Studies of Western culture claim routine, everyday content—even weather reports and sports coverage—can shape national identity and worldviews as much or more than conflict coverage (Billig, 1995). Psychologists, meanwhile, have found that entertainment content viewed on television, including fictional content, is an important form of persuasion. According to this argument, entertainment influences normative attitudes as well as values and beliefs (Shrum, 2012). Scholars grapple with comparable questions of Arab popular culture. As Naomi Sakr cautioned, a lack of empirical audience research in Arab countries leaves observers vulnerable to false assumptions and hopeful clichés about the influence of mass media (2007). Understanding the diverse region through mass media entails assessing a wide spectrum of what is popular to whom, how and why it is produced, distributed and consumed, and what it means: taped sermons and hip-hop, comedies and video clips, Ramadan dramas, video games, soccer matches and racing, Million's Poet and Arab Idol.    

Surveying Entertainment Media Use and Motivations

Scholars have advanced key theories to distinguish what drives recreational media use from what drives news consumption. Some studies express this dichotomy as ritualistic (entertainment) versus instrumental or goal-oriented (news); another way to conceptualize this difference is media consumption for an intrinsic reward (entertainment) versus an extrinsic reward (news) (Kwon et al., 2014). The paradigm these theories share is that they are audience-focused. This revives the tradition of uses and gratifications theory of media effects, a subfield with new applications in the study of hypermedia (Sundar & Limperos, 2013; Ruggiero, 2000).

A significant portion of the research on entertainment media use worldwide has been youth-oriented. In analyzing comparative media consumption, this is a useful demographic for the study of Arab media trends, as an estimated 55 percent of the MENA region's population is under the age of 25 (US Census Bureau). Moreover, youth tend to be early adopters of technology in general, and the presence of teenagers in households is a variable which, combined with mobile internet access, tends to narrow the so-called digital divide across income levels (Madden et al., 2013). At the same time, media studies of Western youth and those of Arab youth have sometimes had different premises. 

The research questions of Western media researchers have often focused on negative media effects. As such, entertainment media studies have sought to assess the impact of violent or sexual media on children, or of the number of hours spent consuming electronic media on sociability. Such studies have investigated, for example, the correlation between students' media consumption and academic performance (Common Sense Media, 2012), and the association between TV advertising and childhood obesity (Zimmerman & Bell, 2010).

Likewise, surveys of adult TV and online media usage have investigated negative effects such as diagnoses of Type-II diabetes and cardiovascular disease (Grantved & Hu, 2011), and the extent to which computer use replaces other activities, whether work, physical exercise, face-to-face socializing or sleep. Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey (ATUS) for 2003-2011 suggested that every minute Americans spent in online leisure activity corresponded with an average decrease of .29 minutes spent on other leisure activities. The “crowdout” effect decreased with age, but online leisure time generally climbed year by year across age groups (Wallsten, 2013).

Entertainment Media Use in Arab and Muslim Countries

A sizeable amount of research on how media use in the Muslim world compares to other locales has come out of Turkey. A study of sedentary behavior among Turkish youth found that overall screen time rates were lower than that for adolescents in Europe and the United States. The authors attributed this finding to fewer computers per capita in Turkish households, and longer hours Turkish students spend in high school studying for university entrance exams. In considering other factors, the study also concluded playing sports was not a significant factor in hours spent on media use, but that males and students attending private school were the groups that spent the most time using computers and playing video games. Public school students, conversely, spent more time watching TV (Ayda Karaca, Caglar, Bilgili & Ayaz, 2011). Researchers examining Turkish university students’ new media usage have developed new ways to gather data. One study conducted a content analysis of the most-followed campus Twitter pages, comparing not only postings by subject matter but also the tools used and the responses to the tweets, concluding that Twitter was a highly effective means for universities in Turkey to create community (Yolcu, 2013).

An earlier study of Turkish university students examined how entertainment and social media use affected interpersonal relationships and socializing with family. The study, which also attempted to explore effects of globalization by media technology, used a questionnaire completed by students, ethnographic field observations at three internet cafés near a large university, and in-depth interviews with a small sample of students. The study concluded internet café usage correlated with an orientation toward Western culture. Entertainment media usage was associated with less face time with family and friends, even as online communication increased the quality of social networking with friends (Koc & Ferneding, 2007).

Time spent online, however, does not necessarily indicate bowling alone. One survey exploring use of commercial websites in Egypt found the primary motive for visiting commercial websites was not online shopping, but entertainment, information-seeking and social connections (Mahmoud, Klimsa & Auter, 2010).

Like Turkey, Indonesia presents media researchers with a changing social dynamic in a Muslim country. Indonesia was considered a sweet spot for web-based businesses and a saturated media environment for youth in cities such as Jakarta. The research concluded that social norms were not what drove adoption of social media, but rather that usefulness and ease-of-use were major factors (Simodra & Mariani, 2013). Another recent study of Indonesian youth analyzed variables of gender and social status in examining how much time and money were spent on which types of mass media, including gaming and social media, and for which gratifications. Television was the top platform, but one of the conclusions was that mobile phone use may soon displace traditional TV (Hendriani et al., 2012).

Global surveys of entertainment media use have found commonalities as well as significant geographic differences. A worldwide entertainment media study of China, the United States, India, Korea, Turkey, Brazil, the United Kingdom and Germany found respondents just as likely to share information about entertainment online as they were to share details about themselves or friends. However, the most popular form of content varied. For the United States and the United Kingdom, it was TV; in Turkey and India, music; in China and Brazil, online videos; in Germany, movies (Edelman, 2013). Clearly, these variances between nationalities (and within nationalities) must be kept in mind when surveying and interpreting the MENA entertainment media picture.

A significant share of existing quantitative study of Arab entertainment media use has been market-based and proprietary. By definition, the goal is to predict how best to cultivate consumer markets seen as greenfields of demand. This goal applies not only  to wealthy countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar with their young, educated webizens, but also to countries such as Egypt with comparatively low internet penetration and vast potential for growth. This polarity makes regional generalizations about entertainment use inherently problematic. A 2013 study conducted by Northwestern University in Qatar found internet penetration in the UAE was around 91 percent compared to 22 percent in Egypt (Dennis, Martin & Wood). 

Since the Arab uprisings, several large-scale surveys included entertainment media use in cross-national snapshots of media use. An attempt by Google to measure media use in nine Arab countries reflected the digital migration of technology reported elsewhere. Eighty percent of respondents said they would rather give up TV than the internet if forced to choose. A majority said they rarely or never paid to download entertainment content, and 85 percent spent less than an hour per day with print media, a figure lower than most global benchmarks. More than a third of respondents said technology had weakened family cohesion (Booz Allen Hamilton and Google, 2012).

Studies of social media in the region have suggested that while the rate of growth has slowed, as of the first half of 2013 it was still perhaps the highest growth rate in the world. Facebook adoption in the MENA region outpaced all other locales (Mourtada, Salem & Alshaer, 2013).  Between June 2012 and May 2013, Facebook users across the Arab region increased from 45 million to 54.5 million. Egypt more than doubled its Facebook users and Saudi Arabia and the UAE grew by 50 percent, according to the 5th Arab Social Media Report by the Dubai School of Government. At the same time, the Arab region held the number two spot worldwide in YouTube video views, with 285 million videos viewed daily and more than two hours of video uploaded per minute. Saudi Arabia led the region in playbacks, followed by Egypt and the UAE. Half of video views in Egypt were from mobile devices; in the UAE the figure was 40 percent (Mourtada, Salem & Alshaer, 2013).

A Twitter use study, which included the then-22 countries in the Arab League plus Iran, Israel and Turkey, examined a sample of 733,000 Twitter users and 2.47 million tweets to estimate total use and to identify countries of origin by using geo-location services for a random subsample. This snapshot suggested that in the Arab world there were 3.7 million Twitter users by 2013 (logging in at least once a month) and that half were in Saudi Arabia (Mourtada, Salem & Alshaer).

One reason it has been difficult for researchers to situate trends in new media is a relative paucity of data on traditional media behavior. Film is a case in point. Despite substantial attention devoted to a cinematic revival in many Arab countries, there is comparatively little publicly available data on movie-viewing, especially in cinemas. A lack of cinema-going data is one of the gaps in the research literature this study explicitly addresses. The prevalence of cinemas is one of only a few available metrics. As of 2010, there were an estimated 400 movie theaters in the MENA region (Chudy, 2010), compared to 5,000 in Europe and 6,500 in North America (IHS Screen Digest). In the MENA region, there were 11 Imax theaters as of 2012, compared to 660 worldwide (Flanagan, 2012). As MENA Cinema reported, alternative viewing practices have emerged because theater attendance is often not the most desirable way to see movies. Theaters in some Arab countries are dilapidated, multiplex construction was in the hands of a few companies, and 3-D projection facilities were not a priority. There is a need to map film-viewing patterns via free and on-demand TV, DVDs, cinema festivals such as those held in Doha and Dubai, and internet streaming and downloads (MENA Cinema, 2013), which this study does.

Likewise, sports media consumption patterns in the region have received scant attention, in spite of ambitious construction programs in the UAE and Qatar in preparation for the 2022 World Cup. Most public research on sport in the region has been theoretical, concerning the prestige and soft diplomacy aspects of spending on athletics infrastructure. There has been some effort to interpret marketing data to predict how income, education and foreign nationals factor into patterns of Arab sport media consumption but this has been narrow and limited in scope (O'Connor, 2011). Among many other things, the current study assesses overall sport viewing, willingness to pay to stream/download live sporting events, popularity of sports video games, and how frequently respondents play sports themselves.

In many ways, the literature suggests that greater empirical research on entertainment media use in the Arab world would fill an important knowledge gap. Scholars argue compellingly that the study of entertainment media’s role in cultural production, rather than serving as an addendum to the study of the news media, may lend greater insight into how consumers live in environments undergoing rapid change.

Frameworks for Analysis of Arab Entertainment Media

The complexity of entertainment markets in the Arab world, a term that connotes a monolithic regional culture, is illustrated in the challenge of dubbing TV for regional distribution. The success of a show, as producers know, can depend on the right choice of dialect: classical Arabic for historical dramas and children's programming, Syrian vernacular for soaps, Egyptian dialect for comedies (Spindle, 2011). When the common language that ostensibly binds the region together is thus complicated, one question is what transnational audiences have in common in the region. With the rise of transnational satellite TV, scholars including Shibley Telhami and Marc Lynch have seen a New Arabism that is more market-driven and consumer-oriented than Nasser's state-initiated Arabism of the 1960s (Boyd, 1999).

Although Arab entertainment media studies, including studies of youth, have examined potential harmful and beneficial effects of content, the broader corpus of research has analyzed the interplay of culture, commerce, religion, politics and the implications of consumer choices therein. In other words, particularly in the context of autocracies, revolutions and counter-revolutions, media studies are not just about audience and content, but discourse and political economy as well. Demonstrating how these forces were inseparable in the struggle over government control and censorship in places such as Saudi Arabia, Sakr and Marwan Kraidy have examined organizational relationships between ownership and media regulations to provide a more complete picture of how and why cinema and satellite TV began to change the Arab media landscape (Sakr, 2007; Kraidy, 2010).

Dynamics of Consumer Demand

A conspicuous case of audience choice in Arab countries has been the proliferation of free satellite TV. Anthropological research in Tunisia suggests these broadcasts have created a de facto cultural community or “satellite umma” in which viewers can elude some censors and vicariously experience freedom from government propaganda and social control (Chouikha, 2007). Researchers have explored the phenomenon of some 70 Turkish TV shows broadcast in 40 countries, half of those in the Arab League, epitomized by the soap opera Nour. The show, which premiered on MBC in 2008, brought an estimated 85 million new viewers over age 15 to the network, half of them women.

A 2013 Pew study comparing attitudes toward Western and Bollywood entertainment sought to tap perceptions of imported entertainment and perceptions of imported media’s effects. The study also correlated attitudes toward media with levels of religious devotion. The survey asked respondents if they liked Western or Bollywood entertainment, and also asked whether such content “harms morality” in their country. In the Middle East and North Africa, less than half of those surveyed had a favorable opinion of Western entertainment (except for 52 percent in Morocco), and the majority said it was harmful. Dissonance was visible, as a significant majority of those who liked Western entertainment also believed it to be harmful. Entertainment from India, in contrast, earned higher approval in general and was deemed less harmful (Pew, 2013).

Transnational programming allows Arab audiences to experience different lifestyles and worldviews, but there are varying levels of cultural distance. Syrian content, for example, may historically have been secular, but is still Arab and, perhaps, less threatening (Chouikha, 2007). Turkish drama may be non-Arab and Westernized, but it is still Muslim (Yanarda & Karam, 2013). And Bollywood is perceived by many to be in closer cultural proximity to the Arab world than Hollywood (Pew, 2013).

Scholars have wrestled with the implications for national and cross-national identity in the Arab world. In The World Through Arab Eyes, Shibley Telhami focused on the conditions that affect Arabs identifying themselves first as Arab—Muslim, Christian or otherwise­—or as a citizen of, say, Morocco, Egypt or Lebanon. He argued that “as Arabs have had more access to media from outside their borders, their identification with their own states has declined” (2013, p. 25).

In the context of some MENA countries, particularly where there has been rigid censorship, the supposed clash between globalization and indigeneity appears to be a false dichotomy. Hip-hop artists and mass youth movements such as mahraganat (festival) music in Egypt, where half of the population of 85 million is under age 25, are in marked contrast to slick Egyptian video clips filmed on luxurious sets, increasingly out of touch with the reality of ordinary people’s lives (Hubbard, 2013). Scholars argue that in this context, indigeneity stems from circumventing censorship. In a study of Islamic counter-publics created by sermons on cassette, Hirshkind (2006) argued sermon listening constituted passive resistance to state attempts to silence religious figures, using technology available to ordinary people outside the consumer culture.

When events unfold and spread as quickly as the Tunisian revolution did, scholarly analysis of the impact of grassroots cultural forces sometimes lags behind the popular and trade press. This is notable in regard to Arab cinema: Independent filmmaking in some countries has long been a largely underground enterprise (Vivarelli, 2012; Bharadwaj, 2012). Even though communication scholars have produced sophisticated critical and cultural analyses of New Wave Arab cinema and the often precarious situation for filmmakers (Khoury, 2005; Cieko, 2007; Seymour, 2008), research has not caught up with audience and viewership.

In contrast, journalistic coverage has more quickly reflected the changing media landscape for filmgoers in Arab countries and contemplated ongoing challenges. A  renewed interest in Arab cinema, despite difficulties and dangers of filming and screening due to censorship and conflict (Jaafar, 2006), was a trend some traced back to the 2006 Egyptian film The Yacoubian Building. Filmmakers have discussed barriers to movie attendance in Arab countries, including uneven access to movie theaters outside major cities, in addition to the challenge of expectations of viewers accustomed to major Bollywood and Hollywood productions (Bharadwaj, 2012).

Although recent offerings in Arab cinema demonstrated an ability to capture and express uprisings sweeping the region, distributors have spoken of the need to have non-repetitive content. Independent movies, sales agents have said, did not necessarily reflect the desires of moviegoers, who in Jordan were asked to pay USD $11 for admission, a high price in a middle-income state. Audiences wanted traditional drama, romance, comedy and human interest. They were less interested in movies about social issues and war that focused on, in the view of one producer, “selling Arab identity to the world” (Bharadwaj, 2012). One of the questions the current study asked respondents was whether they felt filmmaking should depict society’s problems.

Historical Tensions in Popular Culture

An area of dissonance between what many in the Arab world profess and what they do is seen during Ramadan, when up to 81 percent of TV viewers in the Middle East alter their consumption patterns (Arab Advisors Group, 2011). Television viewing increased 30 percent across the region in 2011 during Ramadan (IPSOS, 2011), and viewers associate the season with TV dramas know as mosalsalat, serials in the form of historical epics. The phenomenon dates from the 1960s, but gained salience in the 1990s with the rise of pan-Arab TV (Detrie, 2012). Media habits during Ramadan are also measured in the current study. “In the pre-satellite era,” write media scholars Marwan Kraidy and Joe Khalil, “state broadcasters served captive national audiences…Since the 1990s, taking advantage of new operational scales enabled by satellite technology, entertainment channels have expanded the reach of Arab television,” (2009, pp. 33)

While Ramadan is a time of devotion and abstinence, it is also a time associated with conspicuous consumption, both in feasting and viewing TV specials calculated to sweep ratings and advertising revenue. The dilemma may be familiar to many Western Christians who rue the commercialization of Christmas. In manifesting cultural tensions, Ramadan consumption serves an important counter-public function, in that it enables a “discourse of disapproval” (Ambrust, 2002). Hroub (2012), however, notes that the last few decades have experienced a surge in religious broadcasting for all Abrahamic faiths, and an uptick in the religious TV offerings during the month of Ramadan has been observed by a number of scholars.

Prior to the current crisis, Syrian epics had been an example of a popular genre that stimulated political discussion and eluded some attempts at censorship. In contrast, Egyptian content was subject to heavy government censorship by the Committee to Choose Ramadan Productions, formerly, the High Drama Committee. Partly in response to criticism from religious and state authorities, commercial producers sought non-controversial programming. Such censorship led to “safe” programming and public complaints of mediocrity, with audiences becoming impatient with bland, perfunctory dramas when satellite gave them many other choices (Lindsey, 2005).

The past is political, and this is a persistent theme in the formation of Arab identity and the role of Arab mass media. A study that incorporated interviews with video game users and producers looked partly at how games such as Special Force and Under Ash and Under Siege disseminate ideology, employ national meaning and either reinforce or challenge dominant ideas. These Hezbollah and Syrian-produced games used real-life scenarios like Hezbollah operations in southern Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, respectively, to give players a chance to reverse historical events in which Arabs were on the losing side (Tawil Souri, 2007).

Modern Arab war games such as Under Siege were widely misconstrued by Western media in stereotypical terms, even though they were similar in format and objective to war games popular in the West. Yet the game that stirred controversy in the Arab world itself was the ancient Arab history represented in Quraish, set in the First Century. Conservative clerics objected to the depiction of Islamic history, but audience response was positive. Designer Afkar claimed the game was downloaded more than a million times, at a time when the typical modem speed in the region was a sluggish 28.8 kb per second. Interviews with gamers, parents, designers and merchants suggested the game fulfilled a competitive need for Arab youth, and provided a role-reversal that turned historical defeats into virtual victories (Halter, 2006). The current study considers video gaming an integral part of the modern media environment, and gaming behaviors are included in the survey.

In a related example of graphical entertainment media, the hit Arab comic book series The 99 illustrated not only the importance of historical themes but also mass media's role in advancing a counter-narrative. Drawing historically on the golden age of Arab civilization and the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, The 99 was being prepared for global distribution in animated form. The series, by Kuwait’s Teshkeel Media Group, inspired merchandise and toys, an animated TV series and video games, as well as the construction of theme parks. In 2009, there were attempts to ban the comics, based on the objection that superheroes were blasphemy: The heroes call upon each other’s superpowers for help rather than praying for assistance from the almighty. But one study of the plot line driving the series argued the content was consistent with Arab and Islamic values, as the overriding goal of characters was recovery of the wisdom of ancient Arab civilization (Deeb, 2012).

Dynamics of Choice in Media Consumption

Studies have suggested the MENA entertainment picture is market-driven and consumer-driven. New markets and technologies create consumer demand; consumer demand brings competition for content. Sports viewing is an example. In considering the UAE's  infrastructure spending toward the goal of becoming a world sport capital, competition between satellite TV giants for broadcast rights created a renewed appetite for spectator sports in the Arab world (Madichie, 2009).

Audience-driven programming is also apparent in the success of Dubai-based satellite network MBC, which overcame transnational challenges to attract a large and diverse audience. Producers, adapting the successful formats of programs such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and American Idol to appeal to Arab audiences, developed a simple strategy: They ensured a cultural mix by auditioning contestants in more than a dozen countries across the region. Driven by commercial interests, the network overcame language barriers and sought to avoid cultural and religious taboos that would have offended viewers (Chetwynd, 2012).

In this atmosphere, cultural moments and political events sometimes overlap. A playful reference to a contestant on Star Academy became a subversive message for a placard in a civil uprising (Kraidy, 2010). The Kuwaiti Ministry of Information moved to ban Scope TV's Sootik Wisal after the show parodied council ministers. The decision met with ridicule from Shamael Al-Sharikh of the Kuwait Times (2009). Under the headline, “Get Out of the Kitchen,” the columnist solicited audience feedback. “Most of the viewers I have spoken with found the show to be funny, not offensive,” Al-Sharikh wrote, adding the head of Kuwait’s General Assembly himself was “impressed” with the actor who impersonated an official. In Egypt, in the idiom of an economic downturn, the revolutionary chant “The people want the fall of the regime'” became “The people want five pounds cell phone credit” in the hip-hop lyrics of Egypt's Okka and Ortega, who had started out recording in Internet cafés. This came to approximately 70 cents. The implication appeared clear. In the currency of the day, bare necessity consisted not of bread alone. It was self-expression and freedom from control, measured by an ability to connect with others.

Attitudes Toward Censorship

Attitudes toward freedom of speech are never absolute. If one surveys Americans on the value of the First Amendment, many respondents will say they support the 40-odd words without question. Ask U.S. parents whether Howard Stern should be broadcast on public airwaves during after-school hours, however, and they may begin to qualify the Constitution’s clauses. So, too, do respondents in the Arab world differ in their attitudes toward censorship and free speech, depending on what they are asked. Pew (2014) asked respondents in four Arab countries (and 18 others) whether “it is important that people have access to the internet without government censorship.” Almost all respondents in Lebanon and Egypt agreed (86 percent and 83 percent, respectively). A majority of survey participants in Jordan and Tunisia also agreed (69 percent and 56 percent). In a four-item index of “support for democracy,” which included the prompt, “Freedom of the press without government censorship is very important,” Tessler (2002) found that 60 percent of Palestinians were supportive of basic democratic ideals.

Dennis et al. found, among a sample of more than 10,000 respondents across eight Arab countries, that 61 percent agreed with the statement that “It is OK for people to express their ideas on the internet, even if they are unpopular.” Agreement dropped to 46 percent when respondents were asked whether “People should be free to criticize governments on the internet,” and 50 percent felt “the Internet in [their] country should be more tightly regulated than it is now.” A study reported in 2008 asked 601 Arab journalists what the primary role of journalists was, and the number one response was to enact “political reform,” (Pintak & Ginges). Answers are in the asking. Only 40 percent of respondents in the same survey said investigating the government was a primary purpose of journalism. The current study gauges respondents’ attitudes toward censorship of entertainment in a number of specific ways, including asking whether they desire greater regulation of violent and romantic content, wish the government would do more to protect their children from dubious content, believe it is acceptable to delete entertainment scenes some people may find offensive, and feel whole films should be banned if some members of the public object to the content.