Wednesday, March 12, 2008

TV in Arabia

Oprah is alive and well - in Arabia! And complete with Arabic sub-titles, no less!

One day when we went up to the rooftop of our building to have a look at the surrounding cityscape, I noticed that there are dozens of satellite dishes on top of each and every building. More than likely some of these dishes are old and non-functional, but I'm sure most of them are in working order, providing a link for millions to the outside world of violence, immorality, sex, and profanity - and of course, Oprah! We even get Dr. Phil, too.

Our own TV reception is not by dish but through the internet - when it works. This can be very frustrating because our service has been out for more than a week at a time on several occasions, and keep in mind that I have only been here in this country for five months! When it's working, we get over 20 Showtime channels (Comedy, Series, Kids, Sports and Movies) and I must admit, I am surprised at the number of fairly recent shows and movies we get. I just saw the Good Shepard for the first time, and I have gotten to see many of my favorite movies as well.

Sometimes curse words, kissing, and of course sexual scenes are cut out, but on other channels, it's full steam ahead, baby! I am shocked by the fact that we also get the racy Nip/Tuck and the violent The Sopranos, and I am thrilled that we get favorites of mine like the Daily Show, Seinfeld, Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, and House! Mainstream news shows are also available - the evening news shows that air in the US at 6:30pm on CBS and NBC are on here at 4:00am, which is within an hour or two after the original broadcast in the states.

We also get Discovery, Disney, History, and channels like that - except we don't get one of my favorites yet which is HGTV!

Of course not everyone here has the Showtime subscription. Before we got it, our viewing pleasure was much more limited. There are some Arabic channels with English language programming. I try hard to watch sometimes, but when I watch TV, I really like being entertained, and well, I guess I just don't find the Arabic shows that entertaining. I even try watching the dignified Arabic language programming too, but alas - it is VERY difficult for me to get into it when I don't understand a word being said, and it is REALLY dry. When we are over at Tata's, I sit and watch the Arabic shows for an hour or so with her, but that is about all I can take. She does watch some English language shows too though. Her favorites are Tom and Jerry cartoons and the food channel, which is called "Fatafeat" here (meaning "Crumbs" in Arabic) and airs shows like Emeril.

There are also Middle Eastern game shows, which are probably made in Dubai or Syria or such ... certainly NOT in Saudi Arabia. There is even a Middle East version of The Biggest Loser - some of the women contestants cover their hair and some don't. Call in shows are very popular here, ranging in topics from religion, to health, to music, and so on.

Arabic commercials are just as bad as American commercials. You've got your seriously grave, sterile, intellectually health conscious commercials, where the narrator's voice sounds like an overly exaggerated, seriously boring Keanu Reeves. You know what I mean, don't you? McDonald's commercials are so serious here! And then there's the overtly goofy group of obnoxiously super happy young adults who take great joy in performing this ritualistic dance as they swirl a bottle of soda in a circular motion around their whole heads and then pass it on. Oh, and I can't forget the kindergartner dressed up as a daisy performing on stage with his class who interrupts the whole show to call to his duly embarrassed mom in the audience, telling her something about cream cheese that the whole audience hears. I am by no means saying that commercials in the states are any better at all. I just wish that they would aspire to be a little more original, with higher standards, than imitating the poor characterizations on American TV. Ugh!

One thing that I do like about TV here is that the sheer number of commercials is way less than in America. Oftentimes the show fades out like there will be a commercial break, and instead, it immediately continues with the next scene of the show. But just like in America, the commercials are run over and over, again and again, and the repetitiveness drives me crazy.

Another thing that drives me crazy is that they run a show series here for about a month solid and then suddenly it's off the air and another show is on. This happens all the time. Plus there is no online programming guide here - or a printed one for that matter - so I always end up missing shows here and there that I would have liked to have watched. Imagine at the top of the hour or on the half hour, having to flip through all the channels just to see what is on. By the time you figure out what you want to watch, you've missed half the show. We probably get just about every American TV show imaginable but just don’t know it. Also on many channels, if you miss a show, you can catch it 4-5 hours later when it is repeated again.

All in all, for English speaking viewers, the TV viewing choices are not all that bad...and you do get used to the Arabic subtitles after a while! And as long as we've got Oprah ...


  1. We get a lot of the Arabic channels here, LBC, ART, Dubai, Al Jazeera, Nile, ect.

    It is my understanding that technically satellite receivers are illegal in Saudi, but it is a law everyone ignores.

  2. AbuSinan-
    That's funny that satellite TV is supposed to be illegal here in Arabia! There are millions everywhere!!!

  3. Think of all the images and information that creep into Saudi society via the satellite dish (same ones that are banned when they come in the form of books, websites, etc.)

  4. To CairoGal -
    Yes, you would think they would have come up with a way of controlling that by now!

  5. Wow, don't know how I would survive without HGTV!!!! I usually have that on as a background all weekend long. I even watch some reruns, but I am not ashamed to say that :)
    Glad you get TV at least on an intermittent basis.

  6. Hi Sabine -
    I know - I DO miss my HGTV!!! And I watch the reruns too!

  7. If you have Showtime, you can go to to get the schedules (put the cursor on Showguide and choose what you want to see).

    (And a lot of those game shows and singers are from Lebanon.)

  8. Thanks, Ann -
    I've got that website on my favorites list and it helps, but I guess i'm just spoiled from having on-screen TV program guides for so many years!

  9. Yes usually the arabic shows that have game shows or especaily shows where arab women don't cover their hair are from lebanon. I hated those trashy game shows when i lived there.
    As for HGTV i really miss that too but I found on BBC (I have Orbit Sat) they run a lot of DIY and gardening shows and that eases my heart.
    Great post I really like the fact that i lived so long with the arabs that I forgot even the tv can be something interesing to someone not from Middle East.

  10. I was gonna suggest the same thing Ann did. We just bought that "grey market" Dream Box, the one where you get ALL of Orbit, Showtime, and ART channels for a one time fee...but it's through a DSL line. You constantly need to reboot it but hey...its loads cheaper than just one Showtime subscription with lots more. The only thing I miss is the programming guide so about once a week I browse through the online MBC programming guides Dubai One as well as Showtime to get the gist of what I want to watch and when.

  11. Hi Daisy -
    Yes, we got the same box and we have the same rebooting problems! I just miss the onscreen guide so much!!!

  12. I love reading about your new experiences, Susie!

    What miffs me is that you gotta pay to get showtime, yet you can get porn for free. aaargh.

    We have the box you're talking about too. For the most part, it works. But on those occassions where you're in the middle of a real good movie on Hallmark, it wigs out and you don't get to see the end! HA.

  13. Hi AMW -
    I love the DIY shows too. Thank goodness for those! A lot of my friends back home were amazed to find out the extent of prgramming we can get here too.

  14. To L -
    Thanks so much.
    Uh-oh! I have a 15y.o. son. I didn't know about the porn! Could we be getting it and I don't know about it? I would hate for him to be sneaking around peeking while we are out!!!

  15. Hey you! :-)
    This is one helluva cool blog!

    Word of advice, learn Arabic and start discovering the culture deeper.. There's more than what you see in Saudis/Arabs and more on TV that would keep you chained to it if you understand the language. Observe cultural and political differences ;-)

    You look beautiful in the Abaya, reminds me of my mom back in Saudi.


  16. To Arabilluminist -
    Aw shucks! Thanks for the nice compliments and for the wise advice. In my mid-50s, it is much harder to learn a language than when I was younger, but, WELLA, I am trying! I have always had deep respect for other cultures and find almost anything other than plain white bread quite fascinating!

  17. From Cory,
    Susie, have you ever heard of the 'Dishwalla'? A crappy alternative band named themselves that from the '90's. But the name refers to a seller of sattelite dishes in these poor shanty towns in Africa. They have tin roofs and dirt floors but spend money gladly with the roaming dishwalla.

    This is the real big contribution of the United States. The cultural export of the U.S. is just immeasurable.

  18. Hi Cory!
    Yes, the Dishwalla are responsible for opening up a whole new world to some of the the most remote places on earth. It's bizarre to see people living in tents equipped with satellite dishes!
    I think the TV service that we have is black market - it is way cheaper than what we were told it would cost by the legitimate company here. We have a box that we purchased, and every six months it needs to be updated.
    I was so shocked when I saw all the dishes on top of every building. Next time I'm up on the roof, I'll be sure to take my camera!

  19. You can also download episodes of tv shows on the internet, using Torrents. is the best website and all you need is to download the software BitComet.

    Download the software and open the toorrent, which is the file you download from the website.

    This way you will not miss any episode.