Million little pieces

Lebanon's once-thriving media biz regroups & rebuilds amid cease-fire

As the fragile cease-fire in Lebanon continues to hold, and attention turns to the rebuilding process, TV execs in the battered country are weighing the damage to country’s media biz.

Several Lebanese satcasters took a direct hit during the Israeli bombardment of the country, as Hezbollah’s Al-Manar saw its Beirut headquarters destroyed, while Future TV, pubcaster Tele-Liban and the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. (LBC) had their transmission towers hit by missiles. (LBC also lost a technician after one Israeli assault.)

With guns on both sides largely silent for now, the challenges to Lebanon’s once-thriving TV biz are only now becoming clear.

The birthplace of the pan-Arab satellite TV boom — LBC was the region’s first privately owned channel to launch in 1986 — Lebanon has traditionally been a Mideast production hub.

In the first days of the latest conflict, more than a dozen commercials slated to lense in the country were relocated to the comparable safety of Dubai.

Other production centers, such as Cairo and Amman, also benefited in the immediate aftermath of the war.

One production company hired a bus for its cast and crew and sent them on a 25-hour trek through Syria all the way to Amman to resume lensing there.

The question now, with the continuing political instability in the country, is whether major regional shingles can be enticed back to Lebanon.

“When the war broke out, all the productions shifted to Dubai and Cairo,” says Dubai TV’s Ali Jaber, who previously headed Future TV in Lebanon. “We even moved one of our shows to Cairo. But once the war ended, we returned to Lebanon. Beirut remains the most cost-effective place to shoot, and all the local talent is still there.”

Where the potential for instant recovery gets less clear, however, is with the ad market. Local ad revenue for Lebanese satcasters has virtually dried up, with financial aid diverted to social and reconstruction efforts.

“It has been a huge economic setback for Lebanon, and traditionally the advertising sector is the last to recover,” Jaber notes.

Leading satcasters such as LBC and Future TV — whose skeds would normally be filled with entertainment fare — switched to round-the-clock news coverage. Losses in ad revenue for both stations have already run into the millions of dollars.

“We lost a lot. Future has one contract with a Dubai-based ad firm that’s worth $50 million that we’re battling to keep,” says Future TV’s Ali Hamade.

Ironically, however, given the amount of criticism some Arab countries received in Lebanon for their perceived lackluster efforts to bring about a cease-fire, it could very well be the Arabs — in the form of the pan-Arab satellite ad market — who ultimately come to Lebanese TV’s rescue.

While the terrestrial market in Lebanon is likely to remain moribund for some time, both LBC and Future remain popular on their pan-Arab satellite platforms.

The Gulf, and particularly Saudi Arabia, account for the vast majority of total ad spend on pan-Arab TV. In fact, both LBC and Future, as well as Al-Manar, received big jumps in their ratings as Arab auds tuned in to watch daily events unfold.

The income from their pan-Arab operations remained largely unaffected.

“They actually raised audiences across the Arab world,” says media consultant Nabil Kazan. “While they may have lost some local ad income, ad spend in summer is usually low anyway. The upcoming pan-Arab Ramadan campaigns should largely compensate for the loss.”

While LBC and Future are likely to survive recent dents in their fortunes thanks to programming, which respectively includes the popular pan-Arab shows “Star Academy” and “Superstar,” the prospects for local Lebanese channels without an equivalent regional pull, such as New TV, are insecure.

Al-Manar, which isn’t reliant on ad sales given its direct funding from Hezbollah, is also unlikely to be affected by the drop in revenue.

Within days after the cease-fire, Lebanese satcasters had resumed normal programming, intent on presenting a business-as-usual persona to the rest of the world.

“To be honest with you, they probably would have changed the next day if the destruction hadn’t been so heavy. They were embarrassed about returning to normal programming too quickly,” Hamade says.

While few Lebanese doubt their own resilience to bounce back instantly — just as they did from the civil war between 1975-1990 that left some 100,000 people dead — others in the region are not so sure.

Many fear a brain drain of young talent to territories such as Dubai, as well as westward toward the U.K. and the U.S.

“Eventually, they will come back, but what has happened is going to take its toll. There has been a big psychological blow dealt to the youth of the country,” Jaber says.

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