TEHRAN (Reuters) - Like millions of Iranians from all walks of life, Saba enjoys unwinding in front of television after work.
“I wish the day would pass faster so I can see what will happen in the next episode,” she says. She does not rush home from her oil company job to tune in to state television — which has a theoretical monopoly in Iran — but to watch satellite channels beamed in from abroad.
“My favorite show is the cooking contest,” said Saba, 30, who asked not to be fully identified because of government hostility to the satellite shows.
“It is one of the best and most educational food shows ever.” She was talking about “Befarmaeed sham” or “Join us for dinner,” a Persian-language version of a popular British show, “Come Dine With Me,” in which four amateur Iranian cooks go to one another’s homes to compete for prize money.
The show is broadcast by a satellite channel based in London, Manoto, one of several that have recently started to defy state censorship by beaming in Persian-language programs that compete for the attention of a large audience that has had, until recently, little choice but to watch what the state broadcaster decided it could see.
On the cooking show, the chefs, men and women, welcome one another to their houses with kisses — a common enough practice among many Iranians in private, but something that is forbidden in public and on state TV.
On Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Channel 1, a state-run channel, traditional orchestral music announces the start of the flagship series “Mokhtar-Nameh,” a lavish costume drama about the times of Imam Hossein, a central figure in Shi’ite Islam.
As the action moved from theological discussions to swashbuckling battle scenes, one day recently, Mahnaz Mohammadi, a 34-year-old filmmaker, watching television in her home, flicked through alternative state channels in search of something lighter — a cleric giving religious advice; a soccer show; a wildlife documentary.
“The problem in Iran is the lack of uncensored programs,” she said. “The reason people watch the satellite channels is because they show real relations between people, which state TV doesn’t.”
Since the 1979 revolution brought strict Islamic law to Iran, TV shows and films have had to comply with religious values by avoiding scenes that show intimate relations between men and women or flout Islamic dress codes for women.
While Article 24 of the Iranian constitution upholds freedom of expression, it declares unlawful the expression of views that are “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.”
Among the more popular shows is “90,” a weekly analysis of Iranian soccer matches. Also among the state broadcaster’s staples are government-approved movies, which — if foreign — are often heavily edited.
The results of restrictions on the programing of state TV go some way toward explaining why many Iranians have turned to shows beamed to the forest of illegal satellite dishes crowning many of houses and buildings in Iran, to the annoyance of the government.
“The satellite channels have invested for the perversion of youth,” the cleric Seyed Hossein Rokni Hosseini said in a report last week by the semi-official Fars news agency. “Some people have installed satellite dishes and brought the enemy inside their homes.”
Before the family-owned Marjan TV Network, based in Britain, opened Manoto in 2010, another channel, Farsi 1, opened in 2009 by Broadcast Middle East, based in Dubai, was already gaining a following with a diet of dubbed entertainment shows from the United States, Latin America and Asia dubbed into Farsi to tempt Iranians away from more pedestrian state-approved fare. Farsi 1 is a 50-50 joint venture between News Corp., owned by Rupert Murdoch, and Moby Group of Afghanistan.
“I still watch Farsi 1 shows, especially its Korean series. Unlike Iranian TV serials, some Farsi 1 series are unmissable,” said Saba’s 26-year-old sister, Sanam, who called state TV “boring.”
Iran’s conservative government sees such television fare as a threat is far from thrilled by overseas channels like Farsi 1, whose schedule includes a dubbed version of the U.S. series “24,” seeing them as contradictory to Islamic and revolutionary values.
“Satellite television programs are the enemies’ greatest military expedition against the Islamic revolution’s values,” the cleric and army official Mohammad-Ali Alehashem told Kar-va-Kargar newspaper last week.
In December, Iran said it had shut down a Tehran studio that was dubbing programs for Farsi 1 and arrested five employees. The Tehran prosecutor general, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, said the aim of the studio was to “help the anti-revolutionary movement.”
Farsi 1 denied having any ties with the office raided by the police and said it had no operations within Iran.
Iranian authorities see the foreign programing as such a moral threat that the head of the state broadcaster IRIB, Ezatollah Zarghami, wrote to Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, this month to complain that 90 satellite stations were beaming indecent and unethical programs into Iran, in breach of an international code of broadcasting conduct.
Iranian authorities also dislike the influence of Western news channels like Voice of America and BBC Persian, broadcast in Farsi, the main official language of Iran.
Yet another hard to control conduit for television content comes from right next door: Some of the 30 million Turkish speakers in Iran can also access soap operas and other programs broadcast in neighboring, secular Turkey. Those with a working knowledge of English can also enjoy American series and films broadcast by several Middle Eastern satellite channels.
Analysts say media limitations mean that news broadcasters cannot delve deep into political issues, putting off many of Iran’s highly educated and well-traveled citizens and providing an opening for V.O.A. and BBC Persian, which Tehran sees as propaganda from a hostile United States and Britain.
Still another threat to state control is the proliferation of DVDs, illegal and legal. The widely available discs provide inexpensive access to the latest Hollywood movies and, more recently, to Iranian programs being sold direct on Web sites.
“Ghahveye Talkh,” or “Bitter Coffee,” was one of the first straight-to-DVD serials in Iran and became a huge hit.
The comedy about a history teacher who drinks a coffee that sends him back to the year 1822 parodies modern Iranian society with satirical characters and storylines.
A three-episode DVD sells for 25,000 rials, or around
$2.50. According to its Web site, half a million copies of the first installment of Ghahveye Talkh were sold on the first day of its release.
The daily Donya-ye Eqtesad said last month that nearly 14 million of the DVDs had been sold. In a twist of fate, local media reported, the show originally was to have been shown on state TV, but because of disagreements between IRIB and its producers, it did not air.
IRIB’s Zarghami said that Ghahveye Talkh was not produced by the organization and it is not “approved” by it. The historian Khosro Motazed said during an interview with a government-owned news agency in October that by failing to show “Ghahveye Talkh,” the state broadcaster had missed a chance to lure back some of its audience.
“I wish they had broadcast the serial over the national television,” he said. The way to confront foreign satellite programs, he added. “Is not to scrap the dishes on rooftops, but rather for us to produce an abundance of popular shows so that the public would go for domestic television over foreign satellite counterparts.”
Editing by Samia Nakhoul