An interesting research at Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) on new global media players has made its way into a Special Section to the most recent edition of the leading academic journal International Journal of Communication.
The Special Section to the edition on ‘Global Communication Power: Shift or Stasis?’ is drawn from an NU-Q conference on ‘Fresh Global Media Players’ held last year, and features some of the world’s top media scholars and professionals who came to Doha for the conference sessions and subsequently produced the journal articles.
The International Journal of Communication is a peer-reviewed online, multi-media, academic journal that adheres to the highest standards of peer review and engages established and emerging scholars from anywhere in the world. Of the many contributors and their elaborate explorations, Joe F Khalil, Associate professor in residence at NU-Q, seeks “to identify complex dynamics in Arab media” in his enlightening academic journal article titled The Business Push and Audience Pull in Arab Entertainment Television.
When asked why he chose to delve into this particular subject, Khalil told Community, “It is an interesting period in the development of Arab media, particularly television, when we observe greater demands for local productions motivated by an increased audience awareness, at the same time media conglomerates are increasingly interested in standardising their content across the region. This push/pull effect has, for example, resulted in media conglomerates trying to ‘localise’ their offerings while audiences increasingly benefiting from new technologies to produce their own local content.”
Understandably, it’s hard to touch upon the many points made in Khalil’s work which argues that Arab entertainment television is subject to twin processes of “business push” and “local audience pull.” The academic journal article also illustrates how multiple power structures hinder or facilitate these processes.
Using an overview of the past five years in Arab entertainment television, the article analyses “transformative practices that illustrate key fractures in global media codistribution, format television, and media investments, as well as signs of the reassertion of national broadcasters and the impact of the YouTube phenomenon”. The article argues for investigating “the push/pull vectors that foster links and interactions more than actors and structures”. This approach is required to better understand current global media permutations, it says.
In the article, Khalil writes, “In 2015, a study involving 6,000 face-to-face interviews across the Arab World suggested a strong demand for local content while acknowledging its scarcity in media offerings. Commenting on these findings, Fadi Ismail, general manager of 03 Productions, a subsidiary of a leading Arab multichannel MBC Group that acquires regional content and also adapts international drama series, confessed that ‘the worst Arabic drama series will always get higher ratings than the best US series’.”
Admittedly, we now live at a particular juncture in Arab media history “when audiences are increasingly demanding to see and hear from people who appear like them and read about events and developments in their immediate communities.”
The article says, “The reassertion of the nation-state in the Arab world, with its multiple ethnoreligious identities, is reinvigorating an audience pull. But for these very same reasons — political, social, and symbolic — there continues to be a transnational push on local media, franchising of media channels, and, of course, the franchise and sale of movies, series, and other media products.
Two related factors accelerate this push - (1) Many foreign governments want to play a role in influencing the Arab World, and (2) regional and global businesses are eager to develop new markets (e.g., Discovery Networks, Fox, Netflix, and others).”
In conclusion of the article, Khalil points out that the real significance of the business push/audience pull processes lies in the recognition, by both local and regional media, of the viewers’ agency. “Since its introduction, pan-Arab television has operated according to the logic of standardisation and homogenisation,” the article says, “Its programmes were developed to attract a specific, localised, desirable audience, particularly from countries with large disposable income, such as Saudi Arabia.
As the cost of producing content for a marketable audience decreases (in terms of both technology and human resources) and the availability of amenable legal frameworks for media ownership increases, local television entertainment is coming to occupy more space in primetime schedules and often replaces regional or global shows.”
As a bellwether of the state of Arab television, advertising spending increasingly has been diverted from regional to local channels, Khalil explains. “Not all regional channels are producing or programming entertainment for local audiences, but all regional channels have either recognised location as a niche-audience criterion, or have broken away from localisation principles that assume Arab audiences are homogeneous,” he writes.
It is time we recognise the local as national and perhaps sub-national or hyper-local media, Khalil suggests, instead of using the term “local” to refer to regional media. He further writes, “Such a distinction will better serve to categorise an increasingly diverse and complex media environment. It took more than 20 years for a select few regional channels to find an audience and advertising clients, and start turning profits. Could we be witnessing a reversal of fortunes?”
According to Khalil, first, there is a growing sense of “reterritorialisation” characterised by the re-established connection between identity (as Arab, Muslim, Qatari, Emirati, rural/Bedouin, urban, etc.) and locality (the place of exposure to or contact with media). Consequently, as audience agency is exercised further, the need for pan-Arab entertainment becomes less pressing. Second, he says, pan-Arab entertainment television programmes only appear natural because of their ubiquitous and pervasive presence in the daily lives of Arabs for the past 25 years.
“The spectrum of media products and institutions currently evolving in the Arab World is no longer restricted to legacy media outlets. Any current analysis has to incorporate the range of alternatives that include (but are not restricted to) pirated media, shared media, and do-it-yourself media. The third observation, derived from interviews with practitioners in both professional and alternative media, is the growing rejection of academic reductionism, in particular reducing media power to regulatory privileges, political support, economic revenues, audience measurement, online media presence, or other single explanations,” Khalil writes.
“A better understanding of these three observations – rejected, dismissed or ignored for so long – might help us chart our way in future Middle East and North Africa media studies no longer blinded by restrictive analyses based on geography, language, or even technologies,” the article concludes.
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