Transnational media conglomerates and television networks from RCA to Associated Press to CNN have created and dominated a model of broadcasting which might be called “centralized global broadcasting.” Worldwide restructurings and rapid technological advances, though, have ushered in a new model of television which could be termed “decentralized global narrowcasting.” Middle Eastern television programs in Los Angeles are an example of developments in mass media which have led to the emergence of so-called minority and ethnic television and video. Their programs constitute part or the dynamic and multifaceted popular cultures produced and consumed by immigrant and exile communities in southern California.

Such programs are usually produced by local, independent, minority entrepreneurs (decentralized) for consumption by a small, cohesive population (narrowcasting) which, because of its diaspora status, is highly cosmopolitan, multicultural and multilingual (hence global in outlook). Spatially these programs are simultaneously local and global, here and there. Temporally they are concerned with both present and past, now and then. Discursively they inhabit both of these spatial and temporal zones.

An examination of these programs shows also that Middle Eastern societies — both at home and in diaspora — are diverse and complex in terms of nationality, language, ethnicity, religion, culture and politics. They do not fit into easy dichotomies such as East vs. West, colonizer vs. colonized, Israelis vs. Arabs and Shi‘i vs. Sunni. Diversity — a key determinant of “narrowcasting” — distinguishes these programs from one another and reveals the dense intermingling of Middle Eastern societies and cultures. At the same time, these programs demonstrate commonalities which stem from their location in diaspora.

Narrowcasters

Los Angeles is perhaps the most ethnically diversified broadcast market in the world. KSCI-TV, an independent station which dubs itself the “international channel,” provides around-the-clock programming in some 16 languages, produced either in the US by ethnic, transnational and exile groups or imported from their home countries. KMEX-TV and KVEA-TV, which are part of Univision and Telemundo national networks respectively, offer exclusively Spanish-language programming. The independent stations KDOC-TV, KWHY-TV and KRCA-TV provide many hours of programming in Spanish as well as in other languages. Black Entertainment Television and the Jewish Television Network are also available from national cable companies with outlets in Los Angeles. Rounding out this ethnic televisual menu are local cable companies which air locally produced ethnic programs on a lease-access or public access basis. KSCI-TV claims to provide the most diverse ethnic and linguistic menu of any station in the country. [1] It broadcasts the bulk of the Middle Eastern programs, followed by cable carriers and public access outlets. The overwhelming majority of Middle East programs currently aired in Los Angeles are produced in Los Angeles. Iranians produce the largest number and the most diverse menu of programs (22 hours per week), followed by Jewish/Israelis (7 hours), Armenians (5 hours), Arabs (3 hours) and Assyrians (2 hours). TV producers lease time from KSCI-TV and cable carriers to air their programs. [2] The cost varies from $600 to $2,500 per hour, depending on transmission time and channel. Public access programs are generally aired free of charge. Some of the Middle Eastern programs originating from Los Angeles are syndicated via tape; others are transmitted by satellite via the “international channel” to cities in the US with large populations of Middle Easterners.

The emergence in the early 1990s of the “international channel,” run by the parent company of KSCI-TV in Los Angeles and reaching over 13 million households nationwide, allows ethnic and diasporic broadcasters to reach their compatriots in other cities in the US and aids in creating both a kind of national cultural identity and an ethnic economy. The wider reach of ethnic programming by satellite could open up a new universe to national advertisers. According to studies commissioned by the channel, the ethnic communities it serves are upscale, with a “higher level of disposable income than the US population as a whole.” [3]

There are no reliable statistics on the number of viewers for Middle Eastern TV shows. None of the standard rating services, such as Nielsen and Arbitron, gauge the tastes and preferences of ethnic audiences, except for Hispanics. [4] KSCI-TV’s only data on its Middle Eastern audiences, compiled in 1987, seem to be largely based on population figures rather than actual viewership, but they form the basis for the station’s lease-access and advertising rates. The figures must certainly be amended to account for the apparent surge of Middle Eastern populations into southern California in the last few years, particularly Iranians, whose number has increased from 200,000 only six years ago to 800,000 in 1991. [5] What complicates the determination of audiences are such factors as generational differences, sub-ethnicity, inter-ethnicity and cross-viewing of Middle Eastern programs.

Money, Politics and Religion

The majority of Middle Eastern TV programs are commercially driven. Program producers generate income by selling time to businesses for spot advertisements, which are usually for ethnic products and services or for national ideologies. The average income from ads placed in each program is in the range of several thousand dollars.

The ratio of ads to program matter varies tremendously. Israeli/Jewish programs, particularly those of the Jewish Television Network (JTN), carry the fewest number of ads; Iranian and Armenian programs contain the most (though not all Iranian programs carry ads). [6] JTN, which packages nearly ten shows a week, carries very few ads for consumer products (such as El Al airlines), but it heavily promotes its own programs and continually urges its viewers to subscribe and donate funds. From time to time, a list of donors’ names is displayed on screen.

The amount of money spent on television production, transmission and advertising is large enough to create, in the case of certain communities such as Iranians, a thriving ethnic economy which can help not only to consolidate a shared ethnic identity but also to facilitate exchange of information and business transactions among community members. [7] Despite such collective economic power, as independent producers unattached to established broadcast networks, Middle Eastern programmers must seek additional funding. Even producers of commercially driven shows buttress their income by sponsoring music concerts and entertainment banquets (haflas) which generate both additional profits and programs. Another strategy, with less desirable side effects, is the practice of some Iranian and Armenian producers of accepting money for interviewing celebrities and newsmakers. Others reportedly have accepted money from their governments at home or from opposition groups abroad. Such assertions are difficult to substantiate, and they often shift over time.

The negative result of such a tight imbrication of commerce and politics is the commercialization of the news and the politicization of the entertainment shows. This and other factors lead the producers into chauvinistic and partisan politics; in the case of Iranians, this has meant a shrill and doctrinaire anti-Islamist and pro-royalist political stance. These factors also encourage the politics of expediency, and may help explain the general disdain that many Middle Eastern viewers express about these programs, particularly the newscasts, which they feel are generally self-serving and unreliable.

Most programs hide their political or religious sponsorship or affiliation, but some do not. Less dependent on market forces, these programs are either semi-commercial or entirely non-commercial (carrying no consumer ads). Horizon’s producer is the Armenian National Committee Media Network, which promotes revolutionary aspirations for an independent, united Armenia. For quite some time the program was largely sponsored by contributions from the Armenian community. In the last couple of years, perhaps in response to the massive restructuring of the former Soviet Union, it has changed to a commercially driven format.

The relationship between money, politics, religion and exile television is particularly complex among Iranians. The religiously oriented program, Mozhdeh, produced by the Assembly of God Church, and the politically oriented program, Sima-ye Azadi, produced by the Mojahedin-e Khalq, a guerrilla organization based in Iraq, do not carry consumer ads. These programs openly acknowledge their ideologies, allowing them to colonize the program entirely. Another, higher quality program, Aftab, much of whose contents come from Iranian government sources, engages in subterfuge by emphasizing Iranian culture and downplaying Islamist politics.

Nationality and Language

Language is one of the chief markers of nationality and of national identity. Contemporary diasporas, instead of suppressing interest in a community’s indigenous language, tend to intensify it. Videos from the homeland and television programs made in the diaspora are powerful vehicles in this process. Using indigenous languages to establish difference between Middle Eastern and American cultures, however, tends to highlight the national languages at the expense of regional or local languages and dialects.

For example, until 1992 all Iranian programs, with one exception, were in Persian, Iran’s national language. No regularly scheduled Iranian program has been aired in Kurdish or Turkish, which are regional languages of significant populations in Iran (and perhaps in Los Angeles as well). Thus Iranian programs tend to use language nationalistically. If nationalism demands linguistic purity, professional communication permits its violation in the interest of assimilation. The first regularly scheduled Iranian program to be aired entirely in English is a medical show, You and the World of Medicine, in which physicians advise viewers about various illnesses, their diagnosis and modes of treatment.

Arabic programs, on the other hand, seem to favor a kind of pan-Arabism driven by Egyptian Arabic. This is particularly strong in the case of Arab-American TV, which attempts to appeal to all religions and cultures of the Arab Middle East. Ironically, linguistic pan-Arabism might be informed less by a genuine desire for collective identity than by the desire to counteract the negative stereotypes of Arabs in the US. The resulting pan-Arabist cultural artifact, however, tends to suppress regional differences and the specificities of Arabic cultures.

A number of programs are bilingual, using different language ratios and strategies. For example, with the exception of its short “local news” which is in English, Arab-American TV is entirely in Arabic. This strategy seems to fulfill the different generational needs of its viewers. While the program politically looks to the Arab world, it socially locates itself in the US.

Of the Israeli/Jewish programs, Israel Today is entirely in Hebrew, but the overwhelming majority of JTN programs are in English. The majority of the news on the English-language Jewish Television Network News is about events of interest from either inside Israel or various Jewish diasporas in the world. One effect of using the English language and national celebrities is that Jewish programs, with the exception of Israel Today and The Phil Blazer Show, locate themselves in the present and in the US.

All Assyrian programs, whether produced by Iranian or Iraqi nationals, are in Assyrian and tend to work toward preserving and propagating the religious, historical and cultural values and beliefs of Assyrians in their worldwide diaspora. All Armenian shows are in Armenian, with Armenian Teletime in Lebanese Armenian and Horizon in Eastern Armenian. Tele-US Armenians programs often contain films, newscasts and television material in Armenian imported from (formerly Soviet) Armenia.

Ethnicity, Sub-Ethnicity, Inter-Ethnicity

Middle Eastern populations in Los Angeles are ethno-religiously very diverse. This diversity has up to now remained largely repressed by the desire to create a strong national identity in diaspora. For example, although many Iranian Baha’is, Armenians, Jews and Muslims are involved in producing Iranian TV programs, no program openly espouses the religious beliefs, cultures or languages of any of these groups. Instead, they all foreground a kind of essentialist Iranian-ness. Caught in the liminality of exile in a generally hostile host society, Iranians have stressed consolidation of nationality. Internal differences may be expressed behind this veneer.

The veneer is not completely opaque. Submerged ethnicity occasionally ruptures through, often in the form of commercials for sub-ethnic products and businesses or interviews with sub-ethnic figures. Twenty 2 Forty, an irreverent lifestyle and exercise show packaged by JTN, does not highlight its Jewishness at all, but the presence of Jewish ethnicity is inscribed in the program in such moments as when the host conducts “man-on-the-street” interviews with passersby about the meaning of the word “kvetch.”

The thread of inter-ethnicity also links Middle Eastern audiences of these programs. Middle Easterners in diaspora share many things, which allow them to enjoy watching programs from different Middle Eastern countries. For example, Iranian Jews can watch not only Persian language programs but also Hebrew and English language programs produced by JTN. Iranian Armenians may watch Armenian Teletime; Palestinian Arabs may watch the Hebrew language program Israel Today; Christian Copts may watch Arab-American TV. Inter-ethnicity and multi-lingualism create intertextuality which allows an unforeseen juxtaposition of cultures and a transgression of boundaries that have divided Middle Eastern peoples.

Endnotes

[1] The breakdown by language is as follows (hours per week, week of May 17, 1992): Arabic 3, Armenian 5, Cambodian 1.5, Mandarin 9.5, French 2.5, Tagalog/English 5, German .5, Hungarian .5, Hindi/English 1, Persian 15.5, Italian .5, Japanese 14.5, Hebrew 1, Korean 22.5, Russian 1, and Vietnamese 5. Compiled from KSCI-TV data.
[2] The coverage of each cable company and public access channel is limited to a small geographic segment of Los Angeles. To cover the entire area, multiple copies of programs must be aired by a number of cable companies. As a result, not all Middle Eastern shows are available in all areas. The signal of broadcast channels reaches the entire area.
[3] KSCI-TV publicity material.
[4] Until the 1990 census data for Middle Easterners in the US is released, we do not even have accurate figures for how many live in Southern California.
[5] Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1992.
[6] Although KSCI-TV has tried to limit ads in a one-hour program to 20 minutes, some Iranian programs, to the chagrin of viewers and station officials, have frequently carried up to 45 minutes of ads in one hour.
[7] For more details on Iranian television, see Hamid Naficy, Exiled Cultures and Minority Television (University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming).

How to cite this article:

Hamid Naficy "From Broadcasting to Narrowcasting," Middle East Report 180 ( ).
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