Crossing the great divide

How will Lebanon's sectarian webs survive in a post-Syrian order?

LONDON — With the withdrawal of Syrian forces from its territory last week, Lebanon is at a crossroads.

So, too, are the country’s highly politicized, partisan TV stations.

Faced with the changes in the power structure, they must find ways to reflect the new reality on the ground while also offering wearied viewers a greater balance between entertainment and hard news coverage.

The challenge is even more significant given the pivotal role TV played in the country following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February.

“TV played the major role in mobilizing people and getting them onto the street. It led the politics,” says Ali Hamade, host of Future TV’s top-rated talkshow and political editor of Al Nahar newspaper. “There was live coverage on local and international satellites. In America people were watching what was happening in Lebanon.”

Lebanon’s TV stations emerged from the country’s 20-year civil war on largely sectarian ground. Now they must deal with the stirrings of democracy in the Mideast and an increasingly youthful population tired of the old divides, who yearn for more critical news coverage and more relevant entertainment.

A 1996 audiovisual law established the six current stations: market leader LBC, owned by the Christian Lebanese forces; Future TV, owned by Hariri, then prime minister and a Sunni Muslim; Al Manar, the media outlet of pro-Shia group Hezbollah; New TV, owned by Hariri rival Tahsin Khayyat; NBN, owned by Shia leader Nabih Berri; and state broadcaster Tele-Liban.

While these divides largely melted away in the ensuing years of post-war reconstruction, the Feb. 14 car bomb that killed Hariri has left the country teetering on the edge of an abyss — politically and commercially.

For weeks the country’s TV stations replaced regular programming with around-the-clock coverage of the assassination and the ensuing calls for Syrian withdrawal from the country.

“We turned into a news channel. Nothing but news for two weeks,” Pierre Daher, head of satcaster LBC, tells Variety.

The country found itself split between the anti-Syrian opposition and pro-Syrian, pro-Lebanese government loyalists — a split mirrored by the TV stations.

Future TV led the way in demanding the withdrawal of Syrian forces from the country.

“Future became the platform for all opposition factions,” Hamade notes. “We launched a massive campaign playing hundreds of clips, songs, shows, anything to mobilize the people. If you were at home watching the images of the Lebanese flags 24 hours a day, you might stay at home for the first few days but eventually you felt compelled to go down and join the demonstrations.”

In fact, the omnipresent cameras trained on demonstrators at Martyr’s Square turned coverage into a political reality TV show, says Hamade.

“You were living with the people on Martyr’s Square for 40 days, 24 hours a day,” he says. The only difference here was that it was the Syrian “Big Brother” being voted out of the Lebanese house.

“They knew that when the cameras were on, the authorities would be scared to do anything,” Hamade says. “The soldiers would see the cameras and just let the people through. It was like in Ukraine — everything was on TV.”

And just as in Ukraine’s peaceful revolution a few months earlier, western — and particularly American — support for the opposition gave the masses strength.

Future’s coverage captured the mood of the nation and temporarily dislodged LBC as the top-rated channel.

While LBC strived to maintain neutrality — what Daher describes as “relating the facts and giving both sides” — Al Manar mobilized the pro-Syrian constituency of Hezbollah.

“We will continue with the same policy,” says Ibrahim Moussawi, Al Manar’s head of political programming. “But we will respect all the different views of Lebanon. We are a highly diversified society and we have to reflect this in our programming. If we’re one-sided, then people will reach for the remote control and change the channel.”

The commercial repercussions of the political instability have been considerable.

While Daher estimated LBC’s revenues were down 40% compared to the same time last year, Ali Jaber, former head of Future TV and now in charge of revamped Dubai TV, estimated ad spend in Lebanon has fallen to 25%-30% of what it used to be.

While LBC and Future can withstand the short-term loss of revenue — LBC dominates the terrestrial ad market, while Future is subsidized by the Hariri family to the tune of $25 million a year — the smaller stations struggle.

“We cannot drag on like this for a long time,” says Tahsin Khayat, owner of New TV. “We are probably Lebanon’s only genuinely independent station, and things could get critical.”

The future does not bode well for the likes of New TV, NBN and Tele-Liban, which are unable to draw on the financial clout of wealthy paymasters and don’t attract big enough audiences to bring in more ads.

“TeleLiban is a dying station,” Jaber says. “It’s outside the competition. Also New TV is not able to compete commercially with LBC and Future.”

Khayat, however, remained tentatively optimistic. “Things have started to improve recently, because ultimately advertisers cannot survive without TV.”

Meanwhile, the Syrian withdrawal from the country, and its concurrent waning political influence, could liberalize programming on the various stations.

Following Israel’s victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the Arab League banned films starring thesps with perceived pro-Israeli bias, including Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor.

“It’s a ridiculous, stupid ruling that is only being enforced in Lebanon and Syria,” Jaber says. “When I was at Future we couldn’t even show Walt Disney shows! With Syrian control slipping, these rules will be discarded. TV will have greater freedom and there will be more intelligent programming.”

While LBC’s continued success seems assured, Future and Al Manar face a dilemma.

Jaber wonders about Future’s ability to return to its entertainment roots.

“It’s going to be very difficult for Future TV to abandon mourning (for founder Hariri). Even if they try to go back to normal programming, they can’t start showing ‘Super Star’ and ‘Pop Idol’ again.”

While Future’s predicament appears to be most troubling in the short term, those within the station recognize the need for a return to normalcy.

“It’s very important for us to go back to normal programming to give an image of hope and reduce the feeling of mourning,” Hamade says. “There are also economic reasons — if we don’t do this, we won’t attract advertising and we won’t be able to promote daily life returning to normal. ”

Al Manar, on the other hand, is inextricably tied to Hezbollah, which is labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S, and has already been banned there and in France.

In a country where most people have declared themselves anti-Syrian, the perception of Al Manar as a pro-Syrian satcaster has cost it viewers.

“Al Manar will not be able to regain its status and influence on non-Shia Lebanese if it doesn’t change its policy,” Hamade says. “The day we hear Al Manar criticize Syria, I’m sure it will be viewed by all Lebanese.”

With crucial elections set for May and a United Nations investigation into Hariri’s assassination under way, one thing is for certain: This revolution will be televised.