World

International Television Receives High Marks in Saudi Arabia

by Magali Rheault

About one-third of Saudis choose Al-Jazeera as their preferred channel

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A new media landscape is emerging in the Arab world. Gone are the days when the only news available was endless coverage of heads of states greeting foreign dignitaries on official visits. In 1991, the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) became the first satellite television network to broadcast news and entertainment programming across the Arab world. Five years later, Al-Jazeera upped the ante with its hard-hitting news coverage and daring talk shows. Newspapers, national television, and the Internet round out the many media options available throughout the Arab region, including Saudi Arabia.

To gauge the media's reach and influence in Saudi Arabia, Gallup asked respondents which sources of information they rely on to stay well-informed of events at home and abroad. International television is the most likely to be cited, and a majority of Saudis also say they rely on national television, newspapers, and word of mouth. In the international television arena, where respondents are likely exposed to the different voices from around the Arab and Muslim world, Al-Jazeera, MBC, and Al Arabiya compete for top Saudi audience ratings.

A Broad Spectrum of Information Sources

Eighty-two percent of Saudis say they rely on pan-Arab television to stay well-informed about events in their country, and a decisive 93% say they rely on pan-Arab television to keep up on events in other countries. Despite the increasing popularity of MBC, Al-Jazeera, and other satellite networks, newspapers are far from losing their appeal among the Saudi public. Seventy-two percent of respondents say newspapers are a "very important" source of information to stay well-informed about national events, and 68% say they read newspapers to remain well-informed about events in other countries.

Word of mouth as a source of information predates the advent of television in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries as it used to be one of the few conduits, and in some areas the only, for people to find out about news events. The Gallup World Poll reveals that this way of communicating information remains an important medium for the majority of people in Saudi Arabia, albeit to a lesser extent than television and newspapers. Almost 6 in 10 respondents (59%) say word of mouth is a very important source of information to keep them well-informed about events in Saudi Arabia, and 54% say they use word-of-mouth information to stay abreast of events in other countries. Forty-one percent of Saudis mention the Internet as a very important source of information to stay well-informed about national events, and 43% say they use the Internet to stay abreast of events in other countries.


Which of these sources of information are very important in keeping you well-informed about events in this country?

Percentage of total
respondents saying "Yes"

%

International television

82

National television

73

Newspapers

72

Word of mouth

59

National radio

50

Internet

41

International radio

40

Religious leader

38

Which of these sources of information do you trust most to keep you well-informed about events in other countries?

Percentage of total
respondents saying "Yes"

%

International television

93

Newspapers

68

National television

59

Word of mouth

54

International radio

47

Internet

43

National radio

38

Religious leader

34

Great Competition for Television Audiences

Just three satellite television networks capture the attention of almost four-fifths of the Saudi public. Thirty percent of Saudis say they first tune in to Al-Jazeera to catch up on current world affairs. Although Al-Jazeera is probably best known in the West for its news coverage and airing of Osama bin Laden's tapes, the network, which claims 40 million viewers in the Arab world, pioneered the concept of talk shows in the region. As viewers are invited to call in and comment, Al-Jazeera's talk shows provide a forum for people to express their opinions on many sensitive issues in the region such as democracy, human rights, and political reform. Not far behind are MBC and Al Arabiya, each of which captures about one-quarter of the Saudi public as their preferred channel for international news. Less than 2% of Saudis say they first tune in to Alhurra, the U.S.-government run Arabic-language satellite television channel, to catch up on current world events.

Which TV channel would you tune first nowadays to catch up on current world affairs?

Percentage of
total respondents

%

Al-Jazeera

30

Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC)

24

Al Arabiya

23

Saudi Channel 1

5

Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation

5

Al-Manar

4

Dubai Satellite

2

Alhurra

2

Other channels

3

Quality of Television Programming

A Gallup World Poll conducted in 2005 suggests Al-Jazeera leads its rivals in reputation. One-half of respondents said Al-Jazeera news coverage is comprehensive versus 45% for Al Arabiya and only 23% of respondents said the same for MBC. When it comes to bringing viewers hard-hitting news and information, Al-Jazeera is the undeniable winner. Almost 6 in 10 Saudis (56%) said Al-Jazeera has daring, unedited news, and 46% believed the network has unique access to information. Only 37% and 33% of respondents, respectively, said the same of Al Arabiya. Further, MBC remains far behind the other two channels on these attributes. Just 13% of Saudis said MBC has daring, unedited news, and 7% believed the channel has unique access to information. As far as U.S.-run Alhurra is concerned, about one-quarter of respondents perceived it to have a pro-Western bias, and only 6% believed the channel has comprehensive news coverage.


Different people have different opinions about different TV channels. I will read out to you some examples. I would like you to tell me which TV channels you think each word/statement applies to. Please bear in mind that a statement could apply to many channels, to only one channel, or to none.

Is objective

Has a pro-western bias

Has comprehensive news coverage

Has good analyses

Is always on the site of events

Has daring, unedited news

Has unique access to information

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Al-Jazeera

29

5

50

45

54

56

46

MBC

31

3

23

17

16

13

7

Al Arabiya

32

3

45

42

45

37

33

Alhurra

6

24

6

7

7

7

5

Together, Gallup's findings underscore the fact that Saudi audiences today have access to a greater and richer spectrum of sources of information than ever before. It is clear the public relies on satellite television networks with their pan-Arab newsrooms and large networks of on-location correspondents, as well as newspapers, national television, and to a lesser extent, the Internet. These wide-ranging sources of information have no doubt raised awareness about international issues and current events in other parts of the Arab world. Together, they provide new forums for Saudis to discuss political and social issues in the public sphere -- conversations that just a few years ago were more subdued. While some observers may dismiss these debates as too timid to effect meaningful change, the attention they are garnering in the conservative Saudi society indicates social change is under way.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with 1,006 adults in Saudi Arabia in April 2007, aged 15 and older. Results on the quality of television programming are based on face-to-face interviews with 1,004 adults in Saudi Arabia in June 2005 aged 15 and older. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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