than fifteen years of professional television experience as director, executive producer and consultant with major Arab satellite channels. He is the author of Arab Satellite Entertainment Television: Opportunities for Public Diplomacy (2009) and co-author of Arab Television Industries (2010).