Young ‘king’ fights to hold crown

MBC still on top as competish for Arab auds heats up

When it first appeared as the Arab world’s inaugural privately owned, free-to-air pan-regional satcaster in September 1991, the Saudi owners of Middle East Broadcasting (MBC) could have hardly foreseen the impact it would ultimately have.

But 15 years later, MBC is the Arab world’s most-watched entertainment network.

Originally conceived as a way to break up the monopoly of staid, state-owned pubcasters across the region, MBC led the revolution in pan-Arab TV that would eventually see some 300 free-to-air satcasters proliferate across Arab lands.

Transmitting out of a London office in its formative years, and relocating its headquarters to Dubai in 2001, MBC’s ever-growing roster of top-rated outlets now includes 24-hour movie channel MBC 2, kidcaster MBC 3 and femme-oriented Western entertainment channel MBC 4.

Even MBC newscaster Al-Arabiya — launched in 2003 at the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq — can now boast of leading its better publicized rival, Al-Jazeera, in ratings.

In fact, research group Ipsos-Stat recently revealed that Al-Arabiya enjoyed a 17% audience share compared with Al-Jazeera’s 12% share during the recent Israel-Hezbollah war.

“I’m almost embarrassed to say it but when it comes to being No. 1, everyone agrees it’s MBC,” boasts Michel Costandi, MBC’s business development director. “All the others are fighting it out for the No. 2 position.”

Still, while MBC has perennially won its head-to-head ratings battles with rival Lebanese satcasters LBCi and Future TV, new competition to the “king of Arab TV” throne has emerged in the form of Dubai TV.

Relaunched in June 2004, and aimed at the same lucrative Gulf market that accounts for the majority of the Arab TV ad spending, Dubai TV has steadily eroded MBC’s market lead.

In fact, the ongoing Ramadan period — traditionally the time when Arab satcasters wheel out their biggest shows — could be the most exciting yet for Arab auds as the two channels square off.

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