Sheik Waleed al-Ibrahim expands media empire

Investments include new channels, Film Dept.

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.

Bin 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 multiplatform expansion of his media empire.

The past 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 launch MBC Action, a new channel aimed squarely at the lucrative young male audience in the region.

Bin 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, the Film Dept., having invested a substantial and unspecified sum of coin, and is also prepping plans to launch a new dedicated MBC film division at some point in 2008.

Following a strong Ramadan season in which MBC had arguably the two hottest skeins of the season in the Egyptian biopic “King Farouk” and Syrian drama “Bab al-hara,” bin Ibrahim has now set his sights on utilizing new technologies to carry MBC’s dominance to the Internet.

“The convergence of new media basically provides different access points for our customers,” says bin 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 but it’s up to the audience to decide what they want to know, watch, see and view.”

Democratizing Arab media is nothing new for bin Ibrahim. The idea for launching MBC originally came about partly out of frustration with the existing, 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 mobisodes of Saudi laffer “Tash Ma Tash” for the first time. The show, a mixture of satire and slapstick, is a local phenom which 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.

Although few would argue with MBC’s pedigree in the Arab TV biz, overcoming the Arab film market is an entirely different proposition. 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, but 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,” says bin 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. There is a lot of talent out there, but the challenge is to get the quality and being able to monetize it where it makes sense for investors. 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, newscaster Al-Arabiya as well as MBC Action. Startup shingle will look to produce five to six Arabic-language features a year.

The prospect of Saudi Arabia opening up itself 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 the King Abdullah Economic City, which may well include a media zone that could challenge the 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 bin 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 piracy here.”

Next year should also bring the launching of more MBC channels.

With the Arab TV market nearing saturation point — with more than 250 free-to-air satcasters, in addition to payboxes Showtime Arabia, Orbit and ART — MBC execs are going local, with a number of terrestrial offerings under evaluation. “We’re looking at launching specific channels in specific regions, whether that be in North Africa, the Palestinian territories or Kuwait,” says bin Ibrahim. “They would have a lot of MBC content but really be geared terrestrially and focus on a local market where you 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 that 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 bin 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.”

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