Arabic TV in Dearborn: How It Started and the Shape It’s In
When Cable Vision Industries came to Dearborn in 1981, it had fifty-four channels—far too many to fill. According to Jackie Kaiser, CVI program manager, the idea of an ethnic access channel was originally floated with Dearborn’s Italian and Polish communities in mind. No one expected Arab immigrants to use the service. Yet the Italians and Poles, for all the proddings of CVI and Dearborn’s Italian mayor, failed to put together viable programming. It was Lebanese and Chaldean programmers who eventually monopolized Ethnic Access. Today all of the channel’s shows are in Arabic. The Arabs surprised CVI management again by producing their own, Arabic-language advertising, thereby turning a nonprofit community service channel into a very healthy cash cow. CVI altered its format accordingly. Today the 5:00 P.M. to 1:00 A.M. time slots are leased. Shows scheduled between 1:00 P.M. and 5:00 P.M. are broadcast free of charge. The sixteen afternoon shows are supplied by local mosques, religious associations, and Lebanese social clubs; in the evening the six networks, all produced by individuals, take over. I have been watching Arabic television in Dearborn since 1990, and I am still fascinated by three qualities of the programming that, I would argue, are broadly characteristic of popular culture in Detroit’s Arabic-language “mainstream.”
(1) With scattered exceptions, all programming is in Arabic. The monolingual nature of Arabic TV might seem commonsensical at first, but it runs counter to linguistic patterns dominant in the community. The majority of Arab Detroiters are bilingual; many Chaldeans are trilingual (speaking English, Arabic, and Aramaic); and tens of thousands of Arab Detroiters speak only English. The latter population is an obvious growth market, but no local programmers are attempting to cultivate it as an audience. Arab Detroit’s two most successful newspapers—the Arab-American News and the Chaldean Detroit Times—went bilingual in the 1980s, and the parade of small Arab journals and magazines that march in and out of print are mostly English/Arabic ventures as well. Ahmad Berry’s Panorama, for instance, is bilingual. The programming on his Arabic Time Television, however, has not yet been affected by this trend.
(2) All the shows are locally produced, but they consist almost entirely of imported programming. To call the programming “imported” is a courtesy. Much of it is pirated, and copyright law (as understood in the United States) is thoroughly ignored by the impresarios of Arabic TV. In an average night of viewing, one might see a Syrian soap opera, an Egyptian movie, a Lebanese variety show, an Iraqi sports program, and several shows in which a local host introduces footage from overseas. The material is copied on videocassette, and the granular, jumpy quality of the tape suggests that the duplicates are themselves nth-generation copies. But techniques are steadily improving. Berry’s Arabic Time Television, for instance, has lately become a time-delayed version of Future Television (Talafiziyun al-Mustaqbal), a popular Lebanese network. It is commonly said in Dearborn that Future Television employs one of Berry’s relatives, who sends high-quality videocassette copies of network programming to Detroit. Before Berry airs this material, he superimposes the Arabic Time Television logo over it. Whether this practice is (or is not) as illegal as it looks—Berry assured me that Future Television approved of his borrowings—it is standard operating procedure on Ethnic Access.
Recycled material is not the only fare available to Ethnic Access viewers. Occasionally the impresarios appear on-screen to interview Arab celebrities and political dignitaries who visit Detroit. Some programs have local anchormen who present summaries of Middle Eastern news, most of it derived from Arabic media abroad. TV Orient, a Chaldean network, regularly features interviews with people important in the local Arab community: school administrators, candidates for public office, bilingual teachers, doctors, and social workers, among others. TV Orient also produces Afrah al-jaliya (Community Celebrations), a popular show that consists of video highlights from local Chaldean weddings. The Detroit-based shows are low-budget affairs, and they account for a small proportion of programming in CVI’s leased time slots. The impresarios make their profit from videocopying; indeed, their programs could not survive without it.
(3) Programming is overwhelmed by, and virtually incidental to, advertising. Commercials take up half the airtime on local Arabic networks. Indeed, commercials are what makes the programming local, and the top three networks in Dearborn—Arabic Time Television, Sada al-‘Arab (The Arab Echo), and TV Orient—make their money by shooting commercials for Arab-owned businesses, which they aired at a market average of $300 per business per month in 1995. According to CVI monitors, spot checks of Arabic programming show that commercials consume about twenty-seven minutes per hour (compared to an industrywide average of twelve minutes per hour). In a CVI telephone poll many Dearborn viewers stated that they enjoyed the commercials, and I have been told many times that the commercials are more fun to watch than the regular programming, which is only in part a criticism of regular programming. In a community heavily involved in small business, the ads on Ethnic Access are a means of competition and a measure of accomplishment directed at the audience that counts most. The people who appear in the commercials are well known to the community—they may, in fact, be fellow villagers or even kin—and the conclusion the Lebanese or Chaldean viewer draws from watching the ads is often a reassuring one: I am surrounded by a robust economic community of people like myself; almost all my needs (food and clothing, health care, aluminum siding, floral arrangements, and cellular phones) can be met within this community.