The CPD Blog is intended to stimulate dialog among scholars and practitioners from around the world in the public diplomacy sphere. The opinions represented here are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect CPD's views.


 

Alhurra Locates the “Arab Street”

Jan 7, 2009

The much maligned Alhurra, the U.S. government's Arabic TV service, is now a "go-to" news channel in Iraq, one of the largest TV markets in the Middle East of more than 28 million population. Because of its growing number of viewers in Iraq, Alhurra can now lay claim to its legitimate connection with the mythical "Arab Street,' a term which writer Amir Hamzaway says elites use "in the absence of independent public opinion surveys, in representing their own quite ideological views as those of the Iraqi majority and as those of Arabs generally."

The latest TV ratings from the commercial Middle East polling firm Ipsos-MENA, report that Alhurra’s Iraq channel has a larger daily audience in that country than the much heralded Al Jazeera.

Among the hundreds of TV channels available in Iraq, most beamed by satellite, Alhurra ranks as the 12th most-watched, while Al Jazeera is ranked 15th. A year before, Alhurra trailed Al Jazeera in Iraq with less than half its audience.

IPSOS-Mena’s most recent TV ratings, taken in Iraq between March and May, 2008, show Alhurra with a daily reach of 17.68% of adults 15 years of age and above, who watch Alhurra for at least 5 minutes daily, while Al Jazeera has 14.67% of adult daily viewership. Alhurra is seen daily by some 2 million, 652 thousand adults in Iraq. (By comparison, America’s popular Cable News Network, CNN, has a domestic daily adult audience in the U.S. of 191,000 viewers, according to the Nielsen rating service).

Several factors contribute to Alhurra’s success in gaining substantial TV viewing in Iraq. Together, a model emerges for what the U.S. government channel can accomplish elsewhere in the Middle East to boost its Arab audience base.

One example: In Iraq, Alhurra has provided easier public access to its broadcast signal. In addition to the availability of Alhurra Iraq via Arabsat and Nilesat, where satellite dishes and additional electronics are required to access signals, Alhurra has increased the number of its terrestrial transmitters to 5 metropolitan areas within Iraq, so that its programs can now be received by standard TV antennas atop TV sets or on rooftops. Those terrestrial transmitters are located in Baghdad (Ch.12); Mosul (Ch. 12); Basra (Ch. 3); Al Hilla (Ch. 35): and Tekreet (Ch. 3). Perhaps Alhurra could negotiate the rights to have its own terrestrial transmitter locations in Saudi Arabia, for example, where it has only a trace audience, and in densely populated Egypt.

Secondly, Alhurra carries "local" Iraq-specific programming tailored for viewers in that country. Alhurra's special Iraq TV service is one of three distinct program "streams" which comprise Alhurra’s separate networks. In addition to its special program stream exclusively for Iraq, there is also a program stream targeting Arabic speakers in Europe, and Alhurra's basic satellite stream available throughout the Middle East, where the channel competes with hundreds of other channels, thus receiving a smaller share of available audience. Perhaps there should be an Alhurra Egypt stream of programs and a special program stream for Saudi Arabia as well, and so on.

All this should be taken into account by the Obama transition team, which is looking into ways to shore up U.S. government broadcasting abroad. Building upon the success of Alhurra Iraq would be a good place to start.

Comments

Fascinating post -- thanks for sharing. There has been quite a bit about of buzz regarding Alhurra's Iraq stream. Comparing it to Al-Jazeera seems a bit unfair though, as Al-Jazeera has an exceptionally bad reputation amongst Iraqi's due to its controversial coverage of insurgent violence in the country. The Bush administration and the Iraqi government have both accused Al-Jazeera of collusion with Iraqi insurgents, thus giving Al-Jazeera a bad standing amongst many Iraqis.

I think that it is important to dig a bit deeper into Alhurra’s popularity in Iraq. ProPublica has reported that Al Hurra’s Baghdad bureau has been airing stories with a consistent and strong pro-Iranian tilt and that “State Department officials and US diplomats in Baghdad have privately complained for years that Alhurra's Iraq broadcasts seem more interested in promoting the policies of the radical Shiite regime in Iran rather than those of the United States government.” Similarly, in the midst of Iraq’s first elections, US Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Ross wrote to his colleagues at the State Department that too many Iraqis didn’t understand the electoral process and that Al Hurra wasn’t helping. As a result, “[w]hen the election season ended, candidates who ran with the support of the White House had done poorly. American fingers that had pointed at Al Jazeera were now aiming at Al Hurra.” Ross’ account of the events was confirmed when Alberto Fernandez, director of public diplomacy in the Middle East, emailed then Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes to report that the Baghdad bureau was controlled by “radical Shiite Islamists who favored their political brethren and discriminated against and intimidated members of other parties…especially during the Iraqi electoral season of December 2004 to December 2005” (via ProPublica, http://www.propublica.org/feature/alhurras-baghdad-bureau-mired-in-contr...).

Moreover, Ipsos-MENA’s findings are particularly interesting given that, according to the BBG’s own 2008 study, Iraqis more than any others find the channel untrustworthy, and by a very substantial margin (http://www.bbg.gov/reports/others/Alhurra-Sawa_Research_Data_June20-2&#x...). I think that it is likely that the stories and images of Iraq that are seen on Al Hurra simply don’t match the conditions on the ground for the Iraqi’s that tune in. Along these lines, as a former producer for Al Hurra describes it, “Al Hurra reporters covering Iraq focus on more human interest and positive stories. For instance, 'electricity has arrived in this neighborhood,' not 'this neighborhood still doesn't have electricity’” (Cited in: Ellen McCarthy, “Va.-Based, US-Financed Arabic Channel Finds Its Voice,” Washington Post, October 15 2004, 01).

Perhaps it is the case that Iraqis are tuning in to hear good news they are unlikely to find on other (more journalistically sound) news broadcasters?

Shaun,

Thanks much for your insightful comments. IPSOS audience ratings are meaningful in the TV news profession because they reflect “day before” actual competitive viewing, much like the independent Nielsen “overnight” ratings we would grab in the morning express mail at CBS News in New York, where we would rise (or fall) depending on how many people were watching the day before (it didn’t matter who they were, although advertisers covet young women 18-34 years-of-age who do the most buying, which matters not in Iraq). It may be that Alhurra’s Baghdad bureau is still having problems, but the fact is that more people are watching Alhurra in Iraq than al Jazeera, and based on my experience, there are two valid reasons why this is happening, as I cite in my piece: more viewers can watch Alhurra because of its increased number of terrestrial transmitters, and it now has a local program stream. I tune out to other audience claims, which are usually one or two week cumulative ratings that are contracted by channels, and they are not “competitive” day-before statistics one can match with audience figures of other channels, as to what viewers actually watched the day before. This is not to suggest that criticism of Alhurra’s news content is invalid. Bring it on.

I think Al Snyder found the wrong street. It might be called “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” It is an “Arab street” that US public diplomacy officials desperately want to believe is having some positive impact on the Middle East paradigm. This just isn’t the case.

Objectivity is a concept that is difficult for people in the Middle East to get their hands around. A thousand years of history that is treated like just yesterday is a major issue that collides with almost any discussion of current events.

In the Middle East, credibility is based on picking sides. If you pick the right side, people will watch or listen to your programs. If it’s the wrong side, they will find the remote and change channels…perhaps while cursing your progeny for another thousand years.

Who is your audience? Is it Sunni or Shiite? Is it Hamas or Hezbollah? Is it Iraqi or Palestinian? What are we offering these audiences, in terms of their daily living?

Whoever your audience is, all the above are generally united in their dislike for Israel and the United States. They want to destroy the former and eject the latter…and then squabble among themselves for hegemony over each other.

A lot of blood has been spilled in the Middle East throughout history. It continues to be spilled today. Death and destruction are not to be taken lightly. Unfortunately, Mr. Snyder suggests that we rely upon polls as a determinate of the direction of Arab public opinion. These numbers, even if they are “reliable,” in terms of actual responses, are also superficial. History is the substance of Arab sentiment, emotion and public opinion. For Mr. Snyder and others it is hard to come to grips with this reality. Hopes are being hung upon media ratings that are nothing more than an example of our lack of understanding of the core issues in the daily events of the Middle East.

The Arab and Muslim world wants to level the playing field. Whoever accomplishes this may likely be declared the “winner.”

In the meantime, it might be best to be a whole lot less liberal in throwing the word “success” around. That determination has yet to be made.

Also, it would probably be of greater benefit to US public diplomacy to examine necessary rehabilitations to alHurra and other aspects of US international broadcasting which seem to be riddled with poor leadership and decision-making.

I'm a former employee of the MBN, and I was lucky to leave that environment, and do better in my life. It's a waste of American tax money. All the Middle Eastern corruptions are practiced there; bribery, sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation. Mr. Daniel Nassif (GM) locks his door to have a good sleep in his office. The Lebanese staff goes for vacations and others clock them in and out. All the employees have a headphone concentrating on Youtube, and Facebook. The work and assignments are just a joke, because one person can do the job of ten people there, that's why there is nothing to do. When Birt clinmen was the president, he used to come once a week, busy with his business in California. Mouafaq Harb got involved in bribery bringing people from Lebanon to give them the green cards, and they can't even speak English. Well he got fired. The others are staying each one kissing up to who's higher. As an American taxpayer, I think that Alhurra should die soon on its deathbed.

Add comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Join the Conversation

Interested in contributing to the CPD Blog? We welcome your posts. Read our guidelines and find out how you can submit blogs and photo essays here

 

Stay in the Know

Public Diplomacy is a dynamic field, and CPD is committed to keeping you connected and informed about the critical developments that are shaping PD around the world. 

Depending on your specific interests, you can subscribe to one or more of CPD's newsletters here.

To receive PD News digests directly to your inbox on a daily or weekly basis, click here.