Reporter Devin Dwyer has a post at ABCNews.com today noting that a "confidential cable published by WikiLeaks" reveals that "American television shows broadcast across the Middle East are proving to be effective 'agents of influence' in the ongoing battle over hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims pondering jihad":
ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and "World News with Diane Sawyer," as well as CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" and NBC's sitcom "Friends," all carry more sway with viewers than a U.S. taxpayer-funded Middle East broadcast network, an unnamed Saudi source told U.S. embassy officials last year.
"It's still all about the War of Ideas here, and the American programming on [privately-owned] MBC and Rotana is winning over ordinary Saudis in a way that 'Al Hurra' and other U.S. propaganda never could," the source said.
"Saudis are now very interested in the outside world, and everybody wants to study in the U.S. if they can. They are fascinated by U.S. culture in a way they never were before."
The Saudi government, which exerts tight control over media in the country, has permitted the satellite broadcasts of American programming uncensored with Arabic subtitles over the privately-owned Middle East Broadcasting group (MBC) as a "means of countering the extremists."
"If the Saudis are saying that the popular culture helps young people like America, that it helps people like Americans, that it is a more powerful tool in public diplomacy than any of the stuff coming out of government – it's absolutely true," James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, told ABC News.
The testimony by Saudi officials adds to mounting evidence that Al Hurra, the 24-hour Arab language news channel created by the federal government in 2004, has largely been a failure.
"We spent money on a network to compete with our very best products, and that is our commercial television programs," said Zogby.
Taxpayers have invested more than $650 million on the project to date.
Al Hurra is "expensive, and with the exception of Iraq, little watched elsewhere in this vital region," reads a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on U.S. International Broadcasting prepared by Indiana Republican Richard Lugar in June.
So the profit-motive entertainment industry is a lot more effective at influencing culture, abroad as well as at home, than programming cooked up by a bunch of federal government bureaucrats, and it's a bargain for the taxpayer to boot.