As if building the Arab world’s first and most successful TV net wasn’t enough, Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) founder and chairman Sheik Waleed al Ibrahim is intent on conquering the music and film biz too.
Al Ibrahim, who founded MBC in 1991 as the Arab world’s first privately owned, 24-hour, pan-Arab satcaster, has been steadily rolling out a multi-platform expansion of his media empire.
The last few months have seen the ambitious maven dip his toes into the music business by embarking on a joint venture with Saudi singer Rachid al-Majed to bow new music channel Al-Wanasah and by launching MBC Action, a channel aimed squarely at the lucrative young male audience in the region.
Al Ibrahim is also ramping up his investment in the film biz both at home and abroad. He is a board member of Mark Gill and Neil Sacker’s new production and finance shingle, theFilm Dept., having invested a substantial and unspecified sum of coin, and is also prepping plans to launch an MBC film division at some point in 2008.
Following a strong Ramadan season when MBC — which moved its HQ to Dubai in 2002 from London — had arguably the two hottest skeins of the season in the Egyptian biopic “King Farouk” and Syrian drama “Bab al-hara,” al Ibrahim has now set his sights on utilizing new technologies to carry MBC’s broadcast dominance onto the Internet.
“The convergence of new media basically provides different access points for our customers,” says al Ibrahim, who is related to the Saudi royal family. “It really democratizes the whole view of what people can watch. It’s not up to programmers; it’s up to the audience to decide what they want to know, watch, see and view.”
Democratizing Arab media is nothing new for al Ibrahim. The idea for launching MBC originally came about partly out of frustration with the stale state-owned channels. Not that he’s ready to give up on TV just yet.
“Everyone talks about the death of broadcasting with the Web, but I don’t think we’re near there in the Middle East because the technologies aren’t here yet,” he says. “I think it’s five years away. We stayed away from this area until this year, though, because now is the right time to really be going out there and trying to own the space.”
This past Ramadan, MBC offered Saudi laffer “Tash ma tash” for the first time for mobile phone downloads. The show, a mixture of satire and slapstick, is a local phenom that routinely tops the ratings in the all-important market of Saudi Arabia.
MBC will be continuing with digital offerings throughout 2008, including the launch of an online portal that execs are describing as a new channel.
While few would argue with MBC’s pedigree in the Arab TV biz, overcoming the Arab film market is an entirely different proposition. While a potential audience of 200 million across the region speaking the same language — albeit with sometimes wildly varied dialects — would seem to offer a captive market for potential film execs, the truth is that the region’s commercial potential has been plagued by piracy, censorship and political turmoil.
“A lot of the challenges have to do with the role of IP (intellectual property protection),” says al Ibrahim. “When you have the piracy that you have here, the short windows between coming out in theaters and going on TV, the low budgets, low quality and the fact that there aren’t cinemas in Saudi Arabia, it’s hard to get your investment back.”
The problem, says al Ibrahim, is not a shortage of talent.
“The challenge is to get the quality, and being able to monetize it where it makes sense for investors,” al Ibrahim says. “MBC, as the largest media player, has the ability to put films on TV, so all of a sudden there’s a nice distribution window there.”
MBC’s film unit will come under the umbrella of MBC Group, which includes flagship channel MBC 1, 24-hour movie channel MBC 2, kid-oriented MBC 3, English-language MBC 4 and newscaster Al-Arabiya as well as MBC Action. Shingle will look to produce five to six Arabic-language features a year.
The prospect of Saudi Arabia opening up from an entertainment industry standpoint may also have a huge bearing on the ultimate success of MBC’s film venture.
Officials in the conservative kingdom are prepping new media laws set to liberalize the biz there, and work is also well under way on King Abdullah Economic City, which may well include within it a media zone that could challenge the current supremacy of Dubai’s media city. Talk has also been rife for months that the Saudi royal family is finally planning to lift the three-decade-long ban on cinemas.
“It’s a matter of laws and regulations,” says al Ibrahim. “It’s being talked about openly in the papers. It is just a matter of time. It will be a very big market and will change the (effect of ) piracy here.”
Next year should also see the launch of more MBC channels.
With the Arab TV market nearing saturation point at more than 250 free-to-air satcaster channels in addition to payboxes Showtime Arabia, Orbit and ART, MBC execs are going local with a number of terrestrial offerings currently being evaluated.
“We’re looking at launching specific channels in specific regions, whether that be in North Africa, the Palestinian territories or Kuwait,” says al Ibrahim. “They would have a lot of MBC content but really be geared terrestrially and focus on a local market, where we can then utilize our content but get local advertising and local ratings.”
MBC execs are already lining up their 2008 Ramadan slate with what promises to be their most explosive lineup yet.
Most keenly awaited is a planned 30-episode biopic of Saddam Hussein, the first time the late Iraqi dictator would have been portrayed by an Arab net. “We have a lot of cool stuff on the horizon for Ramadan as usual,” says al Ibrahim. “Look at any market share of MBC compared to anyone else and I really don’t see any of those people as being anywhere near our competitor.”