The Benefits and Promise of Media Use Research on Entertainment

While most research on media behaviors in the Middle East lives in the context of earlier work, as our literature search indicates, we believe this study of entertainment media advances the conversation beyond work previously done in its focus, scope, size and timeliness. It also takes on a specific media-centric approach, rather than simply considering formal communication as a minor aspect of culture and cultural production. This study was specifically designed to understand Arab media audiences and their choices, a central concern for both a school of journalism and communication such as NU-Q and a cultural institution like DFI. The two sponsoring institutions aim to generate intelligence that serves their primary constituents—students, scholars, policymakers, industry professionals and ultimately media audiences themselves. Thus the focus of the study is clear and relates closely to NU-Q’s 2013 study, Media Use in the Middle East.

The scope of the study is distinctive: six Arab countries spanning the region (Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE). Much qualitative research in the Arab world, while valuable, is either broadly conceived to reflect all Islamic or Arab media, or narrowly focused on a single country or part of the region. The size of the sample here—more than 6,000 face-to-face interviews—is notable in an era when researchers necessarily take shortcuts with smaller sample sizes for personal interviews or conduct less rigorous investigations via online surveys. A study like this is costly in terms of time and resources, but worth the effort by dint of the rigor of the research and the disciplined results. This study also offers topicality—it is current in the content of its questions in the years after the Arab uprisings, but also broad enough to inform recent survey research from commercial sources.

This research is timely, and is presented in the tradition of what media scholars Kurt and Gladys Lang in some of their own seminal work called “firehouse research.” This is not a denigrating term, but one that recognizes that some research needs to be reported and made available promptly to have maximum value. Only a few institutions are capable of timely research and most are in the commercial sector. The interviews that yielded the survey data in this report were carried out in early 2014 during a prescribed time period, and are being reported by mid-April, not just at a scholarly meeting, but in published digital and print form. Following the April 2014 public release, the research will in coming months be presented at scholarly meetings, and many of the findings and data will be used by scholars in various published studies and in the secondary analysis of data. We believe this timely work in a fast-changing part of the world renders a public service and is offered for assessment and critique.

Thus, the purpose of this research is to be useful to both academics and professionals, which we believe have symbiotic though sometimes different applications. To people working in media industries, this study is a map of an audience that may prove helpful in calibrating content creation, moving beyond intuition to more empirical knowledge. For policymakers, a study of this kind addresses issues of freedom and control of communication and offers something of a plebiscite on the expectations people have for government, or commercial guidance, for example in the regulation of violent or explicit media as they affect children. For other interested users, the material here builds on the theoretical formulations of uses and gratifications research making a practical connection in the contemporary Middle East.

Inasmuch as other large-scale studies are often proprietary, this is an offering to the several publics addressed here. We also offer an in-depth online interactive that helps viewers and readers get inside the data and make their own comparisons and assessments.

In this context, we are ourselves gratified by the finding that the interface between tradition and modernity need not always be conflictual, nor is it a zero-sum game. As our 2013 study indicated, residents of Arab countries are less supportive of government regulation of the internet (50 percent) than they are of regulation of violent and romantic content (74 percent and 69 percent respectively) measured in this 2014 study. In Arab societies, available content often comes from non-Arab sources, and audiences express the desire for more Arab-produced content.

This study suggests that news and entertainment are not always separable. Across the globe there is a convergence and blending of information and entertainment, even spawning the genre of infotainment. Respondents often list news as one of their favorite entertainment genres, for example, as did 51 percent in Lebanon, 44 percent in Qatar and 40 percent in Tunisia.

A study like this one, while comprehensive and highly detailed, nonetheless suggests other avenues of research, notably inquiry into children’s media habits. Given the large number and percentage of young people under 18 in Arab countries and their fondness for modern media, this is an important demographic for the study of entertainment audiences.

The findings and analysis in this study will inform the classrooms at NU-Q and other universities in the region and globally, particularly as anyone with an internet connection can access the data via our online interactive. If past experience holds, the study will also find its way into the executive offices and management of media firms. Research like this captures a moment in time. Some of it may have lasting value, while other aspects may be quite ephemeral. We attempted to ask both evergreen and topical survey questions, thus maximizing the chances for a long and useful shelf life, to be augmented by additional research—ours and that of others.