By William Fisher
Is the US Government’s Alhurra satellite television channel winning hearts and minds on the ‘Arab Street’?
Alhurra is one of the premiere tools of public diplomacy for America in the Middle East. Launched a little over a year ago at a startup cost of $62 million, the station has consistently run a distant third to Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, though polls commissioned by Alhurra indicate much higher viewership numbers and credibility ratings than those reported in independent surveys conducted by academics and Arab research organizations.
Last month, TBS, a Cairo-based research firm covering satellite television in the Arab and Islamic Worlds, sent a journalist, my friend Summer Said, out into the Cairo streets for a week to find out who’s watching, who’s not, and why. Egypt is the Arab world's most populous country and, according to a 2004 Zogby International poll, has one of the most anti-American publics in the Arab world, with unfavorable views of America calculated at 98 percent.
So what Cairenes think is critical.
This is some of what Ms. Said learned in her admittedly unscientific research:
“I cannot stand watching it because it is boring and lifeless and you feel it is a bad imitation of the CNN or BBC. If I were in the shoes of the US administration I would shut this thing down before it becomes a scandal.”
“The channel is not as bad as I and my friends expected at the beginning. Just forget the fact that it is funded by the US and it will be fine. I'm only interested in shows about body fitness and health so I watch Alhurra because they air some good shows in that area. These programs are in Arabic so I do not have to read subtitles while following the show.”
“I checked it out twice and it was so boring. I do not have much time to waste so I watch good channels like Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya.”
“I do not watch it and I do not recommend people to watch it. It is a station that was created by the US to brainwash the Arabs and convince them of the evil plans of the US. For me watching Alhurra is like watching an Israeli channel.”
“I do not have a subscription to Discovery Channel to watch good documentaries so I'm glad that there is an Arabic channel like Alhurra that is giving me that chance everyday. I guess your interests affect how you view this channel.”
“I do watch Alhurra, but I do that with suspicions. I feel that the US is trying to brainwash the Arabs so I often compare their news reporting to the other reporting by channels like BBC, Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya. But I have to admit that most of the time, their reporting is professional and they do not fabricate stories. But I only watch Alhurra just to see if they do mistakes or not, just out of curiosity.”
“What I like about Alhurra is that every day they have different programs than the day before. One day they have a cooking show, and on another they air a documentary or a cinema show. My favorite show is a travel program called Luxury Travel that takes you on a tour through a country or a city and gives you all the information about it.”
Professional people – teachers, accountants, engineers, dentists, doctors, journalists – said:
“I did not think I would be watching Alhurra until one day when I was checking what was on TV and saw them interviewing some high profile Egyptians. The program was Sa'a Hurra (Free Hour), a live show that once hosted Ayman Nour, the chairman of (Egyptian opposition) Al Ghad Party. At least you would not find a similar show on the state-owned TV that is being watched by millions of people.”
“It is unbelievable that this channel is American. It cannot be compared even to the worst American channels that I receive. I cannot see how come the US does not even care to please the Arabs with something professional. Do they think we can be pleased by anything? It is a kind of insult to us.”
“I wonder how come the US is financing this channel and still the services it offers are not that great. Sometimes I feel that the announcers are not professional at all and they speak classical Arabic with difficulty. I also feel that their news bulletins are filtered so that they would not offend the Arab viewers. And if you forget about the news you feel that their other programs are boring and they are of no interest to you. I do not know why it is still operating till now.”
“Alhurra is a nice break from Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya and what they air everyday. Its news bulletins are not perfect but they also cover great parts of the world. It also gives you one hour of news if you have time to sit and watch and a 10-minute news if you are just interested in headlines. I think people at Alhurra are doing well for a channel that just kicked off last year.”
“It has good shows, decent news coverage, and quite professional stuff. We criticize the channel just because it is funded by the US and also because we are used to criticizing everything that is different from what we have.”
“Why would I watch something that everyone says is bad? It reminds me of our local channels. It has unqualified announcers, boring programs, and bad news coverage.”
“I think it is a good channel but the criticism it got before its launch put off so many people. I think they have some good talk shows and their news services are quite balanced. This channel has its strength and it could become more important in the future if the US gave more attention to the staff and the quality of the programs aired.”
“If we compare Alhurra with Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera, or CNN, Alhurra will lose but sometimes you want some change and you want to check out something different. I think the channel's performance is getting better…”
Office workers said:
“I do not watch Alhurra at the moment because I think they still need more time to become professional. They also have to come up with new ideas and interesting shows because no one will watch the channel unless it gives them something exceptional and this has not happened so far.”
“Alhurra has good debate shows but I think that the channel has failed in its main mission, which is "beautifying America's ugly face" in the eyes millions of Arabs and Muslims. The way I perceive the US is still the same and has not changed at all. I think that the American administration was stupid to launch this channel because they thought it will make us love them.”
Business people said:
“News programs concentrate on Israeli and American statements, especially those by George W. Bush. They choose stuff that justifies the war on Iraq and the violations against the Iraqis and Palestinians. I have been following the other non-political shows and they are all silly and lifeless or rather boring and ridiculous. The US had better save its money and shut down the whole station.”
“I like the talk shows on Alhurra. They are not too long, interesting, discuss hot topics and feature people that are not the mouthpieces of the Arab governments.”
So is this US effort winning hearts and minds? For some of these Cairenes, arguably never. They view the channel with hostility and suspicion. Others are watching as a once-in-a-while alternative to the better-known channels. Still others are viewing programs that may improve their culinary skills or improve their holiday planning – but not for news or public affairs, which they feel is American propaganda.
None of this will come as much of a surprise to the US Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the effort. But it’s information that’s important as Karen Hughes, the president’s longtime friend and confidante, prepares to take over all America’s public diplomacy efforts.