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What happened to political TV in Egypt?
 
 
Mahmoud Saad's last episode of Akher al-Nahar - Courtesy: screen shot from YouTube
 

In December 2015, Al-Nahar channel aired the last episode of “Akher al-Nahar” (End of the Day) talk show with its presenter Mahmoud Saad, due to pressure from its board to reduce its political content.

Saad was one of few television hosts to present a critical analysis of Egypt’s current affairs. He explained during his last episode that the channel’s owners were under a lot of pressure and that he had decided to end the program out of respect for himself and his audience.

Saad was asked by program administrators to change the political nature of his show and focus on entertainment, social issues and religion, a source close to the program’s team explains to Mada Masr, adding that it is not clear if such direction came from within the channel itself or externally.

“I haven’t seen any voice from the state in negotiations, just from the administration,” the source explains. “But the fact the program attracted the second highest number of advertisers for the channel makes me question whether they would lose such a source of income simply over personal fears.”

Saad’s case was the latest in a number of political TV shows that were either shut or toned down in recent months, with various reasons given for these decisions.

Several months ago, vocal talk show host Ibrahim Eissa said he walked out of the privately owned ONtv channel over financial issues. He later joined the largely pro-government channel Al-Qahera wal Nas. In 2014, talk show host Yousri Fouda said he would not be renewing his contract with ONtv.

Another 29 programs with political content were also recently stopped, most of which had aired on private channels.

Many private channels, such as Dream 1, CBC 2 and Mehwar 2, have blamed closures on financial issues, although in Fouda’s case and others, political disagreements have also been reported.

Other prominent television anchors that used to present political content have shifted to focusing on entertainment and social issues, like Mona al-Shazly, Amr al-Leithy and Sherif Amer.

This is likely tied to money as well as politics. Advertisers, media owners and managers of TV stations say advertisers have stopped being attracted to content that is overtly political.

Al-Nahar and ONtv are two major media channels that are rebranding this month. Al-Nahar owner Alaa al-Kahky said the network will now have seven channels, including Al-Nahar Cinema, “Enty” (You) directed at women, a social channel called “Nour” (Light), Nahar Drama, Nahar Plus 2 and Nahar One.

ONtv announced a new channel for entertainment and sports, focusing largely on the football league. The original channel will continue to address politics, with many of the same hosts.

An anonymous source at ONtv says their heavy reliance on political content was not sustainable. “The nature of the audience has shifted from five years ago. Other channels, like Al-Nahar, managed to continue because they have diverse content. Entertainment is essential for political shows to carry on.”

ONtv’s advertising agency Promo Media recently experienced financial crisis. It purchased advertising rights to many local newspapers and channels, but failed to fill the slots, causing financial problems that led to journalists not being paid for months. While news outlets have accused the agency’s manager, Ihab Talaat, of theft, the ONtv source blames lack of advertising. Official representatives from Promo Media declined to comment.

In a long interview with the privately owned Youm 7 newspaper in June, ONtv owner Naguib Sawiris explained that the reason for the channel’s financial issues was its heavy focus on news and political content, which he said never brings in money.

“Advertisers want housewives and movies and songs,” Sawiris said. “They won’t target channels that discuss poverty, elections and privatization. They need cooking and cinema programs.”

People’s interest in politics has become “seasonal” and tied to major political events, like the elections or the assassination of former Prosecutor General Hesham Barakat, says the head of ONtv’s newsroom, Mohamed Helmy.

This would mean the end for a repertoire of heavy political conversations hosted by ONtv, particularly in the wake of the January 25 revolution, when the channel’s famous hosts, like Fouda and Reem Maged, were at the forefront of mediating revolutionary narratives. The channel continued to maintain political content and chose an anti-Muslim Brotherhood line in the wake of the June 30 protests that led to the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi.

“Advertisers fear putting their money into a program where its host is opposing the government,” Sawiris said, referring to the channel’s decision to suspend Maged’s show, “Gamea Mo’anath Salem,” which was supposed to be her comeback to the screen after her show “Baladna Bel Masry” was deemed dissident and stopped airing in 2013.

ONtv aren’t the only ones following the trend away from political content. Waleed Ramadan, chief editor of talk show programs on the privately owned CBC and Sada al-Balad channels, says plans to reduce political programming have already been implemented. While every TV channel used to air at least four or five talk shows, the plan now is to reduce them to two leading programs at most, Emad explains.

“In 2011, politics was selling,” he says. “There was a big chance for debate and discussion. Now, politics is not selling. Entertainment is.”

The cost of producing talk shows is also considered high, according to Ramadan.

“You need to hire a huge staff of reporters, scriptwriters, camera crew, editors, desk editors, producers and directors, in addition to the huge salaries of talk show hosts, which are now similar to movie stars,” he says. This cost is huge compared to a cooking program, where all that’s needed is a simple studio and a host to cook in front of a camera.

Ramadan says entertainment programs are typically outsourced to external production companies that sell the broadcasting rights to satellite channels, which don’t have the capacity to produce talk shows.

Ahmad Emad, advertising and communications manager at Mondelez International, agrees that people’s interest in politics has drastically declined. “Our [chocolate] campaigns for example talk about optimism, it’s pure entertainment. How can we insert them between news of deaths and killings?” he asks.

But freelance producer Ashraf Abu Kheir, who has been working in the talk show industry for 10 years, challenges the opinion that the public is no longer interested in political content. He suggests it isn’t just a matter of politics falling out of fashion, but is also down to the manipulation of advertisers. “Advertising agencies sell ads for certain talk shows to give the impression that they enjoy high viewership,” he says.

He cites examples of talk shows hosted by Hosni Mubarak-era business tycoons, like Sada al-Balad, run by businessman Mohamed Aboul Enein. The channel’s leading talk show host is Ahmed Moussa, a vocal government supporter, who has been accused of various professional and ethical feuds related to inciting violence, hate speech and the invasion of privacy.

But he says the influence of advertising agencies is limited. “They usually give recommendations about which programs we should place ads with, but this is not binding. We can take their recommendations or leave them,” he explains.

Amid rising anti-government sentiment, particularly in the wake of criticism over police violations, some talk shows have capitalized on the readiness of the public to focus on politics, including topics like the ongoing doctors strikes over police violations, police torture and the recent killing of a taxi driver by a policeman in Darb al-Ahmar.

Al-Nahar’s new image still includes a channel called Al-Nahar Al-Youm, which is purely dedicated to news. The ambition to have a major TV network like Al Jazeera has been always in the minds of its owners, and this expansion serves both dreams, a source at the network says.

“I guess the state also wants to have a strong and professional network in Egypt,” the source adds. “I can assure you that the state is by now as disgusted by pro-government media as we are, if not even more. Pro-government media is now more of a burden, and the state knows this.”

“No one can say politics doesn’t sell in and of itself,” Abu Kheir argues. “It was actually selling when there was a space for debate and when there was a chance for an open public sphere. Politics was the winning card when we had a diversity of viewpoints and when we had protests every day.” 

“People aren’t following the news of protests,” he adds. “Not because they’re fed up with them, but because there have been no protests. We have a protest law that bans people from protesting.” 

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Mai Shams El-Din