London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Leading Arab television stations have expressed their anger at the findings of a poll by Zogby International and cast doubt on its conclusion that al Jazeera was the most popular channel in the region, describing them as biased. For its part, al Jazeera celebrated the results and dedicated an entire program to a discussion of the results, featuring Karen Hughes, the U.S. new undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs.
Zogby International, a prominent U.S. polling company, in conjunction with the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland recently conducted a survey in six Arab countries to uncover the opinion of Arabs on several important issues, including the status of media in the Arab world. At the same time, a survey of viewing habits by the international market research company, Ipsos Stat, which specializes in the Middle East, revealed viewers were deserting the Qatar-based channel, especially in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Dubai television, Saudi T.V and Future Television were amongst a number of stations that criticized the Zogby poll as lacking scientific basis, since these stations were not included in the poll despite scoring high in the most regional and local polls. A media expert indicated that the Zogby poll committed a grave error when it neglected terrestrial T.V stations, at a time when they are enjoying larger viewing figures than several satellite television channels, because local audiences continue to prefer local stations and the technology was beyond the reach of low-income households, who constitute the majority of Arabs.
The Dubai-based al Arabiya ridiculed the poll and accused it of being partial and appearing to favor particular stations and lacking in scientific methods necessary to correctly collate viewing figures. Al Arabiya, which came first in the poll as the most watched second choice channel, said the questionnaire was full of errors, including omitting Iraq, one of the most important Arab countries for news channels.
A spokesman for the Al Arabiya channel said, “MBC has previously cancelled a show for James Zogby [a senior analyst with the polling firm founded and managed by his brother John Zogby ] and it is currently associate with Zogby International. Therefore, we do not recognize the poll and do not accept its results. For the second year running, we believe it is partial.” He indicated that Zogby International did not include Iraqi in its poll, despite a large section of the population watching news programs. When Asharq al Awsat suggested the continuing violence could impede market research, the spokesman indicated Zogby International had previously conducted polls in Iraq and added, “The situation in Iraq did not prevented Gallup International, for example, from conducting a poll of the most popular channels in Iraq. It concluded that al Arabiya was first with a considerable margin.”
For its part, the prominent satellite channel Dubai Television indicated, “it does not recognize the Zogby International poll”, describing it as “favoring certain results.” It revealed that its position amongst Arab channels had greatly improved in recent months. It was in the lead, scoring higher than most channels included in the Zogby poll, as an Ipsos Stat survey showed.
A media research expert condemned Zogby International and drew attention to errors in its early preparations, such as the choice of channels, and in formulating questions, for example when al Jazeera was mentioned first in each question. This, he said, gave the impression the station was being singled out. He also indicated that Zogby international should not have conducted a poll in market it has certain interests, since James Zogby, who is affiliated to the company, presents a weekly show on Abu Dhabi channel and receives a salary. This contradicts the moral code and principles of market research, he added.
Describing the results as “non-scientific”, the media expert indicated that “organizations which specialize in viewing figures base their conclusions on specific questions such as what program was watched and when.” Inexact questions would annul the results, he said. As a rule, market research companies should also investigate the results in order to allow the companies featured in the survey to review the feedback forms. In the case of Saudi Arabia more than 4000 individuals should be surveyed to ensure the sample in representative, the expert said. However, in the case of the Zogby International poll, only 800 were polled.
According to the Zogby survey, al Jazeera was the most popular channel, followed by MBC, LBCI, Al Arabiya, Abu Dhabi television, al Manar, Egypt satellite television. Al Hurrah scored the lowest, the poll found. Meanwhile, Ipsos Stat, in its last survey in Saudi Arabia, found Saudi TV to be the most popular channel, followed by MBC, the film channel MBC2, al Arabiya, al Jazeera Saudi sports TV and finally, Dubai TV. In its survey in Iraq, Ipsos Stat found that al Arabiya enjoyed the largest audience figures in the news category and was 2nd in the general category after Iraqi TV. Al Jazeera came in sixth place.
James Zogby strenuously defended the poll results and told Asharq al Awsat, “We did not claim that al Jazeera was number one. He indicated that the questions submitted to a sample of Arab viewers were mostly concerned with discovering which channels they viewed to follow international news. The determining question, Zogby said, was “Which channel do you watch to follow international news?” Most answers mentioned al Jazeera. This did not mean that those who answered al Jazeera did not view other channels or that it was the only source of world news, Zogby cautioned. “The poll took a long time to complete. It featured all days and all times,” he said, in response to criticism.
Zogby said the poll should not be viewed as a measure of “respect of or lack of”. Instead, the survey provides an indication of which channel viewers rely on for international news. He added that Arab viewers, like their American counterparts, used the remote control and switched channels and programs. He stressed that the poll did not aim to judge the quality of Arab channels.
Zogby cautioned that the poll did not reveal whether certain television influenced the opinions of its viewers, adding, “Some people watch Saudi TV or LBCI but have negative attitudes towards America and the situation in Iraq… This is why the US claims that Arab viewers watch al Jazeera and therefore hate us or that if they watch al Jazeera and al Arabiya their attitude to Iraq is affected are perhaps unfounded.”
Watching al Jazeera, Zogby revealed, would not necessarily change people’s view on the war in Iraq.
Asked about the absence of certain channels from the poll, Zogby replied that Saudi TV was not incorporated in the list because the side, which commissioned the survey, did not include it. However, he said, “I believe Future TV was one of the Lebanese channels when we surveyed the opinions of Lebanese viewers… In Abu Dhabi, we asked about Dubai TV… But it was not logical to ask about Dubai TV in Morocco, for example.”
Zogby revealed the institute had previously conducted a poll on Arab channels and would carry out another survey when it has the chance to do so. The disputed poll only focused on the most popular channels for world news, he said.
However, Jihad Balout, an official at al Arabiya, said, “With all due respect to Zogby International, the best approach to uncover viewing trends in the Arab world is to rely on the conclusions of specialist organizations working on the ground”, for example Ipsos Stat which “is recognized by almost all advertising agencies and leading television channels in the Arab world.”
“Al Arabiya was the most popular channel in Iraq while al Jazeera was sixth. Al Arabiya was also in fist place in Saudi Arabia. How does Zogby International explain its results which contradict the findings of market researchers who specialize in the Arab world?”