Illegal cable gets all tangled up in Lebanon

With cable TV piracy rampant in Lebanon, different neighborhoods are watching different channels. NOW Lebanon investigates and examines the intersection of programming and politics.
By ZAHRA HANKIR (NOW Lebanon Staff)
A satellite TV provider shows the ban on French TV stations in 2004. The text reads, 'We apologize to our customers for banning the French channels, in solidarity with Al-Manar.' © Ramzi Haydar / AFP

BEIRUT, Feb. 8, 2008 (NOWLEBANON.COM) – After midnight, on TV sets across parts of Achrafieh, Chasse et Pèche, a French hunting and fishing channel, suddenly turns into the XXL hardcore porn station. On Sundays, however, the local cable distributor does not make the radical switch until much later, presumably out of reverence for the holy day of rest.

Cable TV piracy is a flourishing trade in Lebanon. Throughout the country, for a fee of $10 per month to a local distributor, one can access a variety of premium satellite channels that would otherwise require a subscription to one of three Middle East pay-TV networks through just two legal cable operators in Lebanon. But how do illegal distributors – of which there are currently more than 600 and which cater to hundreds of thousands – operate? And how do they determine who gets to see what broadcasts in Lebanon?

According to media analyst and journalist Habib Battah, channel offerings are usually based on how conservative a neighborhood is, depending on "its makeup and religious or political beliefs."

As such, "distributors respond to demands," Hassan, a Chiyah-based cable distributor, told NOW Lebanon. "If [residents] want a certain channel, they'll be given the channel. If they have a strong objection to it, distributors won't add these channels to their analogs."

In fact, the relative freedom of cable distributors was highlighted just last week, when Future Television claimed that its broadcasts were being blocked in "opposition" areas.

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