Reality Television and Arab Politics: Contention in Public Life

Article excerpt

Defining Reality: Satellite Television's Reinvigoration of Arab Polities Reality Television and Arab Politics: Contention in Public Life, by Marwan M. Kraidy. Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-521-74904-6 252pp.

Analyses of Arab media are too often limited to studies of Al-Jazeera's news programs, and studies of Arab politics too often ignore the influence of popular culture. Marwan Kraidy breaks both of these disciplinary trends in Reality Television and Arab Politics by conducting a detailed study of how reality television is reshaping public spheres in the Middle East. This book is a valuable synthesis of information from interviews with station employees, close readings of reality television shows, and analyses of news articles. More impressive than the contribution that his book represents to charting the interaction between global media flows and local cultures is the prescient nature with which he describes the political potential of the hypermedia event that has come to characterize the demonstrations of the Arab Spring.

Kraidy's main assertion is that by forcing public debate on controversial issues and by enlarging the number of people who participate in these debates, reality television affects politics because it has a distinct ability to agitate unstable social relations. He describes how three reality television shows, Star Academy, Superstar, and al-Ra'is, created controversies that were debated in local and international Arab media sources. He also shows how more formal political structures and actors became implicated in these controversies. Additionally, he analyzes how new media have changed the way that Arab polities conduct age-old debates over modernity, authenticity, nationalism, and piety.

One of the book's recurring ideas is that reality television problematizes distinctions between reality and image; pure and hybrid; and authentic and foreign. Kraidy suggests that reality based programming allows for greater contestation over who defines realities both political and cultural. Thus, reality television erodes cultural elites' ability to monopolize public spheres and causes what Kraidy calls the "chamber politics" of official governments to be infiltrated by the "street politics" of activists. He further asserts that the participatory nature of reality television allows for citizens in Arab countries to learn mobilization strategies that take advantage of digital media. His book is useful in looking at the shiftin power dynamics evidenced by the successful demonstrations in the Middle East.

Kraidy demonstrates reality television's effects on Arab polities by exploring case studies in Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Syria. He carefully explicates the transnational financial and political connections that characterize the Middle East in order to render the region's media production and transmission patterns comprehensible. Though Kraidy makes an earnest effort to situate the controversies in their historical and cultural contexts, his rapid transitions between various Arab countries and historic periods can at times confuse even readers who are familiar with the region and its history. The book is rather successful at integrating Arab media into the contexts of new media, globalization, and gender studies. In addition to being written clearly enough for casual readers interested in learning about the Middle East, the book's interdisciplinary nature makes it a valuable addition to any syllabus on global media, Arab politics, or media politics.

In the first chapter, Kraidy sets the historical context within which he evaluates the emergence of reality television in the Middle East. He sketches the history of media in the Middle East by starting with the late Ottoman period and continuing to the modern day. He draws a distinction between these two periods by saying that the late Ottoman period propitiated the growth of nationalist groups while the late twentieth century aided the development of transnational linkages. …