LONDON (Reuters) - Four Iranians gather for a cosy dinner party, cracking jokes in Persian over a traditional meal of saffron rice and stew.
It's a tableau that could be straight out of Tehran. But instead it's a scene from a reality television show shot in Europe and broadcast by satellite from studios in southwest London.
With light fare like "Befarmaeed Sham," ("Welcome to Dinner" in Persian), the Iranian answer to the UK cooking show "Come Dine With Me," family-owned channel Manoto 1 has struck a chord inside Iran, gaining what is likely to be millions of fans since launching in 2010. In the process, it has also irked Iran's Islamic government.
"Manoto is closer to us than other channels culturally, and their shows are more fun," said Mohamad, 25, of Esfahan, who answered questions over the Internet. "It's like we are watching ourselves on television. Even their presenters are people who seem similar to us."
Satellite dishes are illegal in Iran, and the government periodically cracks down on owners and scrambles content from Western channels. Still, the dishes are sold and installed widely on the black market.
About 40 percent of Iranians watch satellite programmes broadcast from outside the country, according to a 2010 estimate from BBC Monitoring.
After less than two years on the air, Manoto ("Me and You") has outstripped its closest rivals, BBC Persian, Farsi 1, GEM TV and Voice of America (VOA), according to the number of "likes" each channel receives on its Facebook page - an imperfect proxy used by some experts to assess the channels in lieu of independent media survey firms in Iran.
As of mid-April, more than 620,000 people listed themselves as Manoto fans on Facebook - more than twice the number of its biggest competitor.
But in a country whose government tries to instil Islamic values by strictly regulating popular culture, even an entertainment channel like Manoto has angered authorities, who view it as part of a cultural "soft war" waged by the West. The Iranian government sometimes jams Manoto's signal, according to viewers.
"Manoto broadcasts programs that are completely against Islamic edicts, such as promoting the way the rich live," said researcher Mohammad Reza Khoshroo at a conference held in Iran this year, according to comments reported by Iran's Hawzah News Agency.
Kayvan and Marjan Abbassi, the UK-based Iranian couple who launched Manoto's parent company, Marjan TV, in 2009, stay out of the media spotlight. They and other Marjan TV officials declined to comment for this story despite repeated requests for interviews.
The Abbassis do not do interviews "in light of the sensitive nature of the current Iranian media environment," said Maryam Meddin, managing director of Clarus Design, the network's media agency. But she added: "Manoto 1 remains committed to providing entertainment programming to the Iranian people."
For an example of the "sensitivities" involved, one need look no further than "Befarmaeed Sham", where expatriate Iranians test their cooking skills and compete for a cash prize. Sounds innocent enough - except men and women also mix freely and drink alcohol. Female contestants do not cover their hair and tend to wear clothes that are more revealing than those allowed in the Islamic Republic, where women must wear headscarves and loose clothing in public.
"It's a window into a culture we could have if we were freely part of the global popular culture," said Mehdi Semati, an expert on Iranian media and culture at Northern Illinois University.
"Knowing there's a world outside where Iranians act like us, talk like us, and think like us, but live a life that is free of constraints - people compare themselves, and that's worrisome for the government."
At the conference, citing data from Manoto, Khoshroo said about half a million people inside Iran contacted the channel in its first week.
"This is a dangerous statistic," he said.
TELEVISION FOR THE MASSES
Manoto is partly funded by corporate sponsorships and has been sponsored in the past by companies that sell consumer products inside Iran, including Samsung and LG, according to Marjan TV's website and Clarus Design's Meddin.
Manoto's funding also comes from venture capitalists, according to a 2011 report on human rights and information access in Iran by the Foreign Policy Centre, a UK-based independent think tank. The report did not name the venture capital firms behind the station.
The Abbassis' previous venture, Bebin.tv, an online channel aimed at second-generation Iranians living in the West, shut in 2008. Manoto continues Bebin's focus on youth culture on a more ambitious scale, with several original shows, a second channel that airs documentaries and licenses to broadcast Miss World, the Golden Globes and the Grammy Awards.
Media professionals and experts and Iran watchers said it was not known what role politics played in the Abbassis' business strategy, if any.
What was clear was that the channel has tapped into a yearning in Iran for creative, original Persian-language programming, they said. Though satellite channels can be accessed worldwide, experts believe the vast majority of the viewership for Persian-language channels is inside Iran.
Manoto's popular news satire show, hosted by a cartoon monkey named Dr. Copy, is aimed at viewers who don't follow politics closely. Dr. Copy makes barbs at both Iranian and Western politicians, uses a laugh track and often receives feedback and photos from child fans.
"This is television for the masses," said Mahmood Enayat, who directs the Iran Media Program at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's not for the elite or upper class."
"Googoosh Music Academy," a competition show featuring music doyenne Googoosh guiding aspiring Persian-pop crooners, has been a runaway hit and completed its second season last year. Googoosh, essentially the Barbra Streisand of Iran, made her name as a singer and actress in the Shah-era 1960s and 1970s, and now performs and lives outside the country.
On the show, young men with trendy hairstyles and women in glitzy gowns sing ballads made famous during their parents' generation, before the 1979 Islamic Revolution and later restrictions on female vocalists and pop music.
According to Manoto figures, over four million viewers voted for their favourite contestant on the new season last fall, and the final episode attracted nearly 140,000 views on YouTube.
One proof of Manoto's success is that it appears to be a favourite target for Iran's censors, who must be selective about the programmes and channels they choose to jam because it is difficult to do so, media experts said.
The past three years have seen a renaissance in Persian-language television. Iranians can now watch BBC Persian, which has doubled its Iranian audience since launching in 2009 to about 6 million people; Farsi 1, which also started in 2009 and is partly owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.; and VOA's Persian News Network, home to satirical show "Parazit," similar to Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" and popular inside Iran ever since it began in 2009.
Reports from viewers inside Iran suggest authorities have repeatedly tried to interfere with Manoto programming since the channel launched.
Soon after Manoto debuted, a fan of "Googoosh Music Academy" complained he couldn't tune in to the season finale because the signal was jammed.
"Please, anyone who can, let us know what happens," he wrote on a Facebook thread dedicated to the show.
On Manoto's online message boards, viewers ask the channel to re-air beloved shows jammed on their original air date.
The head of IRIB, Iran's state broadcasting network, admitted scrambling satellite channels in a 2010 speech, according to a BBC report. "We send jams" to the satellites, Ezatollah Zarghami was quoted as saying.
Manoto isn't alone among its competitors in being targeted by Iran's censors, Enayat said. VOA, BBC Persian and Farsi 1 face the same issue, he said.
"If you don't get jammed that means you are safe television and the government doesn't feel threatened by you," Enayat said.
Another way the government has gone after commercial channels like Manoto is by targeting firms who buy advertisement spots. In comments on Iranian state television last year, Tehran's police chief reminded firms that advertising on satellite channels is illegal.
"To those who perhaps unknowingly advertise on these channels, we are telling them to cancel their contracts," said the official, Ahmad-Reza Radan.
But despite the government's efforts, the entrance of new Persian-language television outlets like Manoto has improved even the quality of Iranian state television, Enayat said.
In recent months, DVDs of a slick new show have popped up in Iran's video shops and attracted a following: A "Come Dine With Me"-style cooking competition, featuring four same-sex contestants, called "Iranian Dinner!" The contestants in its first instalments are well-known Iranian actors, and YouTube videos of the show have garnered tens of thousands of views.
"It has just forced everyone to produce better programming for Iranians," Enayat said.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)