x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Changing channels and blocking content in an internet age

The cutoff of a broadcast of Game of Thrones this week demonstrates that censorship has not kept pace with the expansion of the media universe.

Today the entertainment experience is a far cry from the one or two local channels that were the mainstays just over a decade ago on most television sets in the Arab world.

It was not that long ago when we were playing around with the wire antennae on the roof to get better reception. My parents kept the colour TV in the living room, and we had smaller black-and-white ones in the bedrooms. Also, the remote control was strictly the property of the adults. I think the first time I held a remote was when I went to university.

So everything has changed, from the actual size and shape of the TV to the sheer number of channels and options. It is not surprising that the actual content and its ratings have evolved as well, with standards of acceptable content continually being challenged.

This week in the UAE, a broadcaster pulled the plug on a very sexually explicit American TV series, Game of Thrones. An episode was cut midway through the transmission on Monday evening after Etisalat, which runs the eVision television service, deemed it unsuitable and a breach of UAE law.

Before the controversy, I had commented to a friend how explicit and vulgar some scenes were. So I had simply changed the channel and was watching something else, and I missed the blank screen when the show was pulled off the air.

Compared to how censorship used to be in more conservative Arab countries, this was nothing and actually quite sophisticated.

There was a time that when an unacceptable scene - be it nudity or a kissing scene - would air and someone would awkwardly hold up a plaque to block the screen. One time on a Saudi channel, a drawing of an orange tree on a white card was held up halfway through a documentary to cover the half-naked dancing women of an African tribe. You could still see an arm or leg waving about, but nothing more than that.

The orange tree would be held up for a couple of minutes, then removed when the scene changed. I saw the same orange tree used several times on that channel.

What bothered me the most was the censorship of cartoons and Arabic-dubbed Japanese animation. There was, maximum, an hour and a half of children's programming, and so we would do our homework fast not to miss it. Looking back, it was a great motivational tool. Now there are so many 24-hour channels for children, that tactic won't work anymore.

So imagine: the shows were just 90 minutes, and they would still be cut, sometimes so badly that an episode wouldn't make sense. And when they simply skipped a whole episode, we would be left missing an important part of the plot. We would beg our parents to buy the videos to find out what we missed, but they would be censored as well.

Parents in the 1980s and early 1990s didn't have to worry about what their children watched. There was no need for parental controls to be programmed. Yet violence and shooting were not as censored as intimacy and nudity.

A hug between a male and female (real actors or animated) would be cut; words like "lover" and "alcohol" were turned into "friend" and "juice". The omissions were obvious, unlike today, when many channels use more subtle cuts and edits.

Magazines, music albums, book covers and other photos of women still get touched up. Before, censors would just use a black marker, which often ruined a whole magazine. Now it is less obvious, with the edits matching the colour or tint of the skin or clothes.

It reminds me of how they would black out the transparent panel on Barbie doll packages in Saudi Arabia. I ended up with duplicates because I could never see the outfit.

These days there is simply too much exposure on the internet in general. A show might get cut, but people can still see it if they wish. Censorship, in the end, remains subjective, and what to cut is a hard call to make in today's world.



On Twitter: @Arabianmau