Fine-tuning Arab television

Quality kids' programming can provide positive role models for Palestinian boys, but there isn't enough.

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(photo credit: )
The subject is approached seasonally, but it needs a much more strategic plan. Even though children and youth represent the majority of the population in Arab countries, children's television programming gets almost no consideration from governments, foundations and corporations. Original children's programming in the Arab world is abysmally meager. The programming that is available is largely dubbed - and often violent - cartoon strips. Not only are our children constantly bombarded by such programming, almost all of it is dubbed into classical Arabic, which enables it to be sold to all 23 Arab countries. Preschool children are thus left with almost no quality programs they can understand. For a Jordanian or Palestinian child to watch a program in classical Arabic is like asking an English-speaking child today to listen to a TV program using Shakespearean English. Last week Gary Knell, the president of Sesame Workshop in New York, made a high-profile tour of the region, visiting Cairo, Riyadh, Amman and Ramallah. Knell met with first ladies and senior officials to discuss how the longest-running American television show for children can be useful in this region. Already Sesame co-productions in the Arab world have enjoyed great success. Programs such as Iftah Ya Simsim, Al Manahel, Alam Simsim, Hikyat Simsim and Sharaa Simsim represent quality Sesame programs being co-produced with creative Arab producers and talent. THESE SHOWS feature extremely popular muppets who speak local Arabic dialects and are produced with educational goals customized to the needs of specific children. During his visit to Jordan, Knell met Queen Rania to talk about the new Children's Museum as well as to witness the launch of the second season of Hikyat Simsim, Jordan's own co-production produced by Jordan Pioneers, which will be airing on Jordan Television. In Palestine, Knell visited Ramallah and participated, on April 28, in the launch of the third Palestinian Sesame co-production of Sharaa Simsim. Deputy Palestinian prime minister Azzam Ahmad and the mayor of Ramallah, Janet Michael, were among the guests of honor at the launch. Knell and his delegation also met with the Palestinian ministers of culture and information, as well as with Saeb Erekat. This season's theme aims to provide positive role models for Palestinian boys. The theme was chosen after research showed a dangerous trend among Palestinian boys, who often feel helpless in dealing with the difficult situation of living under occupation. Children's programming is also high on the agenda of the Danish government. As part of their Arab initiative, the Danes, working through the International Media Support, have been training and working with Jordanian, Syrian and Lebanese producers in order to produce short documentaries for Arab youths. In Palestine, the German government supported the dubbing into colloquial Arabic of a popular German children's program. MOST NATIONAL television stations in the Arab world have no real children's department. If there is one, its job is simply to choose among the existing cartoon programs. In the pan-Arab television landscape a number of satellite channels have been created exclusively for children, but, with the exception of some original programs on Al Jazeera children's channel, the end result of these dedicated channels is not much better than the children's hour or two on terrestrial stations. The efforts of the Sesame workshop and the many international donors who support its work notwithstanding, a holistic approach is needed to deal with the needs of Arab children. Producing and broadcasting a 26-part Sesame series once every couple of years doesn't make a strategy. The children of the region require and deserve a lot more effort, time, production funds and attention. Much effort is needed to build up a pool of talent; but if we want to build a better future for the next generation, there is a critical need for a national political will to give much higher priority to their needs.