One evening several months ago an American on a business trip to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia stirred his after-dinner coffee and watched the flickering image on his host's television screen come into focus.
"This may surprise you," his host said.
The visitor felt right at home as he saw Perry Mason walk across a courtroom to the witness stand. For a few seconds he had the odd sensation that he was in his own living room in New Jersey rather than sitting a few miles from the Persian Gulf watching an Aramco Television broadcast.
Then came the surprise. On the screen, Mason assumed the sober frown that millions recognize as the silent signal that justice is about to triumph. He slowly canted his head toward the nervous witness and solemnly asked:
"Alasta anta allathi atlaqa an-nar?"
The unsuspecting American visitor had been trapped in a transcultural version of the old badger game in which the greenhorn is the butt of a friendly joke. He almost dropped his coffee as the dubbed-in voice continued with a stream of Arabic that seemed to drop nonchalantly from Perry Mason's lips.
"You're kidding," the visitor said in disbelief.
"Guess you didn't know that Perry could rattle off perfect Arabic," his host replied. "Quite a jolt, isn't it?"
The visitor was actually a victim of a mental short circuit. He had, of course, seen many French, German and Italian movies with dubbed-in English dialogue. But his mind could not quite accept the switch: an American film with foreign dialogue added.
The vast majority of the Saudi Arab audience for whom the show really was intended was, however, having no such problem. It is likely that nearly every one of the 100,000 or so viewers within range of Aramco Television's signal was thinking of nothing more than the ancient drama of good triumphing over evil which unfolded before his eyes. To those Saudi Arabs it was the most natural thing in the world for Perry Mason to be speaking good Arabic.
About an hour before Perry Mason went on the air Aramco TV had begun its program of daily broadcast, scheduled according to local suntime, with readings from the Koran, the Sacred Scripture of Islam. The marked contrast between the two presentations reveals much about Aramco Television, the Arabic-language station operated by the Arabian American Oil Company primarily for its nearly 11,000 Saudi Arab employees and their families.
The station is an unusual—perhaps unique—effort by an American industrial company to operate an educational-recreational television station in a foreign country with the language, cultural and entertainment preferences of that country as a basis for programming. Aramco Television-Channel 2, with the call letters HZ 22 TV assigned by the Saudi Arabian Government—has a staff of 65. The producer, chief engineer, operations supervisor, two maintenance and training technicians and a secretary are American. Another five are from the Levant. The remaining 54 staff members—assistant producer, script writers, camera operators and technicians—are Saudi Arabs.
Readings from the Koran, in deeply moving Arabic cantillation, open each day's telecasting following Sunset Prayer. This chanted recitation has, of course, a strong religious appeal for the Muslim audience. But what about Perry Mason? What philosophy of programming brings this defender of justice to the desert?
Part of the answer, which we shall look at more closely in a few paragraphs, lies in the basic problem Aramco faced in trying to pioneer a daily schedule from scratch without anyone close at hand who had prior television experience. A more immediate answer is provided by Jimmee V. Fullerton, the station's producer.
"Perry Mason was chosen," he says, "mainly because of the human drama involved which, we feel, appeals to people regardless of their nationality. Also, you must remember that Arab culture has a strong tradition of justice."
In other words, try to find in the culture of the country elements that are dramatized on those television shows that are available on film. Conversely, avoid all program material that might offend custom or religious tradition. Then, within these limits, be as certain as possible that the show will capture the sympathy and imagination of the viewers through the "human drama" contained in its story line.
During the more than five years that it has been on the air Aramco Television has learned to walk this tightrope with increasing sureness and success. Its weekly schedule of broadcasts lists a variety of programs that reflects the station's dual mission: education and recreation.
Each week there are five feature-length Arabic films and four English-language films with Arabic sound dubbed in. The original English-language sound tracks accompanying the latter-type films are broadcast via radio for the understanding of non-Arabic speaking members of the viewing audience, who constitute something less than four per cent of the total.
During a typical week the station broadcasts seven features originally conceived for U.S. television audiences. These include such familiar favorites as "Disneyland," "Sea Hunt," "Checkmate," "Rawhide" and the long-running "Ozzie and Harriet Show."
The aforementioned "Perry Mason Show" runs about fifty minutes without commercials. Watching commercial-less television on Aramco TV is a strange experience to those accustomed to the other kind. The artificial structure of dramatic shows, with a climax leading into every advertising announcement, shows up plainly when the usual "message from our sponsor" is left out.
Aramco Television gives extended coverage to major local news events such as the visit last March to the Eastern Province of H.R.H. Amir Faysal, Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia. The station's film and sound crews recorded most of the Crown Prince's public and ceremonial appearances during his week-Ions visit in the area.
For the athletically-oriented members of the viewing audience, the station offers a variety of major international sports events, as well as the filmed "Telesport Digest," and complete basketball, bowling, golf and wrestling programs. Soccer, which in Saudi Arabia occupies much the same place as baseball does in the United States, gets thorough coverage during its season. Complete matches between various company teams and those from other parts of the Kingdom and the world are filmed for later showing.
That universal hero, the cowboy, has found a home in the desert with an assist from TV. Saudi Arabs, like Londoners, Parisians and Romans, have taken enthusiastically to American horse operas.
To counterbalance the admittedly pure entertainment value of the sports, adventure and western shows it offers, Aramco Television devotes nearly a third of its air time to education. Classes in Arabic and English are presented, and through their appearances hundreds of viewers have written the station for television text books.
Other educational shows include "Channel 2 Bookshelf" (a survey of Arabic literature); "Your Home" (practical instruction for the housewife); "Auto School" (a review of safe driving practices); "Your Health" (family hygiene); "Agricultural Show" (new farming methods); and "Science Classroom," and the American network television series, "Modern Biology."
The station broadcasts many shows which combine education and recreation. One example is a weekly series with the familiar question-and-answer format, the popular "Three District Quiz." This long-time feature takes the first part of its title from the fact that the employee-contestants come from Abqaiq, Dhahran and Ras Tanura, the three principal centers of company operations in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
All the contestants competing for modest prizes on "Schoolbook Answers" are youngsters attending nearby Government schools, and the questions they are asked come directly from textbooks actually used in the classrooms. (Here is a good example of television providing a spur to do one's homework.) The interview program, "A Cup of Coffee," brings before the Aramco cameras local Saudi Arab personalities with a noteworthy occupation, hobby or point of view.
Each week the station features the "Arab World Men of Letters" program. This show has brought to Aramco Television's studio in Dhahran such distinguished authorities as 'Abd al-Quddos al-Ansari, the Saudi Arab historian; Isma'il Mudhar, Egyptian specialist in scientific and literary subjects; Anis Makdisi, a Lebanese professor of Arabic literature; and Mahmud Taimur, a well-known novelist and short-story writer from the U.A.R.
The variety and balance of the current 32-hours-per-week schedule is a long step forward from the station's pioneering days of just six years ago. Aramco Television went on the air for the first time on September 17, 1957. The inaugural broadcast, which was also the first Arabic-language television broadcast to originate in Saudi Arabia, was a reading from the Koran.
The reading was followed by a talk by Fahmi Basrawi of Aramco Public Relations, who explained to the small audience, estimated to be 1,000 or fewer, the purpose of Aramco Television. The first evening's schedule was rounded out with the showing of the motion picture Jazirat al-Arab (The Island of Allah'), an historical film produced by Aramco which recounts the life and mission of the late King 'Abd al-'Aziz Ibn Sa'ud in creating the modern Saudi Arabia.
On the second day the schedule consisted of two filmed television shorts: "Whirly Birds" and "I Search For Adventure." The evening after that introduced the now-veteran "Your Health" show, featuring a discussion of malaria control. Thus, in that first week of operation the station had established its basic education-recreation format and the utility of television as a communications medium in the area.
The initial week of operations also established the practice of utilizing program materials produced in the United States, which in those days was the only country with an available inventory of filmed shows that could be leased and rerun like motion pictures.
The Saudi Arab viewing audience was enthusiastic from the start. One of the strongest traditions of Arab life is the closeness of the large families—the old tribal core. It was quickly discovered that television could be enjoyed as a family affair by young and old alike. That small first audience formed a nucleus of staunch friends of Channel 2.
Since there was no trained talent available on the scene, Aramco Television had to recruit and train its own speakers and teachers as it went along. Trying to create live Arabic-language dramatic shows was then out of the question. Today, through its "New Faces" show, the station is endeavoring to discover and develop performers for future television plays.
Aramco Television was the second Arabic-language station to go on the air in the Middle East. The first was an outlet telecasting from Baghdad. More recently TV stations have been established in Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Kuwait, Abadan and Tehran. In Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Air Force once operated a small station at Dhahran Airport for the American personnel attached to its Military Training Mission there. The station, telecasting in English exclusively, predated Aramco TV by one year. It went off the air in 1961.
There were about 200 sets within range of Aramco Television's broadcasting signal when the company station first started. It is estimated there are now about 15,000 sets within receiving area of the station. Thus, as a side benefit, the station has created a brisk, sustained market for television receivers sold through local Saudi Arab merchants.
Most of the coffee shops in the Eastern Province cities of Dammam and al-Khobar recognize the value of television-watching on their premises as a traffic-builder and have installed receivers for their customers' enjoyment. It is doubtful that many of these local proprietors, however, have ever heard of Fred Allen's acidulous definition of television, which might very well be roughly paraphrased as "an animated decalcomania on a coffee house wall."
Like any medium so literally in the public eye, Aramco Television is often commented on, both favorably and adversely, by individual viewers and the local press. Each month the station receives more than 12,000 pieces of mail from viewers responding to televised contests and sending the station suggestions and rebukes. Positive criticism is always welcome as a useful guide to programming. The carefully maintained balance of daily fare is a true reflection of audience preferences. Though shows of an educational nature occupy almost one out of every three hours Aramco TV is on the air, the local press keeps asking in print that programs in this category be given even greater emphasis. The audience, however, prefers more entertainment shows.
Aramco Television's major operations problem—its limited radius of service—is being overcome with the installation of a new repeating transmitter which will nearly double its clear-picture area.
The growth of television over so much of the Middle East has brought with it a number of Arab producers equipped to develop and package their own shows on film. Sooner or later the Middle East equivalent of the western is bound to show up on the gravel plains and sand dunes of the desert. Arab desert lore is filled with the great deeds of Bedouin heroes, and the vast desert itself offers possibilities of breathtaking panoramic backgrounds for some great chase scenes.
The day of Middle East "westerns" may eventually come, but in the meantime, at the one-story, stone head quarters building of Aramco Television, there is plenty to do. Script-writing, film processing and editing, dubbing Arabic voices for English, planning and programming far into the future, each busy staff member is occupied with his own specialty all day long and often far into the evenings. Their collective effort is aimed, however, at one single-minded purpose: to provide recreation and education to an expanding Saudi Arab audience.
"Weren't you the one who actually fired the gun?"