The subject is approached seasonally, but it needs a much more strategic plan. Even though children and youth represent the majority of the population in Arab countries, children television programming gets almost no consideration from governments, foundations and corporations.
Original children programming in the Arab world is abysmally low. And the programming that is available is largely dubbed (often violent) cartoons strips. Not only are our children constantly bombarded by dubbed programming, but almost all these programmes are dubbed into classical Arabic.
In order to be able to sell the dubbed programme to all 23 Arab countries, companies resort to the use of classical Arabic, leaving young preschool children with almost no quality programmes that they can understand.
For a Jordanian or Palestinian child to watch a programme in classical Arabic is like asking an English-speaking child to listen to a TV programme using Shakespearean English.
Next week, Gary Knell, the president of Sesame Workshop in New York, will be making a high profile tour of the region visiting Cairo, Riyadh, Amman and Ramallah. Knell will meet with first ladies and senior officials to discuss how the longest running American television show for children can be useful in this region.
Already Sesame co-productions in the Arab world have enjoyed great success.
Programmes such as Iftah Ya Simsim, Al Manahel, Alam Simsim, Hikyat Simsim and Sharaa Simsim represent quality Sesame programmes being co-produced with creative Arab producers and talent.
These shows feature extremely popular muppets who speak local Arabic dialects and are produced with educational goals customised to the needs of specific children.
During his visit to Jordan, Knell will be involved in Queen Rania’s new Children’s Museum as well as witness the launch of the second season of Hikyat Simsim, Jordan’s own co-production produced by Jordan Pioneers, which will be airing on Jordan Television.
In Palestine, Knell will visit Ramallah and participate in the launch of the third Palestinian Sesame co-production of Sharaa Simsim. This season’s theme aims at providing positive role models for Palestinian boys. The theme was chosen after research showed a dangerous trend among Palestinian boys who often feel helpless in dealing with the difficult situation of living under occupation.
Children’s programming is also high on the agenda of the Danish government. As part of their Arab initiative, the Danes, working through the International Media Support, have been training and working with Jordanian, Syrian and Lebanese producers in order to produce short documentaries for Arab youths.
In Palestine, the German government supported the dubbing into colloquial Arabic of a popular German children’s programme.
Most national television stations in the Arab world have no real children’s department. If there is one, its job is simply to choose among the existing cartoon programmes. In the pan-Arab television landscape, a number of satellite channels have been created exclusively for children, but with the exception of some original programmes on Al Jazzera children’s channel the end result of these dedicated channels is not much better than the children’s hour or two on terrestrial stations.
The efforts of Sesame workshop and the many international donors who support their work notwithstanding, a holistic approach is needed to deal with the needs of Arab children. Producing and broadcasting a 26-part Sesame series once every couple of years doesn’t make a strategy.
The children of the region require and deserve a lot more effort, time, production funds and attention. Much effort is needed to build up a pool of talent, but if we want to build a better future for the next generation, there is critical need for a national political will to give much higher priority to the needs of our children.