If you talk to any Saudi man of a certain age, you might be surprised at his enthusiastic nostalgia for Steve Austin, The Six Million Dollar Man. Yes, despite the fact that there were only 2 television channels for a long time (KSA1 and KSA2), there were evidently opportunities to catch some popular US television series. Whereas I like to reminisce about Arnold and Willis from Diff’rent Strokes and the Huxtables from the Cosby Show, camelman gets very enthused about Steve Austin and the Incredible Hulk. I gather it was a rare treat for him to see these programs; the content on KSA1 or KSA2 was otherwise devoted to religious programming and the daily comings and goings of the royal family.
You can get a taste for what that would have been like if you tune into KSA1 or KSA2 these days. My favorite program on KSA2 is the daily news broadcast (in English). Check out this clip of it (particularly the first 8 minutes or so) and you’ll see what I mean:
This is state-controlled media at its best.
It’s no wonder, then, that when satellite dishes were introduced to the kingdom about 20 years ago, they sprouted like weeds on rooftops across the country. Almost overnight, television went from just 2 channels (that were state-controlled) to upwards of a 1000 channels from across the world. Saudis now had an opening to the wider world and, boy, were they watching! It is estimated that upwards of 90% of Saudi households own a satellite dish, even though satellite dishes are technically illegal in Saudi Arabia. Everything was available: US television shows, CNN, BBC, networks from Africa, Asia, Europe, and yes, even porn. And perhaps most importantly – Al Jazeera and other Middle East based media networks. The ratings for KSA1 and KSA2 must have plummeted. Now if you turn on the television in Saudi, you can keep up with Oprah’s favorite things (even her last show was broadcast the same day it was in North America), watch the Late Show with David Letterman (at 8 o’clock in the morning), and get up-to-date with all the latest celebrity gossip on Entertainment Tonight.
Still, if I want to know who greeted the King when he arrived at the airport, or who the Minister of Defense spoke to on the telephone this afternoon, nothing beats the intrepid reporting of KSA2 for me.