A satellite TV station broadcasting from Dubai is now so popular in Iran that it has the authorities seriously worried, even though its content is entertainment, not politics.
Farsi1 , which has been on the airwaves for just over one year, is now much part of the social fabric that the shows it airs are popular all across Iran, even in the remotest villages.
In the current month of Ramadan, families gathering will commonly have Farsi1 on in the background as they sit down for the evening meal that ends the daily fast.
In the shops and on public transport, people are discussing
the latest twists in the American action series 24. Second Chance, a Hispanic TV
serial made in Miami, is so popular that it has inspired a hairstyle for women
known as the "Isabel" after the heroine, while the main character - who has come
back from the dead to set the world to rights - is idolised for his looks and
upstanding moral behaviour.
The mix of romantic drama, crime and police serials, and comedies also offer Iranians a rare glimpse of what life is like in other countries.
The station is the brainchild of Moby Group, a media firm run by the Mohseni family, Australian nationals of Afghan origin whose media outlets in Afghanistan, including Tolo TV and Arman Radio, have been a runaway success in Afghanistan.
International media mogul Rupert Murdoch's investment in the enterprise has drawn hostility from Farsi1, who say he is a Zionist.
Ahmad Komeyl, international relations manager and senior advisor at Moby Group, has told the Iranian monthly "Modiriat-e Ertebatat" that the Farsi1 channel has 35 million viewers in the country - in other words half the entire population.
One possible indicator of the station's growing popularity is
a report from the frontier guards service showing a massive increase in
interceptions of smuggled satellite receivers in recent months. Satellite dishes
and receivers are banned in Iran and anyone found with one installed has to pay
Some Iranians believe that the government tolerates Farsi1 because its standard fare of entertainment does not present a political challenge, and may offer a useful distraction from the troubles facing the country.
But that does not seem to be the case, judging from the multiple sallies launched by various sections of the ruling establishment.
For some officials, Farsi1 is just another weapon in the armoury of Iran's foes in the West, who are engaged in what is often described as a "soft war" to undermine the country.
In mid-May, the strategic studies centre of the Expediency Discernment Council convened a meeting to look into the "covert aims" of Persian-language satellite TV coming from abroad, and Farsi1 in particular. The council plays an informal advisory role for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but is not supportive of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration.
Speakers at the meeting noted the "extraordinary welcome" these TV stations had received from viewers in Iran, and were highly critical of the state-run national station IRIB Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, for making programmes so unappealing to Iranian audiences that it drove them into the arms of Farsi1.
IRIB's head Ezatollah Zarghami later dismissed such accusations, saying the foreign satellite networks did not present much of a threat. But in an internal meeting with IRIB directors, Zarghami admitted that Farsi1 was serious competition for Iranian TV, the Fararu news website reported.
IRIB is a massive state institution which last year received some 480 million US dollars in government funding plus another 300 million dollars from commercial advertising. This dwarfs Farsi1's start-up budget of 2.5 million dollars.
Another event, this time hosted by the provincial government in Shiraz, had an even more specific focus on "studying the effects of Farsi1 TV".
During this meeting, Sheyda Nikuravin, a researcher with the Supreme Leader's office for pilgrimage affairs, argued that Farsi1 was promoting feminism in Iran.
News that Farsi1 plans to expand with more satellite networks broadcasting music as well as children's programmes has caused further consternation. The Tabnak website, linked to Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, described this as a deliberate plan to promote immorality and undermine the foundations of family life.
In much the same vein, Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, head of the clerical faction in the Iranian parliament, has accused Farsi1 of airing content that "seeks to destroy the chastity and morals of families and encourage young Iranians to have sex and drink alcohol".
In reality, Farsi1 moulds its programming to suit Iranian tastes. The racier bits of romantic dramas like Second Chance are cut out and the specifically Shia variant of the Muslim call to prayer has been broadcast at the end of each day's fasting period during Ramadan.
Whatever officials may think of Farsi1's content, the vast majority of viewers do not seem offended by it.
At the Expediency Discernment Council meeting in May, Mohsen Banihashemi, a communications expert at IRIB's university, said a survey had shown that 94 per cent of Farsi1's Iranian audience did not believe its programmes promoted immoral behaviour.
The focus on pure entertainment seems to have given FarsiTV the edge over other rivals - even the BBC's Persian TV service launched at the beginning of 2009. IRIB recently conducted a confidential survey which - at least according to the excerpts published on the Jahan News website - indicated that BBC Persian's audience had fallen by 30 per cent since Farsi1 was launched.
If the Iranian authorities do not like Farsi1, they have yet to devise a way of curbing its influence. Jamming satellite transmissions and confiscating receiver dishes are the most obvious solutions, but neither has proved very effective in the past.
IRIB has adopted a more constructive course - improving its own television output with a range of drama serials every night so that viewers stay tuned.
The broadcaster's international department is also negotiating with Syria's iFilm network about setting up a joint entertainment channel in Arabic. The decision to focus on Arab audiences abroad seems to stem from a failed attempt to stir up interest in Afghanistan for a Persian-language channel that would also be shared with Tajikistan.
The Gerdab website, linked to the IRGC, has characterised these plans as Iran's serve in a game of "media ping-pong" against the West, in the shape of Farsi1TV.
Sahar Namazikhah is an Iranian journalist based in Los Angeles. She was previously editor of several daily newspapers in Tehran.
... Payvand News - 09/07/10 ... --