In Iran, what's forbidden is in -- and on Rupert Murdoch's Farsi1 TV channel

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 26, 2010; A06

TEHRAN -- A satellite TV station co-owned by Rupert Murdoch is pulling in Iranian viewers with sizzling soaps and sitcoms but has incensed the Islamic republic's clerics and state television executives.

Unlike dozens of other foreign-based satellite channels here, Farsi1 broadcasts popular Korean, Colombian and U.S. shows and also dubs them in Iran's national language, Farsi, rather than using subtitles, making them more broadly accessible. Its popularity has soared since its launch in August.

"The story is so beautiful," said Maryam, a West Tehran housewife who was using a secretly stashed satellite dish on a recent day to tune into Farsi1's latest hit, "Body of Desire," a steamy Spanish-language telenovela. Maryam, who asked that her last name not be used, said she feels awkward watching some scenes in front of her family. Still, she said, she is "hooked."

"It's all about forgiveness, desire and justice," she said, as Cuban actor Mario Cimarro, playing Salvador, rose from a blue sea, his muscular chest only partly covered by his long, dark hair.

Satellite receivers are illegal in Iran but widely available. Officials acknowledge that they jam many foreign channels using radio waves, but Farsi1, which operates out of the Hong Kong-based headquarters of Star TV, a subsidiary of Murdoch's News Corp., is still on the air in Tehran.

Viewers are increasingly deserting the six channels operated by Iranian state television, with its political, ideological and religious constraints, for Farsi1's more daring fare, including the U.S. series "Prison Break," "24" and "Dharma and Greg."

The shows on the state-run channels typically depend on stale plot staples such as marriages between the rich and poor and brazen thefts. The broadcasting authority forbids images of dancing, parties and alcohol and of men and women kissing or touching. Nudity is out of the question, and foreign series and films are often heavily censored.

"Body of Desire," more modestly titled "Second Chance" by Farsi1's translators, revolves around the murder of a wealthy businessman whose spirit mysteriously transmigrates into the body of Salvador, a handsome farmer. Salvador then takes a job as a driver for his killers: his young wife, Isabela, and her new lover. Other family members deal with forbidden teenage love and alcohol problems.

Some critics here hold Murdoch responsible for what they see as this new infestation of corrupt Western culture. The prominent hard-line magazine Panjereh, or Window, devoted its most recent issue to Farsi1, featuring on the cover a digitally altered version of an evil-looking Murdoch sporting a button in the channel's signature pink and white colors. "Murdoch is a secret Jew trying to control the world's media, and [he] promotes Farsi1," the magazine declared.

"Farsi1's shows might be accepted in Western culture . . . but this is the first time that such things are being shown and offered so directly, completely and with ulterior motives to Iranian society. Does anybody hear alarm bells?" wrote Morteza Najafi, a regular Panjereh contributor.

Sporadic action is being taken. On Wednesday, police raided several apartment buildings in an affluent Tehran neighborhood, confiscating dozens of dishes. Some elderly women in one building's lobby protested, saying they wanted to watch Farsi1, and ended up at a friend's house nearby to catch "Body of Desire."

Some Iranians blame the state channels for the exodus of viewers, saying they should make more appealing shows. "The root of the attraction of viewers to Farsi1 is the weakness of the domestic channels," Esmaeel Afifeh, a TV producer, told Panjareh.

Before the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a year ago, Iranian state television seemed to have modernized in some ways. It broadcast debates between the candidates -- a first in Iran -- but had also started showing popular homegrown comedies and soaps. After the election, which led to months of unrest and increased influence for hard-liners, the lighter material gave way to broadcasts of mass trials of dissidents and long interviews with government supporters.

Many urban Iranians -- Maryam and her family among them -- say they no longer feel the state channels speak to them.

"State television feels it constantly needs to morally educate its viewers," Maryam said. "I understand that Salvador and Isabela come from a fantasy world, but please let me decide for myself if I think their actions are right or wrong."

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