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Television in Iran: An Oral History

Television in Iran: An Oral History

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Here, we have a fascinating and engaging transcript of an interview with Mr. Kambiz Mahmoudi, the managing director of the first private television and his last position was the deputy general director of Network TV. Mahmoudi’s direct and personal experience in managing Iran’s first commercial and first governmental television, since their inception, opens a vignette to the story of television in Iran. The challenge of creating an entirely new mass media outlet in Iran, and indeed in the entire Middle East, is itself captivating. However, Mahmoudi goes beyond the technical and financial challenges. He speaks of political intrigue, censorship and even scientific polling and data analysis. Through the watchful eyes of Mahmoudi, we see the story of television as more than just a new source for entertainment and news in Iran; we see it as a marketing tool, as a business venture, as an institution of power and even as a threat to religion and religious establishments. The story of television in Iran is perhaps the most vivid example of tradition encountering modernity both culturally in the country and personally at people’ homes. Mahmoudi’s interview is an oral history and non-fictional storytelling at its best. It is candid, honest and descriptive.


Iranian television was the first commercial TV in the Middle East.  There was a governmental one, in Iraq if I’m not mistaken, but Iran’s was the first commercial TV in the whole region. 

I had studied television in the United States as part of my master’s degree courses in communications. I’m talking about 1954-1955, when I was at the University of Chicago. The University of Chicago did not have any broadcasting courses then, so I used to go to another college to take the practical courses.  I came back to Iran in 1955, then in 1956 I heard rumors that somebody’s going to establish a television station, commercial TV.  This is what I knew at the time.  

In 1957 the first commercial television officially went on air and at that time, or perhaps a year before, I was at the Plan Organization and teaching two hours a week at the University of Tehran. A friend of mine who was working at the station was recruited from the Fine Arts Administration. He told me about the project and asked if I was willing to work at night there. I said let me come and see what the set-up is.

The station was in Abbasabad Hills, in the middle of Pahlavi road, which is called Vali Asr now. On Abbasabad’s highest hill was erected a very tall tower. It was not for cable television; everyone received the TV signal from antenna to antenna.  When I went there, I found that, except for Mr. Habib Sabet, the founder who spent the money to erect that television tower, and his two sons nobody else had even seen any television. They were going through manuals, with one representative from RCA teaching the so-called technicians and engineers who all had studied in Iran—and not television!  I was interviewed by Habib Sabet and his older son Iraj, and they asked me if I wanted to come and work there. I said I have two jobs, but I can come some hours at night. They said, “Nobody else here knows anything about TV; we want you to teach the job training course at night,” and all the other things that one had to do.  

The building was, I would say, less than one third built. The two studios were ready, and the master control room was in place, but in the whole building there no offices; everything was under construction.  Because television was broadcasting only a few hours at night, during the daytime all the laborers were working, but at five o’clock the children’s program would start, so they would stop work.  We started at a very elementary level.  I think the cameras that we used can now be found in the museum; they were Vidicon cameras. The Vidicon was not a very sensitive camera but it was the best that RCA offered. You needed a lot of light, so there were a lot of lights in the studio.  In spite of thousands of watts of light in the studio, the picture was still dark, but you couldn’t do much about it.

With the rest of the friends—many of whom I worked with for many decades at other places—we worked hard during those hours to establish the first television, with the support of Mr. Sabet and his family (and sometimes with their comments and interference which were not justified.)  Sabet was a very serious man, and he easily got mad, so I spent at least a quarter to a third of my time each night getting between him or his sons and the other employees. but I don’t want to talk about that because Sabet did so much for Iran in this area.

Anyway, little by little we trained speakers, we recruited people to come and produce various programs. For example, Houshang Mahmoudi, (who, despite having the same last name, was no relation) was good with the children and had a school, so he was in charge of the children’s program, which was on for one hour per night. Then we had one hour of Fine Arts–orchestra that was pure classical music. It was not very popular, certainly not as popular as radio, which was very popular. So, this was the beginning of this venture, with limited funds and limited human resources and limited equipment in 1957. 

According to the law, Sabet had the monopoly for importing the first five or ten thousand TV receivers to Iran and was exempted from custom duties.  He had priority because he had invested his money, nobody else was ready to do that, so he got that in return. So, at first, when families purchased a television, it was an RCA. At that time, the number of TVs sold to families amounted to between three and four thousand, and that was only in Tehran. This was the beginning of television in Iran. 
By then we had four or five hours of programming.  All the programs were live, except one or two short films or half -hour shows that we purchased from America. Whirlybirds, which was the story of a helicopter, was one such show.   We had subtitles for it. The art or craft of dubbing was not yet developed in Iran, so we used to run subtitles in Farsi; very elementary.  Later on, we would rent one of the films that had been shown in the movie theatres a year or two before and had been dubbed for the cinema.  They were usually American or French or English—mainly American—feature films and we would show them on Thursday nights. But the rest of the programs were all live, with all the mistakes and all the problems. I have many stories about how we got into trouble because we could not control the people in front of the live camera.

Early Criticism of Television  

We had problems from both sides, especially from western educated people. I tell you, except for Great Britain and France, no other European countries had television, but those Iranians who had been educated in those two countries, or those who had recently had come back from America,  and other intellectuals criticized us in the newspapers very freely.  Because we were not governmental and not protected by censorship, they would complain about how elementary the programs were.  None of them were experts of course, or studied this field, but maybe they had viewed programs in France and maybe in America or on BBC and they expected us to be the same. That was from that side.  

The strongest opposition was from the religious group. The mullahs were very harsh because Mr. Sabet was a Baha’i and that gave them a pretext to attack the whole government and the whole system.   They were especially upset that one of the three means of mass communication—there were three of them, of course, at that time: newspapers, radio, and TV was the third–was given to such a person (that is, to a Baha’i.), We were not political; our news was from the Pars Agency which was broadcast on the radio.  At 4:00 every afternoon, after the news broadcast on the radio in Tehran finished, they would send a copy of the written text and we would use the same thing. That was the only thing which was in some way political or governmental.  The rest of the programs were entertainment and educational in some way, such as teaching women a little bit of cooking, and the children’s program. 

At that time, the number of televisions sold was not great– there were less than 6000 television sets in Iran, in Tehran.  Yet nobody was happy.  Every week in Towfiq which was a satirical weekly, there was a big article or a big cartoon, making fun of television programs. At the beginning, there was a lot of excitement, that television was coming to Iran and everyone had expected much, but they had not seen television at all—and now they were criticizing it! I did not know what they expected from it. This was a situation until 1978 or early 1979, when I left Tehran.  

Early Advertising on TV

The total income of television was from advertising, but there was not much. The reason was that the people who sponsored the program were not familiar with this medium, and they could not make films. Videos did not exist; video even in America didn’t arrive in the market until 1960.  We are talking about the late ‘50s.  There were many commercials by Sabet’s companies and because Sabet had the television, many of the other businessmen thought that he had the royalty on television. They thought they could not compete with him, so they did not give us any commercials.  

After one year after being with that television, I went back to America to get my PhD. in Communications.  When I returned after three years to Iran, I had to convince the merchants one by one that Sabet had to pay for his commercials, and that it was not free for him just because he had invested in it. We also encouraged them to create advertising agencies and gave them a discount so they would go and fetch commercials.  At the same time, they purchased equipment for dubbing for making short commercial films.  They travelled to America to see how commercials were made over there, and little by little commercials were increased, but until 1963 when I came back to Iran, two thirds of the expenditures of television were covered by borrowing every month from Sabet’s other companies.  Only one third was covered by the commercials.

Progress and Growth in the 1960s 

Now, this was the situation. When Mr. Sabet called me –you know, I went to the University of Indiana and University of Chicago—he called me at my dormitory and asked if I wanted to become the managing director of television with 10% of the shares.  I did not accept the shares, because it was not a profitable organization. I wanted a fixed salary and I asked for it.  He said since I had left, they had hired an American, Mr. Hallock, who was doing the job, however, he was leaving. I told him, “Mr. Sabet I want Mr. Hallock’s salary plus his interpreter.”  He said, “that is too much.” I said, “That is all I want.”  He agreed, and at that time [1963] I was making the highest salary in Iran.  

So, I was hired full-time on television and I spend all my time in television in the morning from 9 am to 1 pm.  That was the time and then again from 4:30 to 11 pm or 12—whatever it took–but still we did not have any recording facilities. While I was three years in America, television expanded, and I looked differently at television. I came back with a lot of ideas: what kind of programs would be suitable for Iran, or ideas about the quiz programs that could be adapted to Iran. Not the same ones, but what could be adapted. So, I devoted all my time, and my friends and I hired quite a few people who had studied some television in Europe. This was 1963 to 1969, which was a good time for television in Iran and “Sabet TV.” 

Everything was increased ten-fold. The programming was improved more than one hundred percent. We had very many popular American dubbed films–fresh dubbed films—many locally produced programs, drama, quiz shows. It was not like the best television stations in the world, but it was like a local American station in Indiana or maybe Illinois.  It was local—only in Tehran.  

While I was away from Iran, the Consortium in Abadan, which was the oil company in Iran, had many English and American and Dutch families working in the oil fields. They could not keep their employees in the south, because there was no entertainment, very bad weather, and not good housing–only hard work and a very good salary. Apparently, the head of the Consortium asked Mr. Sabet, if they would pay and provide the quarters for television, would Sabet open a branch in Abadan.  He accepted and from then on, they paid the initial cost and programs were sent [to Abadan.] The film, of course, was sent as there were still no recordings; they were sent from Tehran.

Over there [in Abadan] they showed local news, local folklore dances, singing, also a children’s program. It was the second television station in the region, and it had been established in 1959 during my absence from the country.  Now that I was back, we had two stations and we were trying to see how we could send very good programs from Tehran to Abadan. We could not film them as we did not have the facilities, so the only solution was to bring a videotape. And that is a very long, and different, semi-political story.

The Government Enters the Picture

A year and a half or two years after I had returned to Iran, in the Senate the senators started to criticize the monopoly of television. Behind the criticism were the big mullahs and Ayatollahs. It was not like in Iran today, but in many mosques, they very openly complained that television is a western invention, and somebody said the owner of the TV station [Mr. Sabet] was “outside the realm of the Holiness of the Islamic religion.” They thought that everybody working at the station was a Baha’i, which was not true.  Sabet TV did not have any religious program and was neutral, totally away from politics and religion.  The tradition and society of Iran, especially the mullahs, were against it without saying why. Because the commodity came from the West, it was deemed anti-Islam, unclean and untouchable, no matter what.

At this time, I was called by Sabet, who told me that a minister of the court who was a friend had called us and said that His Majesty the Shah resisted these pressures [from the Shia ulama], but he had spent much time and energy, and with many other aspects of the development of Iran to address, he could not have this problem on his hands all the time.  So, he offered to order the government to buy the television from Sabet.  Sabet asked me to write a letter to His Majesty and explain to him the benefits of having a commercial TV and next to it a government TV, and to suggest that with all the oil money that there is he should establish a government TV station.  He could send many experts to go to service providers like BBC to study and, then let’s have a democratic country.  So, I wrote about four or maybe five pages and we sent it to the ministry of the court to give it to the Shah.  Apparently, he was convinced and ordered the Ministry of PTT and the department of radio and propaganda to have a governmental station in six months, but this did not happen by the end of the year. It did not happen in the next year. Sometimes the Shah asked them [how things were progressing] and they offered only excuses. He would point out how quickly Sabet could do it, that Sabet’s station was running now and was popular. This is early 1964 and 1965.  Those years we had more than 100,000 televisions in Tehran and some 40-50 thousand more in Abadan. The programs had improved a lot.

I heard in 1965 that Mr. Qotbi, who was the queen’s cousin, a very well-educated gentleman from a school in Paris, was to establish a television station at the two Ministries that had failed to establish a government TV. He opened an office in the Plan organization, where I used to work.  Among one of the first things he did was to invite me to visit him; I went, and we talked. He said, “We will be on the air in about a year, but before getting to that stage, we have to get together and not compete with each other.  If we have the News at 10, you put it at another time.  If you have a very popular program, we will not have another program at the same time. He was a very friendly gentleman.

Commercial Television is Nationalized  

So, in 1966 the government television was established, with their first elementary or experimental program.  Then I received a message that I should join the government network as it was the future of the country; my problems started from there.  After I left Sabet Television, it survived for another two and a half years.   Then the same idea, to buy the station from a minority religion, was revived.  So, under pressure from the mullahs, the Shah ordered the Minister of Information to purchase Sabet TV and merge it into the government TV. (The Ministry of Information was not the same ministry it is today.  At that time the Ministry of Information was more for propaganda, radio, newspapers, and television.)  When we heard this news, the Minister of Information was kind enough to come and meet with Mr. Qotbi and myself.  Mr. Qotbi was the general director and I was the deputy, and he broke the news, although we had heard the rumor.  He had to do it as soon as possible, but Mr. Qotbi was not in favor of such a thing. I said okay, but a month passed, and we did not take any action.  So, one day I called and said, “Mr. Qotbi, if the Shah is following this matter, we will have to do something.”  The next day Mr. Qotbi received a call that if we do not do it within the next 24 hours, they will ask somebody else to do it.   

It was my bad luck that I had to take over the television that had been established with Sabet’s money. I resisted, but I was ordered to go, because I knew the people. I talked to them and it was very bitter, but it was good for their employees because their salaries were low, and our salaries were higher. Also, we had pensions for them, government job insurance, and all of that.  But for Sabet and his family it was a very, very bitter experience. They did not talk to me until after the revolution when I was in Paris.  The first time I met Sabet after the revolution we made it up.

Beginnings of Censorship

There was no censorship at Sabet’s television, but when I went over there, the four-story building had been built, with studios in the basement.  There was one room on the second floor where I had my big office. When I asked what this room was for, I was told it was for the government representative.  When I asked who the representative of the government was, they said SAVAK.  I had never heard of SAVAK, because during the years I was in America SAVAK was not yet established.  At least, if it was established before, I was not aware of it.  I asked, “Why isn’t there anyone in it?” They said, “Because the representative does not come; if something happens, he comes.”  I asked someone to call this man.  The gentleman came, he was a nice gentleman, he came and said, “There is no reason for me to come in, because you are not political.” Sometimes there are problems, I explained to him.   For example, I told him that, of course, we are broadcasting government news but there are no reasons that we should not show the pictures at the back of the newscaster.  He said Okay.

Now, in those days the relationship between Iran and Egypt was very bad. So, it happened that Egypt and Nasser were in the news. It was in the news reports that came from the government, so I asked out people to find a picture of Nasser and put it on the air when the news was read. When that happened, it set off a mini revolution in the Iranian Media Society.  The editor or owner of Ettelaat, Mr. Massoudi, and Dr. Faramarzi, and Mr. Mesbahzadeh, head of Keyhan, called me and said, “Young man, do you know what you are doing?” I said, “What happened?” They said, “No one should see Nasser’s picture.” I said, “Why? In the news you have a lot of political information and discussion about him. what is wrong with showing his picture?” They said this is not from us, but is an order from the “Upper level,” which meant the Court or the Shah.  I said, “Can I get in touch with the ’Upper level,’ to find out whether it is true or not?”  They said yes. So, I called the Department of Press in the Minister of Court.  

At that time [Asadollah] Alam was the Minister of Royal Court and he was really close to the Shah. I knew him as we were from the same province.  So, I talked to him and said, “Thank God you are here!”  He said, “Thank you,” and asked, “Who told you to do this?” [That is, televise pictures of Nasser.] I told him I did it without anybody telling me, but the two daily newspapers told me this is one of those no-nos.  He said, “Do whatever you want–you are not a traitor!”  This was my first confrontation with [political red lines].  So, when I said there was no censorship, it was because there was no political program.

As we became bigger, the national television covered all the country with two or three networks. Two or three years later, although we were not told by SAVAK and there was no member of SAVAK to review our programs, we had certain red lines that everybody knew. Like newspapers, we knew we couldn’t talk about the royal family, should not talk about anything about religion–any religion. I asked Alam if we could report on the mayor and the prime minister.  He said, “You can tell me anything, not harshly, but very politely.”   I said I was just asking; he said, “You can criticize this damn mayor, he is no good.”  I said, “You give me permission to do that?”  He said, “Yes, and you can discuss any ministry.”  

When I started in government television, one of the people who helped me a great deal was Mr. Farhang Farrahi, who recently passed away.  Farrahi was a leftist, so I assigned him to a special program that reported on things that were wrong.  I told him he should have all the documents that prove what he was reporting was accurate. Radio still was not part of us [the government television network], and they used to complain that Farrahi’s program was too freed. This was, of course, mainly due to Mr. Qotbi, who was close to the Court, a logical person, and a good person to persuade the Shah or the Queen.  So, we had freedom for many good years until problems were created intentionally by the security forces that forced us to have more red lines and a department to review any program before going on air. This was self-censorship rather than government censorship.

Problems with SAVAK

Many years have passed—40 years since I left the country– and I am not young anymore. But anybody who was in Iran before the Revolution in 1979 remembers that quite a few of the Iranian students, who belonged to the Confederation of Iranian Students, were bitterly against the Shah.  Most of them were Communists, leftists, and a very few liked [Mohammad] Mosaddeq or his followers. But most of them were Maoist, Stalinist, or Leninist and came back from Europe with all these ideas.  Some of them actually were doing something, I have no idea what, but the security forces in Iran knew they were involved in conspiracies. They had several times plotted to kill the Shah; he was not hurt of course, but they discovered networks. Some of the leaders of these radical groups were captured by SAVAK.  SAVAK’s Third Branch was in charge of internal affairs.  The head of that department called us to say that SAVAK wanted to put on television one of these prisoners who had confessed to sabotage and to an attempt on the Shah’s life.  They wanted him to tell the people that this is not propaganda, but true.  I don’t know why they always called me, because I was not the head of the TV network, I was the deputy.  Maybe because my background was in television, it was easier for them to talk to me.  

So, after SAVAK called I talked to the director, Mr. Qotbi.  He said he was absolutely against this, that television must not be used.  “We are not a tool and an instrument of the SAVAK or security,” he said. “I would not do that.”  So, I called the gentleman at SAVAK and told him the director general did not accept this.  He said, “You will do it!” I said, “I know you can force us, but this is the situation: you gave me a message and I am responding; the decision is not mine.”  And that prisoner was not put on television.

About nine months later, the same situation arose and this time it was very serious: it involved an Iranian who was spying for Iraq. Relations between Iraq and Iran were very bad, and this man who was captured had a lot of things to say to Iranians.  It was a Kurdish situation, which was always a sensitive issue among Iran, Turkey and Iraq. Once again, they came to me [to put the prisoner on television] and I told them I would discuss it.   I told Mr. Qotbi, “You can resist so much, but they are smart. You have to do something about this matter, either for once go ‘break your stones’ in front of the higher authority, or submit, or do something, because this is getting bad. I know what happens if you don’t do anything.” When he asked, “How do you know?” I said, “I have been longer at this, and I’ve been longer in Iran and in politics.”  He said, “Tell them he should come, and we will record it; we aren’t putting it on air live. We’ll record it, we will look at, and if we decide to, we will put it on.” Of course, I did not use all this terminology, but I informed them that because we recorded all the programs except the news, this program would be recorded and if there was no technical problem, we would put it on the air.  

The tape was made, but between the studio where the tape was made and the archives for the programming it was lost.  This was the kind of thing that I was always afraid would happen. Qotbi was asking “Where is the tape, let’s look at it,” and the tape had disappeared, the worst thing that could happen. We knew that they reported to the Shah that Qotbi or Mahmoudi or somebody we supervised intentionally caused the tape to be lost, so it was a very, very bad situation.  It was so tense that Mr. Qotbi submitted his resignation to Mr. [Amir-Abbas] Hoveyda, who was the prime minister at that time. But, Qotbi asked the Army and Security Police–not SAVAK–to investigate. Of course, this was not made public at the time–this is the first time I have made it public.  One of the newly employed personnel, who was just an intern, apparently had a connection with SAVAK, and they asked him to take the tape and hide it someplace to make Qotbi and the whole organization look bad. They wanted to control us.  Army Intelligence found this intern, so the tape was found after 15 days or a month. I don’t remember if it was put on the air or not, but Qotbi’s resignation was not accepted.  The boy, however, was put in prison.  They had to do something.  He wrote a letter from the prison to the director-general, copied to me, copied the other assistant director-general, and to Mr. Jaffarian, who was later killed by the Islamic regime.  The boy made a petition, telling us that he was young, had many hopes for himself and his family, and for his country, that he was a patriot and all of that.  Of course, we knew which organization had asked him to do it and he had to do it. He said he was told that if we were to pardon or excuse him, it would make it easier for the judiciary to release him early.  

So, this was the “danger alert,” as we call it in Farsi, a serious alarm, for Mr. Qotbi. It made clear that the more we resisted SAVAK, they would do something. Then Mr. Qotbi gave up. He said, “I don’t give a damn anymore. We don’t want any people from SAVAK to come here, but we will do it ourselves. So, those people who had experience in security wrote a little manual of the do’s and don’ts.  I am not aware that anybody from SAVAK or other organizations dictated these, but what I do know is that internally a committee set down procedures and guidelines for the producers and directors on what were the do’s and don’ts. Everybody had it under his desk, so this was a kind of self-censorship, but not always; not everyone obeyed these rules.  

There were many times that people stepped over these red lines and created problems for Qotbi and me and other colleagues at that level.  But we had channels to go and say that we took all the precautions to prevent this happening.  The one thing that I am proud to say—not for myself, but for the person I was working with, Mr. Qotbi—is that we resisted. We did not let anybody, except that guy who went to prison because the stole the tape of course, anybody who did not obey these rules get turned over to SAVAK.  Nobody was captured, nobody was called to SAVAK, and we when radio was integrated into the national television, we protected them, too, from even being questioned.  We told SAVAK, “If you have any questions, we are the guilty ones, ask us.”  The only thing we were told was to be more careful, and make sure that the violation was not repeated. Through this means we kept SAVAK away from us, although I cannot swear that they did not have an agent among the 4500 employees that they we had.  Definitely they had informers.

Surveying Public Opinion

Everybody knows, or should know, that if the media do not measure the effect of their messages or if they do not have a means to do that with some degree of certainty, they won’t achieve their objectives or they will lose their audience.  As they do in America on commercial television, I signed a contract with the National Iranian Psychological Organization to every 3 months conduct polling for commercial TV. They would ask questions about the programs, about the performers, and so on.  We used to get the feedback, and it was easy because it was not governmental; they could answer frankly and it was not political.  That helped us a great deal as we could show the polls to the commercial agencies and to the sponsors. Based on those polls, we divided the commercial rates among Class C, B, A, AA and these each had different rates. I brought this background from commercial TV to the National TV.  

After we opened many centers and became a really national network, we had to do this. A couple of times we tried the Ministry of Higher Education, which was responsible for the entrance examination to the universities and asked that they do this polling for us. But they were not experts in that kind research, so we established a small department that was under my jurisdiction. We didn’t want this to be published, we wanted this information for ourselves. We used all the techniques that Nielson used in America, or some other organizations, such as Gallup, and designed many surveys based on them to suit our needs.  This department was working full-time like any other department in the organization, so they were always doing surveys in one of the provinces or one of the cities about certain programs. 

We had certain programs, like western classical music, which we had on once a week. We had a program we called “Iran Zamin”—the “Land of Iran”—that was mainly about the history, the background, and the culture of Iran, one program on the old Iran, and one on the new.  Naderpour was in charge of the old one and Dr. Sajjadi was in charge of the other. These two programs were not produced in the best way for television, because we did not know how to do documentaries.  BBC was really good, much better than even the Americans, but we did not have experience in these programs and they were coming in at the bottom of the list.  But because of Mr. Qotbi’s insistence that the Iranians must be exposed to western music, especially classical music, we kept them.  These programs had a five or six percent share of the audience, but we did not kill them like commercial television in America would because these types of programs were needed.

Then the oil money became plentiful and we received twice the budget that we asked for.  So top management got together. We knew that we needed new buildings, we knew we needed new stations, and we needed new equipment, but we decided to do a worldwide survey on the future of broadcasting and communication in the world specifically looking at radio and television. It was a huge program.

Our organization that was called “Forecasting” or “Ayandehnegari,” was a very special section. I was charged with supervising it and we called some of the best people, obviously they were all Iranians, quite a few, three of them were Harvard graduates like Majid Tehranian, and his colleagues.  In the meetings we had, we decided that we needed foreigners, experts, professors of communications in radio and television in the United States, like Dr. Elihu Katz, who was a very famous, and people in Europe, South Africa, and Israel. I don’t believe we could get anyone from the Arab countries, except one from Egypt.  So, we had this consulting body that we wanted to help us understand how they saw things. There was a lot of theoretical talks and out of those some things came out. We decided to do a worldwide survey among the intellectuals, among the experts–selected groups–on how they saw the future of radio and television. How they saw it in America, how they saw the future of radio and television in England. We could not get anyone from behind the iron curtain, except, I think, we got to Czechoslovakia at that time, we got their opinion. French, English, South Africa: these are the ones I remember.

We had a bunch of literature from these people, on what they hypothesized and what they saw.  On the basis of all those, as well as from inside the country, we prepared a lengthy questionnaire to ask the public.  It was a random sample, obviously you can’t ask everybody. Using Random sampling, the Fischer method, thousands in Iran were selected from common people to well-educated men and women, illiterate, elementary, high school, college, all of that. So we did a countrywide survey to answer these questions, about the present, what they liked, what they disliked, what they would like the television and radio to do for them, or if they thought it was absolute nonsense, an imported commodity unsuitable for Iranian society.  All sorts of questions.

I should say, too, that the late Dr. Majidian did a lot of hard work. Using his family and connections, he surveyed the mullahs and the “talabeh,” religious school students, the ones that later on became Khomeini’s soldiers. They were in various schools in Qom and Mashhad.  Although most of them said they had watched television, when they answered the survey questions, we learned that we were naive; they knew. 

After this whole big thing was analyzed it came to six volumes, each volume around six or seven hundred pages. This was a major effort, the only thing I can report right now is that most of them are now old and irrelevant.  The only thing we found out was how much fanaticism and Shia religious doctrine was alive and living with these people. Not just among those religious students, but all the people.  We had sensitive questions to measure these.   When this was compiled and Mr. Qotbi reported to the Shah that we did such a thing, he asked all of us who were instrumental in the survey, which was six of us, to his palace and his private office. As we started to explain to him, he became fascinated. Several times his private secretary, Mr. Moinian, came and said the Ambassador of Sweden has been here for more than half an hour, but the Shah said, “I am sorry, please tell him this is a very important matter, ask him to come another day and apologize.”  We were with him for about five hours. He was very curious and very inquisitive, he wanted to measure the validity and reliability of the study. We told him all the instruments, all the techniques that are available in the world that I myself used, there were two others that knew more than me.  After he appreciated us and shook hands with us, he said, “These books that you have should be kept in a safe place and should not be published but use it for yourselves.”

Vocational and Cultural Activities

After a couple of years on national television, we found out that we did not have enough technicians for our planned expansion. There was in Iran an overall shortage of technicians in all areas.  You had engineers, you had PhDs, we had BAs, we had people with MS degrees, but you did not have anything down below. We opened a two-year school, like a community college, and had two branches, one was technical, one was programming.  Programming would produce program assistants, writers, scriptwriters, and producers.  On the technical side, there were technical directors, camera people–both video and film–and also directors.  

This actually was a very fruitful activity. We contributed to the wealth of the nation in the arts of cinema, theater, and radio.  Television, despite the common belief, had not created and did not have a significant executive role in the Persepolis and Shiraz festivals of arts.  We were told that we should assist them and record the programs for our own broadcast and also for the archives of the arts of Iran. The chairman of this festival was the queen and she appointed Mr. Qotbi, who was director of the television, as her deputy for executive affairs. I personally did not have anything to do, I was always invited as a guest, to the festival of Shiraz, but our personnel were very much involved in it. Then we had one festival which was created by my people, and that was the festival of the “Young Asian Filmmakers.” That became very popular from Egypt to Australia and from China to Africa. It was held in Shiraz, once every other year. We gave prizes for the first, second and third places.  For that particular year we used to appoint or hire the director of the festival, sometimes from outside. We also organized a jury to judge the films, and I was very much involved with that. There was not any other festival quite like it, that I could see.  After the festival of Shiraz, the Tus Festival was more traditional, but it was not international and was more concerned about Iran.

The national television was run unlike any other government organization. We in Tehran knew that if any of the remote provinces or cities asked for camera or film, it would go through the bureaucracy and would take one to two months before they could get answers.  So, what the three of us– Mr. Qotbi, Mr. Jafarian, and myself–decided to do, in addition to the other duties we had, was to become “patrons” of certain provinces.  I was responsible for Khorasan, Kerman and Zahedan.  Because of that role, I was more involved with the Tus festival. This was held in the city of Tus, which is the burial place of Ferdowsi. The festival was purely Iranian and about the Shahnameh, with speakers on the Shahnameh, other poets of Khorasan and the Tea Houses, and the traditions of Naghali (oral storytelling).  People used to go to these coffee/ tea houses and tell stories by heart from the Shahnameh; some were illiterate but had heard the stories from their fathers and were reciting them. Another one was “Chest-to-Chest,” another type of storytelling that was covered in the Tus festival.  All of these were the traditions presented at the Tus festival. I was involved in arranging all of these for the festival.

The Impact of the Revolution 

Through the surveys we did we found out how much tradition and fanaticism existed in certain parts of Iran. Everybody had some beliefs that they were not revealing because it was not fashionable. In the city of Qom, which is a religious city, a decree of one of the mullahs forbade the people to watch television.  They said it was anti-God and anti-Islam, and just like in America in the early ‘50s and ‘60s, in order to watch television you had to have antenna on top of your roof to receive the signal.  So, they could detect who had a television set and they would search them out and cause a lot of problems for people.  We had reports that people in the city of Qom were interested in watching television—more than you would have thought–so they would erect their antennas on their roofs after dark and bring them down before dawn.  This showed how strong the religious opposition to watching television was.  There were no demonstrations, but there was criticism in the newspapers about the quality of the programs. Iranians are generally for modernity.  They wanted to be like America, they wanted their roads to be like the highways in Germany.  Everyone knows that.  What was surprising was that among all these groups of intellectuals, and the parties that were against the Shah and his regime, the group that nobody thought would take over, took over.  It was the religious people!

When Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini came, he totally changed the top echelon of the national television. They were either executed, or fired, or they fled the country.  The mullahs put their own people there and maybe for the first time Khomeini and his colleagues watched television and saw themselves preaching to people. Khomeini said that before this [TV] was the house of prostitutes, now television has become the house of God. Television during the Islamic Republic changed its position in the belief of the people 

At the beginning, the religious television had some effect, as far as I am aware. First of all, they had sold, maybe, three quarters of million television sets in Tehran, but in no time it was increased to three million.  Now, in the whole country, I think there are 15, 20, 25 million sets.  Every family has it.  Because, before, the mullahs said it was a satanic device; now they read the Quran on it.  One thing the mullahs can say is that they spread television throughout the country.  Secondly, they opened the door for many, many women from certain families that previously did not want to be hired by television or radio.  They thought it would be bad.  When I left Iran, only a few months before the revolution, we hardly had 5,000 employees; now, I heard about 3 years ago, they have 95,000. The employees are the sons and relatives of the mullahs and the pasdars (Revolutionary Guards). They want jobs for their kids, and there are no jobs, so they push them into television. 

National television was one of the many government organizations in Iran before the revolution. Now it is called “Seda and Sima”—the “Sound and Image” of the Islamic Republic.  This has become one of the major regime institutions, after the pasdaran and the security establishment in Iran.  It is influenced by the government, watched by the government, used and misused by the government and watched very closely.  They think the revolution of Khomeini without radio, television, and the smuggled audio tapes was impossible.  So, they keep TV very close to themselves.  

There is a saying that in every revolution, the first part of it is exciting and successful. The second part, people start to think about what they have done; some like it, some don’t. But the third generation, they will definitely change the revolution to something else, and now, in Iran, we have the third generation.  I am sure that they have left behind the superstitions, those things that my mother really believed, such as putting a prayer book or a Quran under the pillow of a sick person to cure them. My family was educated. We were close to the best hospital in Iran, but this was still the practice of the old generation. They would go to the doctor, get the medicine, get the shots, but still put the Quran under the pillow and believed that it was the source of the cure.  Those days are gone. I am afraid to say that with them the old morality has gone, because when everything was based on those ideas, whether right or wrong. But when that foundation was taken over by the regime, with it the disbelief came.  I used to meet a lot of people who had come from Iran—I still meet them now—who are totally immoral, against religion! Is this good for Iran or not? I don’t know. But the future of Iran belongs to the third generation.

Media & Communications Expert | + posts

Kambiz Mahmoudi studied psychology in the United States where he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Communications. He worked in various Iranian government organizations in the area of research and publications dealing with the media. 

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