Holy-month programs tackle tough topics

Ramadan season reaps auds in Arab version of sweeps

Homelessness, terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism are just a few of the incendiary topics on hand, with pan-Arab satcasters attempting to one-up each other with big-budget primetime serials airing throughout the month-long feast of Ramadan.

The period — which began this year Sept. 23 and culminates Oct. 22 — has become the key season for Arab satcasters, as families around the region congregate in front of the tube. During Ramadan, channels can take in us much as 20% of their annual ad revenue.

In fact, the price for a 30-second primetime spot on a leading satcaster that normally sells for $6,000 can double if a program proves popular.

Egypt and Syria, and increasingly the Gulf region, are the main production lines for the serials, which are commonly referred to as “musalsals” and typically span 30 episodes.

While Egypt has traditionally been the main supplier of musalsals, Syria has come on strong in recent years. Some 40 Syrian musalsals were produced this year, with local shingles aiming for lucrative deals from the major pan-Arab satcasters.

Production budgets for these programs have recently jumped from $500,000 to an average of $1.5 million, with satcasters paying up to $30,000 per episode for exclusive firstrun rights.

This year, Dubai TV scored something of a coup with “Children of the Street,” an Oliver Twist-style drama set on the contemporary streets of Cairo. The serial will mark the first onscreen appearance by popular Arab actress Hanan Al-Turk since her controversial decision to don the Islamic headdress of the hijab.

Dubai TV skeds also boast “Freej,” the first pan-Arab animated series. Dramas toplined by Egyptian star Nour Al-Sherif and a number of Gulf-originating serials are also on tap. “We’ve gone heavy on Gulfi productions this year,” says Dubai TV exec Ali Jaber. “We have our biggest lineup ever this year.”

MBC, meanwhile, has “Al-Andaleeb,” a lavish 30-part biopic focused on the life of legendary Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Al-Hafez, as well as “Gardens of the Devil,” which depicts an Egyptian girl’s struggle against a local drug dealer.

For its part, Lebanon’s LBC has two dramas from acclaimed Syrian helmer Najdat Anzour: the terrorism-themed “Protected” and the globe-trotting “Renegades,” which explores the Iraqi conflict, Al-Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism.

On a less provocative front, LBC is also set for its much-touted preem of “Cinderella,” a biopic focused on acclaimed Egyptian actress Souad Hosni starring Mona Zaki.

Religious programming also gets a look-in with regular slots on all the leading channels. This year marks the first Ramadan season for Prince Al Waleed bin Talal’s Islamic channel, Al-Resalah (The Message) — its sked will include new shows for increasingly popular tele-Islamists Amr Khaled and Tareq Sweidan.

Ramadan also tends to generate controversy. Last year, “The Beautiful Maidens” caused a stir with its depiction of Al Qaeda training camps and critical look at Islamic fundamentalism. And in 2004, MBC was forced to pull Al Qaeda-themed “The Road to Kabul” midway through airing after death threats against members of its cast and crew were posted on an Islamist Web site.

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