They now have Americans troops patrolling their neighborhoods, American-supplied radio on their airwaves, and pretty soon they’ll have Tom Brokaw, too, stentorially rhapsodizing on their rabbit-eared televisions.
But is Iraq ready for Seinfeld ?
The American media campaign in Iraq is well underway, of course, even without Jerry. It began with psychological-warfare radio messages urging Iraqi soldiers to lay down their weapons and surrender. After Baghdad fell, a specially outfitted military aircraft continued to fly over the region, broadcasting public-service announcements and reassuring, look-into-your-eyeballs addresses from President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair sitting against grim orange backgrounds. Now there are plans to show evening news programs from NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox. (Hearts, minds and … Brit Hume!)
But what about entertainment television? After all, there’s no more potent, pervasive-if invidious-agit-prop than Western TV and film, and it seems only a matter of time before the likes of American Idol , Are You Hot? and Old School arrive in Iraq alongside the military’s battalions. Even if no less a culture critic than Jimmy Kimmel thinks of Idol ‘s Ryan Seacrest and Hot ‘s Lorenzo Lamas and worries it’s a “really bad idea”.
To date, U.N. sanctions have prohibited Western media companies from distributing their content in Iraq. A Department of Defense spokesperson said on April 15 that it’s “way premature to think about” TV entertainment being made available in the country.
But given Iraq’s eager and ripe market-25 million people, though only 13 percent with TV’s, according to the Pentagon-there will be plenty of TV suitors.
“We feel very robust about the fact that Iraq will be a potentially very good market for us and other businesses,” said Peter Einstein, the president and chief executive of Showtime/Gulf DTH, a digital-television venture partially owned by Viacom that will be among the distributors seeking to service Iraq. “There is already demand.”
Western television programming is already widely available in the region surrounding Iraq. Showtime/Gulf DTH, one of three major providers-the others are Arab Radio & Television (ART) and a company called Orbit-is available in more than a dozen Middle Eastern nations, including Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where its most popular offerings include current TV hits like CSI and Survivor , as well as good old Seinfeld . You can watch World Wrestling Entertainment pro wrestling in Arab nations, and they get their MTV, too, offered as a composite of programming from MTV India and MTV Europe. Certain state television outlets even offer some American programming, usually old stuff. Almost anything you can get here, you can get there, too.
Of course, not everyone is happy about it. Westernization has, in some instances, served the radicals better than the democratizers. The content and imagery of American pop culture has been a rallying point for fundamentalist leaders, who view its reach and coarseness as a threat to their countries.
“American media and culture infiltrate the airwaves of the entire Middle East,” said CBS Evening News executive producer Jim Murphy. “It’s one of the reasons conservatives there are so upset.”
But Mr. Einstein said that Showtime/Gulf DTH’s customers in the Middle East have been eager for Western programming of all kinds. When the pay-TV service-known as Showtime Arabia-launched six years ago, programmers took great pains to censor and edit shows it felt might be objectionable, he said. But Mr. Einstein said that many Arab viewers complained and urged Showtime Arabia to air the programs in their entirety, unedited.
It’s clear that there’s an appetite for American entertainment in Iraq. The closed country has long been home to a bustling black market for Western media. Mr. Murphy, who last visited Iraq in February, when Dan Rather interviewed Saddam Hussein, said that “pirated DVD’s and CD’s of Western movies and music was probably one of the few thriving businesses” in the region.
“Young people are incredibly receptive to the music and the TV shows,” said Mr. Murphy, who also recalled seeing numerous children wearing Simpsons T-shirts.
Such exportation is nothing new, of course, even in regions where few people own televisions. Al Jean, an executive producer of The Simpsons , appreciates his show’s world audience, and sounded pleased at the prospect of it eventually reaching Iraq as well. The indefatigable Fox cartoon series is seen in dozens of countries; Mr. Jean recalled watching an episode on a visit to Egypt several years ago.
“I’m always glad when we have viewership worldwide,” Mr. Jean said. “I think the flow of information-not just entertainment-is the friend of democracy. The more information a country has, the better.”
Indeed, few dispute Western pop culture’s power. For better and for worse, television and film can be equally effective as military and political operations in spreading American ideals and values.
“The United States takes its cultural-export mission very seriously, and believes that its films and television programming will shape a cultural landscape in a foreign country,” said Lauren Zalaznick, the president of Trio, a digital-cable channel specializing in pop culture and owned by Vivendi Universal. “It’s the quickest way to shape a cultural sensibility, as opposed to humanitarian aid and financial aid, which we are less in control of.”
Still, Ms. Zalaznick acknowledged a certain wariness at the idea of conquering the culture, too, and pushing too much American entertainment upon Iraq. Not only could it undermine local culture, but distributing Western media in a country was no guarantee that American ideals would be embraced, she said.
“One would guess that a new level of media penetration is going to yield unwarranted and unexpected results,” Ms. Zalaznick said. “Possibly positive, possibly negative. Once you put words and images out there, you have no way of controlling how they are received.”
Entertainment companies say that in the event they’re allowed into Iraq, they are likely to take steps to make American programs more palatable to an Iraqi audience. A London-based spokesperson for MTV International said that if MTV were to launch a channel in Iraq, it would make an effort to use local talent and appeal to local tastes, as it has done in other countries. Showtime’s Peter Einstein said that his service has taken advantage of the burgeoning Arab movie-making business, showing many productions made by Middle Eastern film companies on a new outlet called Al Shasha.
Still, there will always be the worry that, as the influence of Western entertainment grows, it will serve to diminish Iraq’s local culture-Hollywood dumb bombs falling after American smart bombs.
“We are being introduced to the world by Los Angeles!” said Tad Low, the television producer behind such shows as VH1′s Pop-Up Video . “That is like going to a party and having a guy in ironed jeans and a Botoxed forehead introduce you to people.”
Mr. Low recalled a recent trip to a rural area of Vietnam, where the natural noise of the surroundings was interrupted by the canned laughter of American sitcoms playing on local TV.
“It’s horrifying,” said Mr. Low. “If the Arab world was pissed at us before, wait until they get a load of Bob Saget and Matt LeBlanc.”