Watching Obama from the Arabian Peninsula by James Schwoch

I’m sitting in Doha, Qatar, on January 27, 2009, at about 4pm Arabian Standard Time—here this year on a faculty appointment at the new Northwestern University-Qatar campus in Education City. Last night, Al-Arabiya in Dubai (United Arab Emirates) aired Obama’s first interview with an Arab TV station. The Al-Arabiya website has the interview on its front page with a full transcript, but has yet to post an accompanying video stream. So I went over to YouTube and watched some, joining at least 60,000 other YouTube viewers who had already checked out one or more of the twenty-five Al-Arabiya interview clips of Obama posted on YouTube in the past eight hours. Seeing as it is currently only about 8am in New York City, and 5am in Los Angeles, those YouTube downloads ought to easily pass 100,000 in the next few hours as the USA wakes up, gets out of bed, and gets online. My guess is, within a few days, Al-Arabiya will in fact post a video stream of the Obama interview on its website, along with its already-posted video stream of the Obama inauguration. And—alas—they have also posted a video stream from few months ago of, well, of someone throwing shoes.

The global circulation of USA Presidential TV images has changed mightily since Telstar in 1962. What was in 1962 one—and only one—satellite capable of feeding a TV signal, and only able to link the USA and Europe, and only for about 25 minutes of every 2 ½ hour orbit, has become in 2009 an unfathomable quantity of Presidential images circulated by a host of satellites and fiber-optic cables, with those images themselves copied, versioned, and reposted endlessly throughout cyberspace. The trajectories—the back stories if you will—of these technologies, these circulations, and these uses of global TV images are among the things I explore in Global TV. At the time I was writing that book, I never expected to be sitting in Qatar as Global TV was released, but it makes for an interesting locale on days like today, when the new American President makes his Arab TV debut. In the Al-Arabiya interview, Obama confirmed he is “going to follow through on our commitment for me to address the Muslim world from a Muslim capital,” but chose to not reveal the name of the city. Like most everyone else here in Qatar, I’m hoping for Doha—but wherever the visit takes place, it will be another interesting moment for global TV, and another blog entry.


James Schwoch is an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern University and author of the new book Global TV: New Media and the Cold War, 1946-69. To follow his work in Qatar, become his friend on Facebook.

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