Femme-led talk shows tackle taboos

Female audiences attracted to chats

Across the Middle East, femme talkshows are touching on ever more daring subjects — and drawing big auds in the process.

Leading the way is MBC’s “Kalam Nawaem” — similar in style to ABC’s “The View” — with four different presenters of different ages and backgrounds discussing the hot topics of the day. Close behind is Dubai TV’s “Nashwa,” fronted by Egyptian personality Nashwa El Ruweini, and satcaster Rotana Cinema’s “Hala,” presented by Dr. Hala Sarhan.

While these shows all follow fairly familiar formats, with a mix of chat, celebrity visits and entertainment, perhaps the most surprising new show to emerge in recent months has been Egyptian satcaster Al-Mehwar’s “The Big Talk.” Fronted by Egyptian sexologist Heba Kotb, it is proving something of a taboo-buster among Egyptian auds with its frank discussions of all things sexual.

“When we began the show, some people were saying that Arabs weren’t ready for it, but there has to be a first time for everything,” Kotb says. “The acceptance now is much bigger than in the beginning. If you keep things in the closet and taboo, you’ll always be afraid of tackling it, but we need to open up. Sex is part of everyone’s life. It’s like being hungry or thirsty.”

Although Kotb explores sexual relations between husband and wife only — she refuses to discuss unmarried escapades — it still took three years of negotiations to get her show on the air. That it’s being aired at all, though, could be a sign of greater willingness among Arab TV execs to broach subjects previously felt off-limits.

“Arab society is hungry for debate and questioning,” says Dubai TV’s Ali Jaber. “There is a willingness to be exposed and expose itself to a certain extent as long as it’s responsibly done.”

Proceed with caution

Responsibility is the key word. The battle for ratings has seen some TV execs push the bar too far, too fast in a bid to outdo their rivals.

In February, Rotana’s Sarhan found herself under fire after allegations emerged that three actresses had been paid to pose as prostitutes in one episode of her show.

Rival satcaster Al-Mehwar led a daily campaign attacking Sarhan, while Egypt’s public prosecutor ordered a judiciary investigation of the issue and seized tapes of the show.

The three girls in question also threatened to launch a $17 million defamation suit against the presenter and the channel. Sarhan has reatreat to London, where she has been incommunicado.

“When you’re able to create the talk of the town, you’re confirmed by ratings, and … the media will pick up on the story,” says Mazen Hayek, MBC Group’s director of marketing and PR. “You can call it bad publicity, but Hala Sarhan still got a lot of publicity at the end of the day.”

Though Sarhan refuses to discuss the issue, execs at Rotana confirms the presenter will be returning to Cairo soon to resume lensing new episodes.

While Sarhan’s case highlights the double-edged sword of peddling sensationalism, MBC’s “Kalam Nawaem” has consistently remained the most-watched chatshow across the region without resorting to such tactics.

“The red lines have moved, but it’s not just about ratings with us. We’re able to connect with different segments of society because all four of us represent different cultures, backgrounds and experiences,” says co-presenter Mona Abu Sulayman.

While all these shows are understandably strong among femme auds, maybe more surprising is that men are starting to tune in as well.

Kotb says half the emails she receives every week come from men, while Abu Sulayman has found herself on the receiving end of some unlikely requests.

“We had one viewer whose husband was having problems with certain functions because of his diabetes but was refusing to go see a doctor,” she says. “This woman asked us to tell her husband to go see a doctor because he would listen to us.”

The success of the genre is also spreading to other demographics. MBC has launched “Adam,” a skein specifically focused on tackling men’s issues, while execs at Dubai One are in the early stages of developing an English-language talkshow that can address expat as well as Arab auds across the region.

“People like to talk. We’re looking at shows like ‘Oprah,’ ‘Tyra,’ ‘The View.’ It’s a big market, but it’s not easy to cast,” says Najla Al-Awadhi, VP of Dubai Media Inc.

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