“You chase colonialism out the door, it comes back through the sky,” observed the Algerian Press Service several years ago, alluding to the phenomenon of satellite broadcasting that has literally brought European television into the living rooms of North Africa. [1] More than 95 percent of urban households in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco have televisions, and more than 30 percent have video decks. Parabolic antennas are sprouting like inverted mushrooms on rooftops around the southern Mediterranean (estimates for Algeria alone range between 1.3 and 2.2 million households, or 8 to 17 million viewers). [2]

European television is no uninvited guest; it clearly represents an alternative to local, government-controlled fare. Not for nothing is Canal Plus, France’s blockbuster pay station, known as “Canal Bliss” in Algeria. But this phenomenon of conspicuous consumption is not to be confused with democratization; as journalist Zakya Daoud has astutely pointed out, “the real test” of the enrichment of North African societies by means of television’s window on the world “is the creation of programming, the fact of becoming a producer of images rather than a consumer of images.” [3]

This argument is echoed by Serge Adda, executive director of the France-based Canal Horizons, “the first international pay TV network for the southern hemisphere,” which has been operating in Dakar, Senegal, since December 1991 and started in Tunis in November 1992. Canal Horizons, in effect the African subsidiary of Canal Plus, aims at providing viewers with quality images while generating financial resources for local audiovisual production, developing North-South technical and cultural exchanges, and aiding local producers and filmmakers to gain access to international distribution. The agreement signed with the Tunisian government includes a commitment by Canal Horizons to invest nearly 3 million dinars in production facilities there.

Like Canal Plus in Europe, Canal Horizons offers viewers recent and classic films (60 percent of its air time), live sports, documentaries, children’s programs and music. One difference, of course, is that the monthly subscription fee (20 dinars in Tunisia), and the purchase of a decoder for the satellite signal (150 dinars), represents a much larger chunk of average income than in France. Another difference is that Canal Horizons’ news programming has been discreetly reserved for local production, with all that implies in terms of government control. By extension, another difference in the case of Tunisia is the nature of the government that Canal Horizons is cooperating with. As the Tunisian daily al-Sabah indicated in its coverage of the station’s inauguration on November 7, 1992: “The choice of the date is a way of participating directly in the festivities for the fifth anniversary of the Change” [the 1987 coup that brought the Ben Ali government to power]. [4]

I interviewed Serge Adda in the Paris office of Canal Horizons in August 1992.

How did Canal Horizons come about?

It started with the desire to consolidate the success of Canal Plus on the international level. There had already been initiatives in Belgium, Spain and Germany, and it was felt that Africa and the Arab world should also be included. The idea was that through pay television, the means could be found to finance artistic creation in these countries. The initial project was a pay station for each country, but we realized quickly that we were dealing with a single region that, for all the diversity of its cultures, still had the same needs.

So, what are its innovative features? First of all, it’s a whole network of pay stations, which allows for pooling some services. The central structure, Canal Horizons Paris, has only 15 percent interest in each of the member stations, and these members are also shareholders in the Paris company, with representation on its board of directors. This is the first time a pay station anywhere has North-South participation on every level.

Second, we are carrying out a significant transfer of know-how. Running a pay station means mastering state-of-the-art technologies. We are training 45 people in Dakar, and in Tunis there’ll be more than 100. If we go into other Arab countries tomorrow, we’ll have even larger operations.

The third element is the programming, which is conceived in such a way as to allow for independent broadcasts, like a drawer that can be taken out and replaced with another. Tunis will be the first station in the network to have an independent broadcast of two to three hours a day in Arabic. The means of production — creation, translation, dubbing — are all put into service in Tunisia.

Finally, we function as a means of film distribution. Because we need images from the South, we’re doing everything we can to help in producing them. In Tunisia, 6 percent of the turnover will be devoted to the national cinema. But there are also other, indirect means: Canal Horizons is part of the Canal Plus family, which also produces a certain number of films.

No one knows if it’s going to succeed. A TV station, especially a pay station, has to satisfy its subscribers — if not, they cancel. Even in the South, just because certain elites, intellectuals — and I’m one of them — want to see national creation and contribute to it, that doesn’t mean this is what viewers want. Audiences have been conditioned. They prefer Dallas to Youssef Chahine.

We broadcast 427 theatrical features and telefilms a year. If we want to show one Arab or African feature a week, we need 52 of them. But there aren’t 52 quality films from the South produced each year. Of course, we’re going to contribute to increasing that supply. In Tunisia, our direct intervention in production over the next three years will lead to a doubling of the supply of Tunisian films, but that means going from three films a year to six.

Is it part of Canal Horizons’ “mission” to change taste?

Ten years ago, I might have thought so. But I don’t any longer, because of what the supply is like.

You can’t presume to impose a completely esoteric vision of culture on people. Three years ago I met Vassily Vassilikov, the author of Z, who became the head of Greek television when Melina Mercouri was minister of culture. The first thing he did was to stop the broadcast of Dynasty and Dallas and replace them with opera and Visconti. “I became the most unpopular man in Greece,” he told me. That’s the reality.

Do you really think the choice is limited to American series vs. the opera? There are popular cultures in every country.

There has to be an overture toward all cultures. Take sports, for example, and the Olympics, which is like a huge world spectacle. In Dakar, as soon as the Olympics were announced, what a wave of subscription requests that precipitated! We almost ran out of equipment, which was great. People talk a lot about the advertising, the money, but when you really look at the images from the Olympics — what I remember is the last round of the women’s 10,000 meters and that powerful scene of the two women, one Ethiopian and one South African. It still gives me chills.

Reading is a question of education, and television also: you have to relearn to see the images. But you don’t reeducate people by hitting them over the head. The images of those two women athletes are stronger than any film with an expert giving a speech about racism. That’s the strength of television.

Don’t you think part of the problem — which is also present in Europe relative to the invasion of American media — is that there’s a need to protect local production?

It’s true that the countries of the South experience in relation to France or Europe what Europe experiences in relation to the United States. How to resist? France does it rather well, through legislation, financing for movie theaters, the National Film Center. In the South, governments don’t have the money to take care of the cinema. The only country where there’s a structure — an inadequate one, but well thought out — is Tunisia. There’s a fund for the cinema, box office revenues that come from the cinema, different mechanisms, all of which explain why Tunisia is the country where there’s a real emergence of talent, a revival. Egypt also has a structure — older and more massive, but with a national orientation. With the exception of a few directors, it isn’t a cinema oriented toward the world. In Tunisia, by contrast, I can cite five or six directors — Ferid Boughedir, Nouri Bouzid, Mahmoud ben Mahmoud — who have reached an international audience.

Our ambition is to make a small contribution to reducing this North-South imbalance. The only way is through a pay-TV station, so that a share of the revenues can be reinjected into quality production.

And as one of a group of stations in the South that belongs to a constellation of stations in the North, we are probably going to contribute to getting more images from the South on the screens of the North. Just in the last two years, Youssef Chahine, Nouri Bouzid, Ferid Boughedir, Semhene Ousmane, Suleymane Cisse and others have shown their films or are going to show them on Canal Plus.

Have your market studies given you an idea of the specificity of the North African public relative to that of sub-Saharan Africa or France?

All in all, you know, the publics are alike; there’s a phenomenon of imitation. But in North and sub-Saharan Africa, the demand for images is even stronger than in Europe, because it compensates for the absence of urban leisure activities. A Parisian public has restaurants, theaters, concerts. In many African countries, such rich, daily urban activities are lacking, relative to the demand. So the image replaces them.

Paradoxically, the demand is for images that come from elsewhere. I think that people in the South don’t like to have their own image projected back at them. The North African public functions the same way that it organizes its house: turned in on itself. There’s an inner courtyard, which means that from the street, the inside can never be seen. And so the television, which is a window on the outside, is taken badly when it projects back the image from inside.

Endnotes

[1] Quoted in Zakya Daoud, “Maghreb: La Grande bataille de J’audiovisuel,” Arabies 33 (September 1989), p. 83.
[2] Francois Godard, “L’Ouverture du paysage audiovisuel maghrebin,” Strategies, January 13, 1992.
[3] Daoud, p. 87.
[4] In a March 1992 report, Amnesty International indicated that at least 8,000 people in Tunisia suspected of membership in the Islamist movement Ennahda had been detained “often illegally and sometimes subject to torture.” The Tunisian Human Rights League, in its last report before it was forced to disband in June 1992, signaled an “unprecedented deterioration of the situation of the press.” (Interview with Moncef Marzouki, president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, Le Croix, July 4, 1992.) Serge Adda, a long-time activist in the Tunisian Communist party, was a founding member of the Tunisian Human Rights League and one or its vice presidents at the time it was outlawed. In response to two Tunisian journalists who attacked his apparent “compromise” with the Ben Ali regime, he indicated: “Finally, with regard to my ‘integrity,’ it is in no way weakened by my continued sympathy for the orientations of the Tunisian leadership since November 1987 and its way of dealing with the legacy of Bourguiba.” Liberation, February 26, 1992 and March 9, 1992.

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Miriam Rosen "“Images from Elsewhere”," Middle East Report 180 ( ).
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