In April last year, a 26 year-old Iraqi woman pulled off what many thought impossible: however briefly, she managed to unite swathes of Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni communities, each eager to claim her as one of their own.
The sound of gunfire – so often a grim backdrop to life in Baghdad – was this time the sound of celebration, and Shatha Hasoun became assured of superstar status across the Arab world. Her achievement? Hasoun won the fourth series of the ‘Star Academy’ pop show, and in doing so became the most high profile beneficiary of the region’s growing obsession with reality TV.
Star Academy is a bona-fide smash hit across the entire Arab world - a must-watch show across all demographics from Amman to Zahle. Once attracting 80 percent of Lebanon’s adolescent audience, it has made millions of dollars for its broadcaster, LBC. Along with its rival ‘Super Star’, the pan-Arab version of ‘Pop Idol’, the show has proved an all-singing, all-dancing testament to the universal appeal of reality TV.
Of course, the race is on to find this year’s ‘Star Academy’ – and two very different projects are vying for top spot. Egypt’s leading ‘unscripted’ media production company, TVision, is lining up the Arab world’s first celebrity reality TV show, ‘Al Tagrebah’, which will debut during Ramadan 2008.
The production team is no stranger to the Ramadan audience, which is a key period of the year for networks desperate to seize family audiences as they break their fast at sundown each day. The new show comes from the same people that created and produced ‘Al Shakka’, which was broadcast during Ramadan 2007, and quickly became known as one of the most popular programs in the history of Arab television. The Museum of Radio and Television in Los Angeles rated it as the most successful program in the Arab World during Ramadan, while almost all of Egypt’s leading newspapers, websites, and radio stations voted it the number one program during that period.
At the other end of the critical scale is ‘The Hydra Executives’, a concept based on Donald Trump’s ‘The Apprentice’ show. It is the brainchild of Dr. Sulaiman Al Fahim, CEO of Abu Dhabi-based Hydra Properties, and represents a bold move on behalf of the developer: reality TV as a multimillion dollar brand-building exercise.
From a marketing point of view, it already appears a masterstroke. Ahead of its June airdate ‘The Hydra Executives’ is already generating a buzz that suggests Hydra could be a household name by the end of the series. Then there are the rumours that Donald Trump himself will appear as a guest on the show – surely the ultimate endorsement for any self-regarding reality show.
There are, of course, exceptions to the success stories, although this can have as much to do with local sensibilities as the quality of programming. When ‘Star Academy’ first launched it came under intense criticism from conservative groups, and in 2004 Saudi-owned MBC TV bowed to pressure from Islamic fundamentalists and the Bahrain Information Ministry, indefinitely suspending ‘Al-Rayes’ - its version of ‘Big Brother’ - less than two weeks into the show. ‘Al-Rayes’ featured 12 contestants living in a villa on Amwaj, a small island in the Gulf state of Bahrain. Each week one person was to be evicted from the house, with the last remaining tenant winning $100,000 [USD]. However, critics weren’t assuaged by the fact that male and female contestants slept in separate quarters and had prayer rooms.