Persian channel Manoto 1.
(photo credit:Reuters / Yeganeh Torbati)
Four Iranians gather for a cozy dinner party, cracking jokes in Persian over a traditional meal of saffron rice and stew.
It's a tableau that could be straight out of Tehran. But instead it's a scene from a reality television show shot in Europe and broadcast by satellite from studios in southwest London.
With light fare like "Befarmaeed Sham," ("Welcome to Dinner" in Persian), the Iranian answer to the UK cooking show "Come Dine With Me," family-owned channel Manoto 1 has struck a chord inside Iran, gaining what is likely to be millions of fans since launching in 2010. In the process, it has also irked Iran's Islamic government.
"Manoto is closer to us than other channels culturally, and their shows are more fun," said Mohamad, 25, of Esfahan, who answered questions over the Internet. "It's like we are watching ourselves on television. Even their presenters are people who seem similar to us."
Satellite dishes are illegal in Iran, and the government periodically cracks down on owners and scrambles content from Western channels. Still, the dishes are sold and installed widely on the black market.
About 40 percent of Iranians watch satellite programs broadcast from outside the country, according to a 2010 estimate from BBC Monitoring.
After less than two years on the air, Manoto ("Me and You") has outstripped its closest rivals, BBC Persian, Farsi 1, GEM TV and Voice of America (VOA), according to the number of "likes" each channel receives on its Facebook page - an imperfect proxy used by some experts to assess the channels in lieu of independent media survey firms in Iran.
As of mid-April, more than 620,000 people listed themselves as Manoto fans on Facebook - more than twice the number of its biggest competitor.
But in a country whose government tries to instill Islamic values by strictly regulating popular culture, even an entertainment channel like Manoto has angered authorities, who view it as part of a cultural "soft war" waged by the West. The Iranian government sometimes jams Manoto's signal, according to viewers.
"Manoto broadcasts programs that are completely against Islamic edicts, such as promoting the way the rich live," said researcher Mohammad Reza Khoshroo at a conference held in Iran this year, according to comments reported by Iran's Hawzah News Agency.
Kayvan and Marjan Abbassi, the UK-based Iranian couple who launched Manoto's parent company, Marjan TV, in 2009, stay out of the media spotlight. They and other Marjan TV officials declined to comment for this story despite repeated requests for interviews.
The Abbassis do not do interviews "in light of the sensitive nature of the current Iranian media environment," said Maryam Meddin, managing director of Clarus Design, the network's media agency. But she added: "Manoto 1 remains committed to providing entertainment programming to the Iranian people."
For an example of the "sensitivities" involved, one need look no further than "Befarmaeed Sham", where expatriate Iranians test their cooking skills and compete for a cash prize. Sounds innocent enough - except men and women also mix freely and drink alcohol. Female contestants do not cover their hair and tend to wear clothes that are more revealing than those allowed in the Islamic Republic, where women must wear headscarves and loose clothing in public.
"It's a window into a culture we could have if we were freely part of the global popular culture," said Mehdi Semati, an expert on Iranian media and culture at Northern Illinois University.
"Knowing there's a world outside where Iranians act like us, talk like us, and think like us, but live a life that is free of constraints - people compare themselves, and that's worrisome for the government."
At the conference, citing data from Manoto, Khoshroo said about half a million people inside Iran contacted the channel in its first week.
"This is a dangerous statistic," he said.
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