Murdoch's Iranian Invasion

The News Corp-backed network Farsi1 offers Fox favorites and Telenovelas, and has quickly become the most watched in Iran. Reza Aslan on why Ahmadinejad’s government is worried.

10.09.10 6:53 PM ET

Farsi1, a Persian language satellite station partly owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, has become the most popular entertainment network in Iran, with nearly half of the country’s population (some 35 million people) tuning in daily to keep up with dubbed episodes of Fox favorites like 24 and How I Met Your Mother.

However, the real draw of the network is its dubbed versions of Latin American Telenovelas, which have most of the country in their melodramatic grip. One Telenovela in particular, Second Chance, has become such a national obsession in Iran that it has inspired a hairstyle for women called “the Isabel,” named after the show's heroine.

Satellite programming is nothing new in Iran. There are already half a dozen Persian satellite stations (most of them based in the Los Angeles area) beaming a steady stream of music videos, talk shows, classic films, and news programs into hundreds of thousands of households across Iran. Most Iranians also have access to American programming like MTV and VH1, as well as programming from Arab satellite networks like al-Jazeera and MBC, the Middle East’s biggest entertainment channel.

Although satellite dishes are technically forbidden in Iran, practically every home in the country has a shiny white disk perched on its rooftop. Ali Darabi, the deputy head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) estimates that approximately 40 percent of Iranians have illegal satellites, but the number is probably much higher than the government wants to admit. Occasionally the authorities make sweeps of certain neighborhoods, collecting the dishes and fining their owners. But after a few days the dishes pop back up again, usually sold back to their owners by the same authorities that confiscated them.

The truth is that the Iranian government is fairly blasé about the satellite dishes, perhaps recognizing that it may be able to get away with denying basic rights and freedoms to its citizens, but if it tried to take away their right to find out what happened to Victoria (the title character of one of Iran’s most popular Telenovelas) after her husband left her for a younger woman… well, that’s enough to stir up a revolution.

Although satellite dishes are technically forbidden in Iran, practically every home in the country has a shiny white disk perched on its rooftop.

Still, the government is particularly troubled over the meteoric rise of Murdoch’s Farsi1. Maryam Ardabili, women’s affairs adviser to the governor of Fars province, summed up the government position: “There is no doubt that Farsi 1 is a tool of the extensive cultural onslaught [of the West] against Iran.” Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, head of the clerical faction in the Iranian parliament, accused Farsi1 of seeking “to destroy the chastity and morals of families and encourage young Iranians to have sex and drink alcohol.”

But there’s little the government can do about Farsi1 or any of the other satellite channels, like BBC Persian or Voice of America, that Iranians depend upon to keep from going crazy in a country in which government-sanctioned entertainment usually consists of watching 80-year-old turbaned men take turns reading from the Koran. Last July, the authorities tried to jam Farsi1’s signal, only to have the network begin broadcasting from a different satellite feed. “We jam them, they jam us in return,” admits Ezatollah Zarghami, chairman of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.

Part of why the government is so wary about these satellite programs is that they are usually filled with overt political propaganda against the Iranian regime (this includes BBC and Voice of America). Most of the Persian language stations based in the U.S. receive government funding, though as I have previously reported, President Obama has begun to cut off funding for these kinds of projects.

Rupert Murdoch’s partner at Farsi1, Saad Mohseni, an Afghani-Australian who runs the Moby Group and who has created and produced Afghanistan’s Tolo TV and Arman Radio (the most popular broadcasts in Afghanistan) told The New Yorker that, unlike his competitors, Farsi1 neither provides any kind of news content nor gets involved in any way in Iranian politics. “That is our mantra,” he said. “We don’t get involved in local politics.”

Yet the biggest contributor to Mohseni’s Afghan network is USAID, which sponsors two shows on Tolo TV. And despite his long experience in Afghanistan, Mohseni has made few friends in the Afghan government. Hamid Karzai has called Mohseni, “a good businessman… [who] does bad things on the media,” while Afghanistan’s former Minister of Information and Culture Abdul Karim Khurram has frequently criticized Mohseni for what he suggests are his anti-Iranian views.

But what controversy exists about Farsi1 is focused on the main man behind the project, Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News (if you can use that word) Network has turned anti-Islam hysteria into ratings gold. Fox’s popular evening anchors regularly spout the most vile and bigoted rhetoric against Islam and Muslims and the network’s experts are by far the loudest voices in America advocating war with Iran. No wonder that Murdoch’s involvement with Farsi1 has already created some humorous chatter on line. On the Farsi1 FAQs page one questioner asks: “We have heard numerous rumors about the ownership of Farsi1 and its religious affiliations. Is it true that a Zionist owns it?”

Murdoch is no Zionist, but he’s certainly no friend either to Muslims or to the people of the Middle East. Yet he obviously recognizes the untapped potential of what the World Economic Forum calls “the world’s largest emerging consumer market”—a global Muslim market whose combined annual disposal income is estimated to grow from nearly $3 trillion today to a staggering $30 trillion by 2050.

With numbers like that, it cannot be long until we start seeing Homer Simpson in a turban!

Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and Beyond Fundamentalism. His new book Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East comes out in Nov. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.