It is a few minutes to 9pm. Nadia, a retired civil servant in her late 70s, is preparing her dinner on a small tray she is taking to her living room. She puts the tray on the couch and reaches for the remote control to tune the television in to Channel 1.
“It is time to watch the 9 o’clock news. I have to watch it. If I don’t, I feel that I am not aware of what is going on in the country. Nothing substitutes for this news bulletin. This is something that I have been doing for so many years that it is integral to my daily routine,” Nadia said.
Nadia was a student at the Cairo University French Department in 1960 when the Egyptian TV started its first transmissions. Her family was not among the first to buy a TV set, but she remembers the reaction of people who had already got the sets during the first months of transmission and her own fascination when her father bought their first TV in July 1961 a year after the launch.
“When papa got the TV set, we were not sure where to put it. It was not something that we immediately had a place for. We had to grab a side table to use it as a TV table before we bought a special table a bit later. Everyone would make sure to be home for the broadcasts, which were just a few hours in the beginning. It was a very interesting and almost mesmerising experience for a few weeks at least,” Nadia recalled.
Over the years, Egyptian TV has expanded its hours of broadcasting and has launched further channels, including satellite channels, some in foreign languages.
Nadia has remained faithful to the programming she first got used to watching, however, including the evening news bulletin and some cultural programmes that she never left the habit of tuning in to even when she had access to a wider choice of satellite channels or when her children and grandchildren introduced her to the world of social media and most recently to subscription streaming services.
“This is not something that younger people would appreciate, but I like to be seated on my couch and to turn on my TV to watch a particular programme at a particular time, just as much as I like to read my newspaper in the morning while eating breakfast. But maybe these are dying habits,” she said.
In December 1996, the UN decided to make 21 November International Television Day. The objective was to give credit to TV in informing people on world affairs and issues of common international concern. This, the UN thought, was an important role, even though it acknowledged that those who had access to TV around the world were not the majority of the population in many countries.
A quarter of a century later, Sherif Al-Labban, professor of mass media at Cairo University, questions the impact of TV, among other traditional media, including the radio and daily papers, in keeping the world informed about larger or smaller issues.
Today, Al-Labban argues, a lot more people in Egypt have access to TV broadcasts, either because they now have access to electricity or because the quality of transmission has improved a great deal in the past 25 years. However, “many studies that have been done in the past few years, and actually in the past ten years, have shown the declining influence of the traditional media in favour of social media,” he said.
“Social media is a lot more effective in spreading news, all kinds of news, even better than online news websites,” Al-Labban argued.
“People would rather follow the social-media pages of the news websites, and if there is a particular story they would wish to read or watch, given that most news websites are now offering videos too, they will click on the links of the website,” he added, pointing particularly to the importance of Google searches.
“The first page of the results for a searched item is what gets most attention, and this is why all online news services try very hard to make sure that their work is on the top of the results offered by Google,” Al-Labban said.
“We are living in a world of social media, and this is bringing very serious challenges to all traditional media. This is true across the world, and certainly in Egypt, where the creation of content has been much compromised not just by a wish to play it safe in relation to political content, but also by a sheer lack of creativity in many contexts,” Al-Labban said.
“As a reader of the press or a viewer of TV, one often finds oneself faced with uniformed content, and this is very off-putting,” he added.
Hussein in a TV interview
Providing interesting and informative content was a crucial task for Egyptian TV in the early decades, according to Sedika Hayati, a broadcaster on Egyptian radio and TV who started her career in the late 1960s.
“It had to be hard work — serious, but appealing and interesting to viewers,” Hayati said.
Having joined as a radio news reader and broadcaster in the second half of the 1960s, Hayati, a graduate of the English Department of Cairo University, recalls going through very exhaustive training at the hands of prominent professionals at the time.
“Of course, there were moments when creativity was inspired by the big events that unfolded at the time like the October War, but beyond that every single programme, whether political or cultural or even entertainment, had to be the outcome of hard work,” Hayati said.
At times, Hayati argued, the “lines could be pushed by virtue of hard work and that could have an impact.”
In the early 1980s, Hayati herself had a widely watched TV programme called Al-Hall Eih? (What is the Solution?), in which she would put officials face to face with pressing problems and ask them to answer questions from the audience.
In one of the first episodes, Hayati got the governors of Cairo and Giza to answer questions about uncollected piles of garbage in the streets. She had already taped videos of heaps of garbage and had the recordings aired before getting the governors to listen to questions.
“Towards the end of the programme, the governor of Giza got so upset with my questions that he got up and slapped me on the face. We edited that bit out,” she recalled, laughing.
This was not the only time that Hayati, or her team, were physically assaulted during their programmes on deteriorating public services. However, despite this perseverance, only 12 out of what was supposed to be 48 episodes found their way onto the air. The rest of the programmes were censored by the administration for fear of upsetting state officials.
Eventually, Hayati’s wish to push the lines was pushed back, and her programme was cancelled despite very high viewership.
Mahmoud Khalil, a professor of mass media at Cairo University, argues that the declining interest in TV among much of the public today is not just a function of the new media, but also of what he qualifies as an incremental failure on the part of TV programming to win the faith of viewers.
This is either because the programming falls short of seriously addressing public concerns or because “unfortunately at times it just misleads the viewers.”
“The older generation will recall the huge betrayal of the truth by all the mass media during the early days of the 1967 War,” Khalil said. “This was not something that people really got over, to the extent that in 1973 when the radio and TV were broadcasting news of the crossing of the Suez Canal many people were tuning in to the Arabic service of the BBC to double check the news,” he added.
According to Khalil, such mistakes were not isolated incidents. “There have been other incidents, like the early days of the 25 January Revolution when the Egyptian TV was claiming there were no demonstrations. This was a very bad mistake because it reminded some of bad memories from 1967 and introduced younger generations to the fact that state-run TV could be simply misleading,” he argued.
Khalil acknowledges that such drops in performance were not an everyday feature, however. But what is “a typical feature when it comes to the news service is that priority is decided upon by state policies rather than news worthiness,” he said. “This has been the case since 1960, and it has never really changed.”
Moreover, Khalil adds that the private channels that were launched starting in the early years of this millennium have sometimes failed to live up to the initial anticipation that they would significantly push the lines and get state-run TV to reduce its limitations.
Editors who have worked in these channels say that the limitations were never significantly different from those of state-run TV, and it was more a matter of better-quality production. They add that once these channels mostly acquiesced to state affiliation, the chances to push the lines were all but abandoned.
But Khalil reminds us that TV is not just about news. It is also about providing entertainment and introducing viewers to cultural trends.
“I can only refer here to the famous recording with [Egyptian intellectual] Taha Hussein in the 1960s in the presence of top literary and journalism figures. Every time a clip of this programme is aired, it manages to get a lot of attention and admiration. The reason is because it offers distinct cultural content in a simple and impressive style. This was something that Egyptian TV had an edge on, irrespective of the political guidelines that have always been there,” he said.
“I am not just talking about interviews. One could also refer to cultural and entertainment programmes that introduced people to classical Arabic music or even scientific programmes that got viewers acquainted with basic ecological issues. Today, this is all gone for no good reason,” he lamented.
Mona Gabr, a TV presenter who started her career in Egyptian TV in the second half of the 1960s and has presented cultural programmes on theatre and ballet, says that it was a clear vision of the role of Egyptian TV that decided the programming.
“At the time I did my programmes, the policy was to get a wider audience introduced to all types of art and to promote the consumption of art,” Gabr said.
“Offering good cultural content in a simple and appealing language and style was what got viewers interested,” Gabr said. “It is also important to realise that the success of any programme is related to its ability to address an interest of the viewers. Programming cannot be stagnant, and it has to be updated to meet the interests of the audience that inevitable change with the passing of time,” Gabr argued.
She agreed that today young people might like to watch some of the old programmes when they are aired on Maspero Zaman, a channel launched a few years ago to celebrate the classics of Egyptian TV’s entertainment, cultural, and dramatic production. But perhaps this channel is mostly about nostalgia, she argued.
“Even so, this does not mean that viewers today will accept the old programmes or programmes done the old way, however nostalgic they are. Things have to match the times,” she said.
Hayati agreed that “modernisation and innovation” were essential to success on TV. “For example, when the world started to go for live broadcasts, we could not have lagged behind with only recorded programmes,” she said.
To give the 60-year-old Egyptian TV a new start, Hayati and Gabr agreed, there needs to be a dedicated effort to modernise it with an eye on quality rather than trying to copy the past.
Eman Al-Badawi is an editor for the Nile Culture Channel that was first put on in the mid-1990s. She said that the early years of the channel, when she first joined, saw a lot of interest from viewers. The fact that this interest later declined, she added, was about the need for the channel to produce more and to diversify its production.
“This might be too costly, and there might not be enough resources or manpower to do this job for Nile Culture, Nile Cinema, and Nile Life. The answer may be to merge these channels together to provide one culture and entertainment channel where all the resources and talents are pooled. I am convinced that then we would have enough capacity to produce quality content that is also appealing,” Al-Badawi said.
An administrative source at the Egyptian Radio and TV Union (ERTU) said that plans to merge channels were already being considered. “When all these channels were launched in the 1990s, the idea was to provide as diversified a service as possible to viewers, but that was before smart phones and social media and all these new platforms,” he said.
Riham Salem, a presenter who has worked for both Nile Culture and Nile Life, is of the opinion that it will take a lot more than pooling resources and mainstreaming culture and entertainment to attract audiences.
“What we need most of all is a vision. We need to think of what would be both informative and interesting, on the one hand, and appealing, on the other,” Salem argued.
“To do this, we need to think of and learn new ways, for example to present cultural material in a catchy and simple way rather to produce material that is too academic for the taste of the average viewer. We need to pursue new productions that are inspired by ideas out of the box,” she added.
According to the ERTU source, there have been a lot of restrictions on production budgeting over the past ten years. “Keeping all these channels running is a very costly project, and to get to do high-end productions without any guarantees on getting enough commercials is an unaffordable risk,” he said.
He agreed that Egyptian TV “is not exactly” appealing for companies who wish to put on commercials because “they don’t have faith in our viewership.”
This, he added, has been one of the reasons why the state has opted to be “involved” in the management of the private channels because “there was a feeling that the Egyptian TV is not able to attract large numbers of viewers, so if there is a message that needs to be put out, political or otherwise, the channels of the Egyptian TV might not be the right place to do it.”
The trouble, Khalil argued, is “indeed one of production”.
Whether in the state-run or the state-associated channels, there was a problem of quality. “I am not just talking about the programmes. I am also talking about the drama productions,” he said.
According to Khalil, the drama productions of the ERTU over the first four decades was generally impressive, “because the state was investing in quality.”
“This goes for soap operas covering social stories or historical stories. They were mostly big hits that got incredible attention, not just in Egypt but effectively all over the Arab world,” he said.
He argued that when the state invested less in drama productions and allowed more space for private companies, there was a marked drop in quality. “The state usually works to raise awareness, but the private companies mostly work to make financial gains. As a result, of the dozens of soap-operas that are now produced every year there are very few of high quality,” he said.
State production, Khalil said, should be resumed, “not in competition with private companies and not to serve outright propaganda purposes, but to regain the cultural impact of Egyptian drama productions, which were a form of soft power.”
It was understandable, he said, that with the inevitable predominance of the new technologies the state would also wish to invest in launching modern platforms. But at the same time, it should not let go of the TV because the latter is still significant for at least a quarter of the population and will be for at least a few more decades to come.
Subscription platforms, he said, are not like social media in the sense that they are not something that everyone can afford. So, he added, at least for entertainment, TV will still remain relevant, and it is best to work on keeping it.
Al-Labban agreed, saying that if the Egyptian TV and radio fall short in regaining their vision it might not be long before they seriously lose audiences. “It is not impossible for them to recover. Giving a somewhat bigger margin for innovation and creativity and allowing a bit of independence to editorial policy are not such difficult things, and their outcomes could be very significant,” he argued.
Meanwhile, Salem said that whatever the future might bring, “we need not forget that Egyptian TV is one of the oldest and most established television services in the Arab world and that its archives deserve a lot more attention.”
Khalil agreed that the archives of Egyptian TV are “a treasure in and by themselves. They have some recordings of early 20th-century artists and literary figures. They have major political interviews and programming that documents the history of this nation during six consecutive and eventful decades. We need to preserve it for sure,” he added.
Sources at Egyptian TV have spoken of the loss of some “important old programmes and recordings.” This they said had happened either due to the unintentional destruction of the tapes due to poor storage conditions, or because the tapes were used to record newer programmes due to a lack of supplies, or just because they went missing.
“It is devastating to learn of the possible losses that these archives have undergone. Whatever is there today needs to be properly preserved and restored,” Salem said. “This should be a national project to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the birth of Egyptian TV,” she concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly