Iraqis Tuning In to Home-Grown Reality TV
Iraqi television is going through a makeover: reality shows are popping up on the tube, and Iraqis are hooked. But in contrast to reality shows on U.S. television, many of these programs have a social message.
SUSAN STAMBERG, host:
Iraqis have found a few moments of escapism from an unexpected source--reality TV. Iraq's two main television stations have come out with several new shows, but in contrast to reality shows on US television, many of these programs have a social message. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.
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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:
On one bright morning, Iraq's passport office is in an uproar. A crowd of people follow a television crew as it tries to make its way past the guard, who tells them they can't film inside a government building. The presenter, Ali al-Haridi(ph), with a great deal of showmanship, argues his way through, accompanied by National Assembly member Samya Hisro(ph), whom he has drafted in to help. They confront a series of officials on the plight of a family who were stripped of their citizenship papers by Saddam Hussein. Corruption in the ministry has meant that they've been unable to get new ones.
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GARCIA-NAVARRO: In one exchange, the National Assembly member tells off an obstructive guard.
Ms. SAMYA HISRO (National Assembly Member): (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: `Now there is democracy,' she says, `and democracy means that we reflect the voice of the street. Before, everything was hidden. But now everything can be shown on TV.'
In a country where corruption is endemic, government unaccountable and happy endings hard to come by, television has stepped in to fill the void. Today's shoot is for a new program on Iraqi state television, Al-Iraqiyah, called "Al-Iraqiyah is With You."(ph) The premise is simple, to uncover government corruption and help families caught in its snare. Al-Haridi says the show has become an instant success.
Mr. ALI AL-HARIDI ("Al-Iraqiyah is With You"): (Through Translator) Iraqi used to think, or they were forced to think, that the officials are like gods. They never make mistakes. But now in Iraq everybody's criticizing them and we want to show them that they are human beings, making mistakes, even sometimes not finding any solutions for anything.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The station encourages people to write in to the show with their difficulties. Iraqi television channels are broadcast by satellite and can be picked up around the region. Twenty-seven-year-old Uday Ali(ph) is one of the family members on today's show.
Mr. UDAY ALI (Family Member on Reality Show): (Through Translator) Thank God for the Iraqiyah staff who have been able to support us. Our relatives in the United Arab Emirates got in touch with the crew here and explained to them our problem. They surprised us when they came knocking on our door.
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GARCIA-NAVARRO: Across town in the offices of rival Iraqi satellite station Alsharqiya, an editor scrolls through pictures of a reality program which sends people with medical problems abroad for treatment. Alsharqiya is the acknowledged king of reality TV. It has five such shows on the air. In one called "Best Wishes,"(ph) couples are given the wedding of their dreams. On bomb-scarred streets more usually traversed by US tanks and Humvees, newlyweds are shown riding around in a stretch white limousine. In another show, homes demolished in fighting are rebuilt.
This all makes great television, but senior producer Majid al-Samuri(ph) says that their fare has also helped people regain their trust in Iraqi broadcasters after years of censorship under Saddam Hussein.
Mr. MAJID AL-SAMURI (Senior Producer, Alsharqiya): (Through Translator) We now have credibility. We never had these kind of shows before, but now we have programs which encourage the viewer to participate. A change has taken place for the better and people are not used to it.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But often reality can bite into the intended happy endings. Sharqiya has a weekly lottery show which gives a thousand dollars to a lucky pensioner and then films their reaction when the money is handed over. In one incident, the Sharqiya team went to the lawless Shiite town of Amarah to deliver the money, only to find out that the house had been taken over by criminals who were masquerading as the winning family. Locals told the crew that the bandits were planning to take the money and then ransom them. They managed to escape.
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GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the home of Lana Yusef(ph), the TV plays constantly in the background. She's a self-confessed addict to the reality shows.
Ms. LANA YUSEF (TV Viewer): (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: `These programs are nice,' she says. `These programs relieve people from the pain and grief they're in. They try to get them out of their miserable situations and give them happiness. We have to escape from this reality somehow.'
While US reality TV shows deliver their version of the American dream--marriage to a millionaire, a record deal, the opportunity to run a major company--the Iraqi programs beam out to a troubled populace solutions to more pressing concerns. The word `survivor' here is not a catchy title. A few weeks ago, a director of the wedding show on Sharqiya was shot dead by what appears to have been US forces at a checkpoint. To honor him, filming of that program was shut down for several days. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.
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