Iranians shun 'boring' domestic TV for illicit western fare

Iranian viewers are increasingly tuning in to Farsi 1, an unauthorised western satellite channel, despite objections by Tehran that it is culturally corrupt.

Jila Faiz 52 watching Persian speaking channel Farsi 1 base in Dubai 
Newsha Tavakolian for The National
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TEHRAN // A free-to-air general entertainment channel that broadcasts western soap operas is making Iran's religious establishment increasingly uneasy. Farsi 1, a satellite television channel run by the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, is gaining increasing popularity among Iranians, who complain that the homegrown fare is stale. Some authorities have expressed concern about the Hong Kong-based channel's operation, which began broadcasting last August. They say the operation targets the foundations of the Iranian family and is culturally corrupting for an Islamic society.

"There is no doubt that Farsi 1 is a tool of the extensive cultural onslaught [of the West] against Iran," Maryam Ardabili, the women's affairs adviser to the governor of Fars province, said at a one-day seminar aimed at assessing the effect of Farsi 1 on Iranian society. The seminar was held in the southern city of Shiraz last week. The entertainment programmes that the channel broadcasts promote infidelity between spouses and free sexual relations between unmarried young people and imply that abortion is a right, she warned the participants.

Broadcasting in Iran is a state-run monopoly and satellite television is banned, partly for political reasons and also in accordance with the moral codes the religious establishment cherishes. Still, as many as 40 per cent of all Iranians watch unauthorised satellite television, according to Ali Darabi, the deputy head of the state broadcasting organisation, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB).

The state combats satellite television channels by occasional crackdowns and jamming signals. Even for the foreign television shows and movies it does pick up, Iran censors extensively, sometimes doctoring the content of foreign films to guard the morality of society. Thus, "wine" always becomes "fruit juice" and lovers morph into friends or even siblings in translation. Farsi 1 is unique among all entertainment channels aimed at the Iranian public for being the only channel to broadcast fully dubbed dramas, soaps and comedies rather than subtitled programmes.

"I don't know enough English to be able to comprehend foreign films. All we got before Farsi 1 was in English with Farsi or Arabic subtitles. I get plenty of my favourites on Farsi 1 now," said Nader Arman, 42, an engineer whose favourite show is Dharma and Greg. The channel's immense popularity has even been admitted by some officials. "Research in one of the schools in Shiraz indicates that nearly all students and even teachers watch the programmes of Farsi 1," Ms Ardabili told ISNA on the sidelines of the seminar.

Ezzatollah Zarghami, the head of IRIB, implicitly admitted that the entertainment channel was popular recently when he said a high percentage of viewers of Farsi 1 acknowledge the corruptive nature of the channel's programmes. "Why people watch this channel is another matter," he was quoted by the press as saying. Mr Zarghami's organisation has been criticised for failing to produce and broadcast programmes that can win away the competition. IRIB has yet to respond to such critiques.

"The main reason for television viewers' penchant for satellite channels ? lies in the falling quality of the domestic television programmes," Esmail Afifeh, a television drama producer, was quoted by Khabaronline, a conservative news portal, as saying. Some critics, including the film director Azizollah Hamidnejad, who was also quoted by Khabaronline, blame the decline in the quality of domestically produced dramas on harsh censorship. "Due to limitations imposed on producers we are always left with productions that are hackneyed in form and content and fail to satisfy searching souls," he said.

The view is shared by Jila Fayz, 52, a housewife who says she never misses any episodes of her favourite shows on Farsi 1, including the South Korean-made Mermaid Story, has given up watching the national channels. "The shows on the national TV are always so boring and old and have nothing new to say. Farsi 1 brings a lot of new things and issues to viewers' attention." Many viewers say they do not endorse the kind of morality present in foreign films, but believe that the dramatic portrayal of taboo subjects such as extramarital relationships cannot do as much harm as authorities think they do.

"It's true that dramatic portrayals of affairs or love between a middle-aged woman and a younger man, as in Victoria, do not set a good example for families, but pretending that such things never happen does little to prevent people from that kind of behaviour," said Ladan Nikmanesh, a secretary. The popular telenovela Victoria, a Spanish-language production starring Victoria Ruffo, is about a 50-year-old woman whose marriage is wrecked by her husband's infidelity and who falls in love with a dashing young man 17 years her junior.

Beside daily soaps including Victoria and The Bold and the Beautiful, a US-made show, Farsi 1 also broadcasts international dramas such as TheX-Files and Prison Break and such comedies as Dharma and Greg and How I Met Your Mother.