Rockin’ in Iraq

Locals embrace escapist fare as TV biz rises from ashes

Like other viewers around the globe, Iraqi TV auds love their reality shows — but with a couple of unique twists.

In the local home-improvement series, the chipper hosts don’t merely redecorate a kitchen: They rebuild a war-torn home from the ground up. And contestants on the local version of “American Idol” are so eager for their moment of fame that they risk their lives to get to the Baghdad studio.

As the Western media focus on the uncertain results of last week’s national elections, there’s one story that has flown below the radar: The success of the Iraqi TV business.

Since the April 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, the area has seen the birth of 30 TV stations, the same number of radio stations and an estimated 180 newspapers.

The quality of the programming may be uneven, but Iraq’s new breed of media moguls have one thing in their favor: When your audience is afraid to go outside, it’s good for ratings.

The immediate goals are prestige and entertainment. Entrepreneurs want to reach the people without government interference or propaganda. It’s a boom town and folks are moving in.

Western advertisers like Saatchi + Saatchi and BBDO see the potential, representing accounts like Pepsi and Nokia.

So does the U.S. government, which has established its own TV station. Along with reality are soaps and chatshows — and Hollywood films from an unlikely source: Uday Hussein’s personal video collection.

To date, each of Iraq’s 18 provinces, including each ethnic community from the Kurds to the Assyrians to every political party, boasts its own local TV channel, with a further dozen Iraqi satcasters beaming out a heady mix of Western-friendly entertainment.

“There is hardly a house without a satellite dish and there is hardly a neighborhood without some kind of local broadcasting,” Leith Kubba, spokesman for Iraqi premier Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, tells Variety.

The impact on Iraqi culture and politics has been noticeable. While heavily controlled state media and cultural institutions previously pushed pro-Hussein propaganda, the order of the day now is unprecedented freedom of expression.

Satellite dishes were prohibited under Hussein. But some 7 million were sold in the 12 months after his fall. It is a sweet irony that the imprisoned dictator is one of the few Iraqis not to benefit — he is denied a TV in his cell.

Key to the rise in this new phenomenon has been the continued violence in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Unable to guarantee their security, many young people simply stay in and watch TV.

In addition, Iraqi youth, equipped with newly affordable Internet connections and mobile phones, have found the world opened up to them.

One measure of the speed with which Iraqis have embraced the information superhighway can be seen on pan-Arab satcasters such as Rotana, the Arab equivalent of MTV. Inviting viewers to send text greetings to each other, Rotana’s airwaves have been invaded by young Iraqis reaching out to each other.

The long-term effects on a generation of Iraqis glued to their sets and cut off from their communities is an open question.

Despite the sudden saturation of American pop culture, most Iraqis have displayed a remarkable ability to absorb cultural influences from the Middle East and the West, while retaining a uniquely Iraqi flavor.

The frequent electricity shortages also means Iraqis can’t simply veg out in front of the screen for hours on end.

While the usual pan-Arab satcasters such as Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiyah, LBC (the No. 1 satcaster throughout the Mideast) and Rotana have been eagerly watched by Iraqi auds, it’s the homegrown satcasters that have made the biggest waves. Al-Sharqiya, Al-Sumariyah and Al-Fayhaa have attracted big local ratings with their blend of locally made sudsers, chatshows and reality TV programming.

The three most popular programs during August were Al-Sumariyah’s “Iraqi Star” and Al-Sharqiya’s “High Tower” and “Labor and Materials,” all escapist entertainment as opposed to hard news.

Also in the picture is Al-Iraqiya, the TV arm of the Iraqi Media Network that includes a radio station and Al-Sabah newspaper. IMN was originally intended as a pubcaster modeled on PBS and the BBC. The IMN, and Al-Iraqiya in particular, is the media platform the U.S. administration has been most directly and publicly involved with in Iraq, and consequently it’s often at the center of controversy.

Among the plethora of budding media entrepreneurs is one of Saddam’s former bodyguards, Misham Al-Ghomouri, who has begun his own channel with Al-Zawraa. Rumors also abound that Saddam’s daughter Hala is planning to launch her own satcaster from Cairo.

“God knows how many TV stations we have. Drama and entertainment are the most attractive things right now,” comments Ahmad Al-Rikaby, the first director-general of the Iraqi Media Network. “Even a station like Al-Fayhaa, where you hardly saw entertainment in the past, has started doing sketch shows and satire. People are tired of their own reality.”

King of the reality TV format in Iraq for much of the last few months is Al-Sharqiya. Owned and launched by Iraqi media mogul Saad Bazzaz to the tune of $30 million, the satcaster has cornered the market with a canny blend of Western formats tailored to an Iraqi taste.

“Labor and Materials” is Iraq’s extreme home improvement makeover show in which Bazzaz rebuilds one lucky family’s entire house destroyed during the war.

The 54-year-old self-styled Murdoch of Mosul has a media empire that also includes Azzaman Daily (one of Iraq’s bestselling daily newsies), Azzaman Sports Daily, a monthly magazine and plans to launch his own newscaster in January 2006.

Al-Sharqiya has rebuilt six houses at a cost of $30,000 per home.

Other hits include “High Tower,” a horoscope show; “Caricateera,” a skit show featuring popular Iraqi comic Majid; and a version of “Newlyweds” that sees the satcaster giving money to young couples hoping to marry. Al-Sharqiya, however, has recently lost some of Shia auds over concerns it is too critical of the Shia-dominated government.

The No. 1 show in Iraq is Al-Sumariyah’s “Iraq Star.” Similar to the “American Idol”/”Pop Idol” format, the show has been a sensation since its debut this summer as thousands of Iraqis braved the precarious security situation to audition.

Beamed out every Monday and Tuesday, it regularly attracts an estimated audience share of more than 60%.

Al-Sumariyah’s Ramadan programming — traditionally a time when Arab satcasters wheel out their big hitters as families gather ’round the tube for the holy month — will see the satcaster go to 24-hour-a-day transmission as well as unveil new shows such as “The Dreams of the People” (a fortune-telling show) and “Cobra,” an action-packed copshow costing $700 per episode — the budget for snacks on an American show, but above average among local Iraqi channels.

“The public wants to see something other than bombs and blood,” says Jean-Claude Boulos, Al-Sumariyah’s general manager. “TV is something magic — it enters every home, rich or poor, young or old. If you are successful enough, you can own your public.”

Overlooking the shimmering Mediterranean coast, Al-Sumariyah is based in the Lebanese capital, with much of its programming beamed into Iraq via satellite. It’s a common practice among Iraqi broadcasters still nervous about the security situation in the country. Al-Fayhaa, a satcaster popular with Shia auds for its determinedly anti-Baathist stance, broadcasts out of Dubai.

Boulos walks around the Al-Sumariyah studios as preparations for the launch of the 24-hour service reach fever pitch: young, attractive Lebanese and Iraqis working frantically on everything from the news to last-minute touch-ups to interstitial promos.

“I don’t think Westerners are that well educated about Iraq,” he says, “except for the Americans who are trying to build a platform there. They think it’s all bombs. Look at Lebanon. We had a mess for 20 years, but now we feel it’s finally going to finish. We might have more May Chidiacs, but we are going to finally have peace.”

Chidiac is the popular Lebanese presenter on LBC who only days earlier almost died after her Range Rover was booby-trapped with explosives. Though she lost her left leg and hand in the blast, she survived.

Pierre Daher, CEO of LBC and Chidiac’s boss, is widely recognized as the genius of Arab TV, having masterminded the satcaster’s market-leading position across the region. Known by the moniker “Sheik Pierre,” Daher was asked by American company Harris Corp. — the U.S. global communications provider awarded the Pentagon contract to rebuild the IMN in January 2004 — to lead the rebuilding of Al-Iraqiya up until its official handover to Iraqi management in April this year.

Daher spoke with Variety in the Hotel Dieu, a hospital in Beirut, where only meters away lay the critically wounded Chidiac.

Flanked by burly bodyguards, Daher looked tired, his slim frame and softly spoken voice belying his status as the foremost TV exec in the region.

The toughest part of re-shaping Al-Iraqiya, he says, is the security problem. “Basically you go to work and you stay in work. You cannot move. We would arrive in the airport and be shuttled in to the place where we were staying, and we practically lived and worked there.”

Every major media organization in Iraq has suffered casualties. One Al-Sumariyah secretary was killed after her car was caught up in a suicide blast. Dave Sedgley, Harris Corp.’s project manager in Iraq, recalls attending three Iraqi IMN employees’ funerals in one day. “It was the worst experience of my life,” he tells Variety.

Plans for IMN originally began in December 2002 after respected Iraqi journalist, and prewar voice of U.S.-funded Radio Free Iraq, Ahmed Al-Rikaby met with Pentagon officials to discuss the prospects for the Iraqi media after a U.S. victory.

When the war began, Rikaby flew to Iraq with U.S. military forces. “When I arrived in Baghdad, we were four people: One American, one Bosnian technician, one Iraqi Kurd and me. That was the IMN at that point,” recalls Rikaby, by then its first director-general.

At the time, IMN anchors often had to borrow ties from their drivers or neighbors, unable to afford a more lavish wardrobe on their $60-a-month salary. The network only had 10 working camera batteries.

Al-Iraqiya’s first film archive came courtesy of Uday Hussein, the notoriously brutal son of the dictator. Al-Rikaby and his staff discovered Uday’s personal video library of more than 3,000 VHS tapes in his abandoned palace, mostly made up of cartoons and Hollywood movies, and aired them to fill their programming slots.

Ultimately frustrated at the situation, Al-Rikaby quit as director-general in August 2003, going on in June last year to successfully launch Radio Dijla, Iraq’s first independent talk radio station that now receives up to 18,000 phone calls a day.

Things improved dramatically with the arrival of Harris Corp. and LBC, with Al-Iraqiya now probably the country’s most watched news source. It has the largest penetration of all Iraqi TV channels, reaching more than 80% of the population.

Even Al-Iraqiya, however, has had to adapt to the newly competitive marketplace. Though primarily a news channel, it also has had to get in on the reality act, albeit with a twist.

The satcaster’s most popular show in recent months has been “Terrorists in the Grip of Justice,” a reality TV show that sees captured insurgents brought in front of the cameras and the Iraqi people, and made to confess and repent for their crimes.

The bruised faces and death of at least one prisoner after his appearance on the show has raised ethical questions and critical reports from both the U.S. State Dept. and Human Rights Watch. Despite that, the show has been a smash with local auds hungry to feel the insurgents are being defeated.

The most successful media entities have managed to blend Western-style entertainment with Iraqi values. “I was in a bus from Baghdad airport going into the city,” Rikaby recalls. “The driver had a long beard, and the bus was full of pictures of Shia religious figures, but he also had Britney Spears playing very loud on the radio. I was looking at these religious figures and listening to Britney Spears at the same time.”

The Iraqis haven’t simply adopted and copied entertainment from the West, however. They appear to have made greater strides than their Arab neighbors in tailoring an essentially global entertainment product to their indigenous values and, most importantly, allying this with a political liberalization and debate that is largely absent elsewhere in the Middle East.

The future looks both bright and uncertain for Iraq’s infant media and entertainment industries. Until now, Iraqi TV’s advertising has been largely limited to public service announcements from the government.

There are signs, however, that Western companies and ad agencies are finally apportioning budgets to spend in the country. The likes of Saatchi + Saatchi, Impact BBDO, Grey Worldwide and Starcom — representing multinationals such as Pepsi, Nokia and Persil — are said to have funds ready to spend in Iraq’s media by the end of this year.

With signs of commercial revenues on the horizon, and Western investment set to continue and potentially expand as the political situation improves, it is up to the Iraqis whether the burgeoning media industry can sustain itself.

Can the citizens of this beleaguered nation refrain from the ethnic and sectarian divisions that have plagued its efforts to create a stable democracy? If so, the sky’s the limit.

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