Music video giant prepares for regional launch

LONDON — How do you launch a brand synonymous with cutting-edge programming and risque content in a region most commonly associated with conservative social mores? That is the challenge facing Viacom and Arab Media Group when they begin their eagerly anticipated joint venture MTV Arabia in November.

While Viacom has successfully rolled out local versions of its flagship MTV brand in countries as diverse as Turkey, Hungary and the Ukraine, it arguably faces its biggest, and potentially most lucrative, test in bringing MTV Arabia to broadcast.

With some two-thirds of the Arab world’s population under the age of 30, the market for MTV Arabia is huge. What’s more, the opportunity for SMS-based revenues is sky high given that mobile phone penetration across the region is particularly high as well. In the U.A.E., for example, there are more mobile phone contracts than there are people, with subscription rates at 104% of the population.

Leading the local drive of the Arabian launch is U.A.E.-based multi-media company Arab Media Group (AMG), which boasts 8 radio stations and three daily newspapers. MTV Arabia marks its first foray into the cut-throat world of Arab TV, where more than 200 free-to-air satcasters vie for an annual ad market worth less than $50 million.

AMG pulled off a coup last December when it outbid the Saudi-owned MBC Group, the Arab world’s first, and to this day leading, private satellite channel, to land the coveted MTV license from Viacom. The deal reportedly cost AMG execs $6 million a year for five years.

“We’re not just looking at MTV Arabia as another TV station,” says AMG chief exec Abdullatif Al-Sayegh. “The channel will be a platform for the Arab youth. Eventually they will decide the programming of the channel. It won’t just be the head of programming deciding what goes on air. I recently spent five days with Patrick Samaha, the head of the channel, in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. We spent all our time listening to the youth, seeing what they wanted and what their opinions were.”

While Samaha is keeping his cards close to his chest ahead of the satcaster’s official Oct. 21 press confab, which will unveil the full sked and presenter roster, Variety understands that the new channel will include a mix of Arabic and international musicvids – split roughly 60:40. While the channel’s first phase will retain much of MTV’s existing programming, there will be a concerted push towards user-generated content six months after the November launch.

Music programming is likely to fill only a third of the channel’s grid, with the remaining programming made up of imported MTV skeins and new, locally-produced shows.

MTV Arabia will have offices in Dubai and Cairo, with further bureaus to be opened in Beirut and Amman.

The new channel will also likely push alternative Arab music like homegrown hip hop not normally found on existing Arab music channels such as Rotana and Melody. AMG has been running radio spots in Lebanon, one of the Arab world’s most vibrant cultural scenes, calling for local hip hop artists to send in their demos.

“There is no limit to what we can do with this channel, but it has to be for the youth in the Arab world,” says Al-Sayegh. “We want to be selective with the artists we choose. They’re our ambassadors. We want them to be role models. Why do we only see international artists and actors making efforts to contribute to the situations in Darfur, in Iraq, in Lebanon? These are our issues and we need to contribute.”

While MTV Arabia’s desire to retain a distinctive local flavour is laudable, it also highlights one significant obstacle. Many of the Arab world’s top pop stars, such as Lebanese popstress Elissa, are already locked in to exclusive contracts with the likes of Saudi Prince Waleed Bin Talal’s Rotana music group, a vertically integrated media operation which includes a record label and numerous music channels. “We’ve had a number of meetings with the Rotana Group which have been positive,” says Al-Sayegh. “I’d be very surprised if we didn’t work together in the future.”

With MTV Arabia set to finally bow with a star-studded bash in Dubai on Nov. 16, the biggest question may be whether Arab auds are as keen to work with them.

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