Rivalry and riots push ‘Superstar’ to success

Pop singer skein condemned by fundamentalist groups

BEIRUT — It has fuelled national passions more than any TV show in the history of pan-Arab TV. It has made the front pages of papers all over the Middle East.

The Amman-based fundamentalist Front of Islamic Action has even condemned it for “deflecting Arab youth from crucial causes such as the rights of the Palestinian people and the crimes committed by the Israeli occupation forces.”

What is this subversive show? “Superstar,” the Arab world’s first televised musical competition, based on the “Pop Idol” format of U.K.’s TV19, licensed by Fremantle.

More than 11,000 wannabe singing stars were whittled down to 12 finalists from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and the United Arab Emirates.

Aired on Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s satellite channel Future TV, the show has become a major TV event invoking national pride and helping millions in the turbulent region forget war and terrorist bombings.

Such is its drawing power that Jordan’s King Abdullah and the Syrian government are rumored to have intervened to sway voting in favor of their country’s competitors — who sang it out in the finals.

On Aug. 18, after millions of Arabs voted for their favorite via telephone, Internet and mobile phone text messages, a crying Jordanian teenager, Diana Karzon, 19, was named “Superstar of the Arabs,” beating Syria’s Rowaida Attiyeh, 20. The six finalists won a contract with Warner Bros.

In Jordan’s capital, Amman, thousands of ecstatic fans poured into the streets in celebration, and fireworks lit the sky.

Thousands had watched the show on huge screens erected in Jordan and Syria, while posters on billboards and advertisement in the press urged people to vote.

“The last five episodes reached between 72% and 80% of the audience in the Arab countries where it was aired via NileSat and ArabSat,” says Abdalrahman Shihab, assistant marketing director of the Beirut-based Future TV. “After the final show, we received over 4.8 million votes. It was a major success for us, and revenues definitely exceeded our expectations. Our sponsor, Lipton, was very satisfied. It was the first time in the history of pan-Arab TV that a sponsor was allowed to insert spots into an entertainment show.”

Future TV already has the second “Superstar” in the pipeline for 2004 — hot for more scenes like the controversial semifinal when Lebanese contestant Melhem Zein, a front-runner for the Superstar crown, was eliminated, prompting angry audience members to storm the set, and forcing Future Television to stop the live broadcast and rush police to the Beirut studios.

Locals protested against what they felt was an unexpected defeat caused by the political interference of Lebanon’s powerful neighbor, Syria.

“It is a fact that the Internet was blocked in Lebanon when the semifinal voting took place, and many could not vote for Melhem,” says Rasha al Atrash, a journalist at Beirut-based newspaper Al Safir. “And it is a fact that Jordan, which has no international music stars, has put all its weight behind Diana. We even heard rumors that King Abdullah ordered the army to vote for her.”

It’s all sweet music to Future TV. “There isn’t another program that has moved the Arab world like that,” says Future TV executive manager Ali Jaber. “Now all stations are scrambling to do something similar.”