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Hard Questions: Public Goods and the Political Economy of the New Palestinian Televisual Public Sphere

From: The Velvet Light Trap
Number 66, Fall 2010
pp. 3-14 | 10.1353/vlt.2010.0004

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Scholarly accounts of screen media in the Palestinian Territories have traditionally focused on the means by which artists overcome tremendous financial and logistical obstacles to creatively express the histories, fears, and aspirations of Palestinian individuals and collectives. As Edward Said argues, visual storytelling plays a particularly crucial function in Palestinian society and politics, combating the "erasure" that generations of statelessness, occupation, and perpetual uncertainty have inflicted upon Palestinian identity (3). This very worthwhile approach to the nation's visual media has found expression recently in two edited volumes on the subject of Palestinian cinema as well as a variety of popular articles on media forms in the West Bank. The artist's tremendous struggle to create media in the Palestinian Territories quite naturally provides motivation for the analyst to investigate the expressive elements of the region's production.

Writing in the context of this important and often profound discursive tradition, it can perhaps seem callous to bracket off the layers of meaning and expression in Palestinian media in order to analyze the more pedestrian structural mechanics of media production and distribution. However, as new media forms, including professional quality domestic television, become more available within the Palestinian Territories, there emerges a need for the scholar to consider the basic political and economic conditions that shape the texts that Palestinians engage with on a daily basis. As such, this article takes on a rather narrow focus, attempting to understand the fundamental political-economic issues that bear upon the production of a very specific brand of Palestinian media: the internationally (primarily Western) funded nonprofit television program.

Specifically, I analyze the Bethlehem-based Ma'an Network's public affairs program The Hard Question, a show produced in the West Bank with an overwhelmingly Palestinian crew but funded via a collaboration of the U.S. Department of State and the Washington, D.C.-based nongovernmental organization Search for Common Ground (SFCG). Although this particular show is of a news-based, nonfiction nature, similar arrangements exist for made-for-TV films and serials, making this analysis applicable across a variety of genres. As this rather unique form of international coproduction grows in its importance to the Palestinian television industry, it emerges as a new, if complicated, tool for expression of the variety that Said and others have attributed to Palestinian cinema. However, as this essay details, there exist a variety of basic political-economic issues that suggest significant obstacles to the long-term success of this mode of content creation. My intention, therefore, is to return to some of the most basic ideas about television's unique status as a "public good" in an attempt to lay the groundwork for further future analysis of this increasingly central aspect of Palestinian television.

Internationally funded, locally produced television programs such as The Hard Question run contrary to the major forms of economically oriented analysis that have been prevalent in the study of Middle Eastern media. Historically, work on this subject has focused on television as a state-service system, as exemplified in the early stages of Lila Abu-Lughod's account of the Egyptian television industry. Although Abu-Lughod finds considerable freedom of expression among contracted creative workers, she nevertheless understands Egypt's television system in the presatellite era as a modified public broadcasting effort bearing similarities to European models (189). However, in recent years there has emerged a body of scholarship that considers the commercial aspirations of outlets such as MBC and Al-Jazeera, with Naomi Sakr provocatively arguing that even these supposedly independent outlets are in fact sources for state interest and influence (Satellite Realms 65). The Hard Question, however, is neither state-service television nor for-profit nor a hybrid of the two. The show, along with the rest of the programming produced by the Ma'an Network, is crafted explicitly as an alternative to Palestinian state television, priding itself on providing a perspective independent from the dominant political frameworks of Hamas and Fatah that saturate the mainstream of indigenous Palestinian broadcasting (Othman). As such it is not eligible for funds taken from the Palestinian Authority's coffers or any other partisan source. The show, however, is essentially without revenue, requiring 100 percent subsidization...



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