Lebanese TV: A Two-Horse Race
By: Maha Zaraket
Published Monday, September 17, 2012
In a Lebanese media scene largely controlled by political parties, two television channels top the ratings by straying away from the partisan norms: Al-Jadeed, which was bought from the Lebanese Communist Party by businessman Tahseen Khayat, and the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, the control of which was granted to its CEO Pierre al-Daher after a legal battle with the Lebanese Forces.
Media critics and audiences alike have noticed a dramatic change in the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation’s (LBC) overall tone and strategy as the once-powerful station struggles to adapt to a new era of interactive media and shifting audience expectations.
Initially, observers linked the station’s transition to its ratings war with al-Jadeed TV. Statistics show a decline in numbers for LBC while al-Jadeed surges ahead, but this alone cannot explain LBC’s aggressive new strategy.
It all began in May 2011, when LBC released an official statement announcing that they had engaged Octavia Nasr, owner of the media consultancy company Bridges Media Consulting, for a six month contract at the station.
At the end of October 2011, LBC announced the relaunch of their news program under a new slogan: “the whole story.”
The station introduced a new season of programs it promised would be characterized by “movement and dynamism,” rather than “the stiff traditional style.” More importantly, the viewer was going to be the “first to know.”
On this basis, the station began to change its style. The news was shorter, featured live coverage and allowed viewers who were not interested in news to switch to the news-free LBC Drama channel.
The new format received mixed reviews at first, but it was, after all, cosmetic. It wasn’t until 11 Lebanese were kidnapped in Syria that it became clear LBC was adopting a whole new approach to news, dispatching reporters to Dahiyeh almost daily for live coverage of the unfolding crisis.
At the time, many were surprised by this unprecedented level of interest by a station which had previously restricted its coverage of Dahiyeh to speeches by Hezbollah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. After all, LBC barely seemed to notice the near complete destruction of area in the July 2006 war with Israel.
Some saw a connection between LBC’s courting of a new demographic and its growing rivalry with al-Jadeed. Commentators made a game of comparing the two stations’ coverage, picking apart their respective treatment of particular stories. There was even gossip about offers inviting al-Jadeed presenters to join LBC.
Things came to a head when LBC broadcast its now famous news intro, “The Republic of Shame,” on July 31, in which a news anchor opened the nightly broadcast with an apparently scripted and pre-approved scathing condemnation of the rectal examinations of 36 men at the hands of security forces who raided an alleged gay porn theater.
The surprising declaration was widely shared on social media networks where debates broke out even among those who agreed with the content as to whether it was an appropriate action for a professional news network. Some even went as far as to call it a ploy or gimmick, especially in light of LBC’s right-wing political history.
Al-Jadeed, on the other hand, is known for this kind of editorializing, which has been a source of praise as well as criticism for the station.
But those who were hoping for a similar outburst during the live coverage of the Lebanese Forces’ anniversary celebrations on August 23 were disappointed.
Such anticipation would have been justified had LBC adopted a program of real and substantive change, but it seems it cannot separate itself from its own history or its largely traditional Christian audience, even after officially detaching itself from the Lebanese Forces.
LBC was originally founded as the official station of the Lebanese Forces, and being born of political forces, its very existence depended upon staying within certain red lines. After the Taif Accords, it had to cater its editorial line to a new political reality. It made peace with the Syrians and agreed to represent the “Christians’ share” when television stations were allocated to sects and politicians as part of the notorious audio and visual media law. After 2005, the station clearly allied itself with the March 14 political alliance before heading to formally free itself of its godfather and founder, Samir Geagea.
Today, it is emerging from its latest battle with Saudi media mogul al-Walid Bin Talal only to find itself having to face a rapidly shifting media landscape.
What is happening today can be seen as an attempt by LBC to evolve, if not totally abandon its past, and face new challenges with fresh energy and resolve. LBC, once the most powerful station in Lebanon, is not the first to experiment in private commercial television. LBC used to have a monopoly on advertising; it produced its own programs and created stars which were then poached by other stations. During this period, it left a unique stamp on the collective consciousness of the Lebanese, something no other station has been able to do.
With such a history, we should not rush to the conclusion that LBC is playing “catch up” with anyone. There is a general crisis affecting all television stations stemming from the rise of new media. It could be that LBC is trying to adapt because it is more vulnerable to the challenges facing television news in general. These challenges are no longer restricted to ratings competitions with other stations or even censorship. Rather, LBC must calculate its survival in a shrinking commercial world characterized by rapid developments in technology.
Today, audiences are just as likely to turn to Twitter for live coverage as turn on the TV, says LBC’s director general, Pierre al-Daher, only half-joking.
This is simply the natural result of the dominance of the internet and its language. Programs which lure viewers to one station away from the other no longer exist. The main challenge for any television station used to be keeping its ratings up and producing successful programs of a certain standard that would establish their reputation.
Now, television stations are required to provide a platform for the audience to express their opinions, and if they cannot let them speak directly, they will give voice to the public’s anger with an editorialized speech that is really no different from a tweet, and which blows away all the professional rules we have learned, rules we should now “put behind us,” Daher says.
This is a natural development for the medium of television, which has played a central role in informing, entertaining and shaping audiences for more than sixty years. In each of these stages, the rules of the profession changed, and so did theories on the media.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.