If asked to make a list of the most politically significant TV programmes over the last few years, most people would probably not include Star Academy among them.

But perhaps that depends on where you watch it. While many of us think of reality TV as trashy but occasionally compulsive entertainment, in some parts of the world its effects can be subversive - perhaps even revolutionary.

One of the hallmarks of Star Academy and similar shows is that viewers can get rid of contestants and ultimately choose the winner through a popular vote. To viewers in Europe, the US and similar countries, this may seem such an obvious and natural process as to be scarcely worth mentioning.

Transfer the show to the Middle East, though, and "reality" TV quickly becomes unreality TV. In that part of the world, the idea of public participation in a public process, as Marwan Kraidy observes in a new book, often contrasts sharply with reality on the ground:

The programme stages an apparently "fair" competition where contestants win to the extent that they can woo the viewing public with their creativity and competence. This, as some columnists in the Arab press noted, is discordant with how many young Arabs experience politics, an avenue of participation that is often blocked ...

Unlike Arab politics, the programme organisers, the contestants and the audience must respect the results of the vote, where winning is often by a narrow margin, as opposed to Arab politics and the infamous 99% election "victories" according to which Arab rulers wield power.

This was not the only way the show reflected aspirations towards a new social/political order, according to Kraidy. Others were more subtle, like its choice of theme song - The Truth is Coming - which put Arabic words to the tune of Let the Sunshine In (from the controversial 1960s musical, Hair). The lyrics, Kraidy says: "Criticise, albeit indirectly, the status of Arab societies, using words such as 'darkness' and 'cold', and they proclaim that the forthcoming truth will change the situation for the better."

Star Academy Middle East, which started in 2003, drew contestants from across the Arab world. Vigorously condemned in some quarters, it proved hugely popular at and at one point 80% of the adolescents in Lebanon were thought to be watching it. Broadcast by the Lebanese LBC channel and viewed across the region, it is now in its fourth series.

Kraidy, an assistant professor at the American University in Washington, is researching the social and political impact of reality TV in the Arab countries, and in a chapter for the book, Arab Media and Political Renewal, he considers the show's political significance in Lebanon and Kuwait.

In Kuwait, Star Academy fuelled intense debate about social change. It became a bete noire for religious elements who condemned it as "indecent" - mainly on the grounds that it showed young men and women mixing together. Islamist MPs threatened to hold a parliamentary inquiry and condemned the minister of information.

"There is a defect in the ministry's performance in protecting morality and the minister's supervision over the media is lacking and negative," on MP said.

In the face of this barrage, the government secured a fatwa referring to "practices" in the show that were "forbidden by Islam" but, because it was transmitted by satellite, there was nothing the authorities could do to stop it.

The arguments about gender segregation also plugged in to a long-running debate about political rights for women (finally resolved last year when 28 women stood, but failed to win any seats, in the parliamentary election).

In Lebanon, Star Academy's second series, in 2005, opened against a backdrop of the so-called Cedar Revolution, when protesters took to the streets after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops - and it became highly politicised as a result. The first show included contestants from the previous series dressed from head to foot in black and singing patriotic songs. By the end of the evening, Kraidy notes, the Syrian contestant had been voted out.

Meanwhile, demonstrators in Beirut picked up the language of Star Academy for their campaign. One placard, Kraidy says, depicted the Syrian-backed president, Emile Lahoud, as a "nominee" for eviction, urging people to "call 1559" if they wanted him out. This referred to the four-digit phone numbers used on the show, though 1559 was also the number of the UN security resolution which called on Syrian troops to leave.



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