IRIB's Struggle for Relevance

Written by ASL19 researchers for the Iran Media Program

In Iran’s cultural war, television has served as a key battleground for religious, educational and cultural messaging. According to the Supreme Leader and his surrounding political circle, the state run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) has the vital mission of transmitting Islamic values through television, which is crucial in the fight against the media aggression from Iran’s enemies.

Though the IRIB acts as the prominent news broadcaster in the country, especially for Iran’s urban and rural middle class, satellite television is state television’s main competition. Hard-line factions within Iran have suggested that this competition has contributed to the cultural soft-war, leading Iranian state television to beef up its defenses against this cultural incursion. Despite efforts to restrict the establishment of private television networks, censor and jam satellite signals, and increase the quality and quantity of IRIB radio and television programming to attract new audiences, many government actors, including conservatives, are cautiously criticizing the IRIB for not satisfying these audiences.

Monopoly on broadcasting ownership in Iran
Broadcast media is strictly in government hands in Iran, with the Supreme Leader wielding much of the power over the IRIB’s administration. Article 44 of the constitution states that the radio and television industry is to be publicly owned and administered by the State, while Article 175 outlines that the appointment and dismissal of the IRIB’s head rests with the Supreme Leader. The President, the head of the Judiciary, and the Islamic Consultative Assembly all aid in overseeing the organization.

As satellite equipment remains illegal within Iran and no domestic arena for privately owned broadcasters exist, the IRIB is left unrivalled. However some periods of leniency have endeavored to establish broadcasters outside the IRIB, though they have quickly been terminated. For example, the satellite broadcasting environment within Iran was relatively lenient during reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s era. Between 2004 and 2005 satellite channels, most notably Mohajer TV, based in Germany, and Homa TV based in the United States, operated within Iran though they were shut down six months after the start of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Mehdi Karroubi, former 2005 presidential candidate and speaker of the parliament, intended to be the first high-ranking Iranian official to launch a Persian satellite television. Iranian officials dealt with Karroubi’s aspirations aggressively by preventing the establishment of Persian satellite television. More recently, in 2011 rumors stated that Mir Hossein Mousavi had an eye on establishing a satellite TV of his own, which never came to fruition.

Dominant view in the fight against the West’s cultural invasion
To combat the West’s cultural invasion, in addition to traditional censorship methods, the IRIB is expanding its global reach and upgrading its technological sophistication. Islamic leaders are also pushing for more attractive state programming that both preserves the culture of the Islamic Revolution and brings in larger audiences.

According to a statement from an IRIB deputy, the state television organization includes 15 national radio and television networks, 10 international networks, and 33 local networks running under an annual budget of around 1 billion US dollars. For example, three Jaam-e-Jam networks, subsidiaries of the IRIB, broadcast for Iranians living in Europe, America, Asia and Oceania. Other IRIB networks with global outreach include Arabic news networks Al-Alam and Al-Kosar, the English news network Press TV, and the Spanish speaking HispanTV. Sahar network produces daily programs in six languages of Urdu, English, Bosnian, Turkish, French, and Kurdish. The IRIB also manages six radio stations that broadcast programs in twenty-five different languages.

On the technological front, Iranian broadcasting made the switch from analog to digital receivers and adaptors in 2009. IRIB director Ezzatollah Zarghami announced the coming of DVR services, a service used by an estimated 4 million people, beginning in February. According to Zarghami, “IP multimedia system (DVR) will appeal to families and general audiences.”

Despite these advances, many conservatives close to the ruling elite believe that the IRIB is not competing evenly with satellite networks. A key remaining concern is IRIB’s struggle to create popular and current programs. Recent research by media scholars found that, "at least 60 percent of Iranians watch satellite programs," in part because, “newly established state radio and television networks [fail] to attract audiences." For example, Mostanad, IRIB’s documentary network, only has around hundred thousand viewers, in comparison to Persian National Geographic which has several times that figure for its domestic Iranian audiences. Another report produced in Iran states that though TV executives refrain from publishing official statistics, some estimates show that newly established networks only attract, “13 to 20 percent of the audience.”

Echoing programming concerns, conservative news websites such as Tabnak and Alef, as well as Jomhouri Eslami which is run by the Supreme Leader’s representative, argue that despite the quantity of domestic networks, IRIB networks have not been able to produce quality programs to attract audiences. Commenting on the issue, Iranian Culture Minister Ali Jannati said that due to the number of satellite television watchers in Tehran, simply blocking access to satellite television cannot be effective. He continued by stating that leaders must think of solutions focusing on, “interesting and useful content, to prevent using foreign televisions and digital media."

The Future of IRIB
According to Iranian Economics, initial estimates show that producing content for new IRIB television networks would be very costly so executives are opting to use archival programs instead. Due to IRIB’s financial situation, news censorship, and problems with showing music, women, and activities such as dancing on air, it is not expected that IRIB has a strong chance against satellite network content.

While the IRIB struggles with its programming issues, rumors swirl that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) may receive their own television network that will “promote Islamic and revolutionary values.” The IRGC’s programs would run for four hours a day, and focus on “Holy Defense” (the Iran-Iraq war), “Islamic Revolution” and “Islamic Awakening.” It is unclear whether the Supreme Leader has approved this new network or whether it will be under his control. Regardless, the IRGC’s network would provide an interesting case study for gauging the IRGC’s ability to attract audiences and seeing whether Iranian broadcasting will grant more licenses to groups separate from the IRIB.
 

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