Arab TV execs face dilemma of how to create lively fare that fits local values

The race is on for TV execs to grab a piece of the increasingly important Arab youth market.

The December announcement that Viacom would be partnering with Dubai-based Arab Media Group (AMG) to launch an Arabic version of its premier youth brand MTV merely confirmed the huge potential for satcasters targeting young Arab auds. With two-thirds of the Arab world under the age of 30, the sector has become the key demographic for execs in the region.

What’s more, with the advances in new media and the move onto multiple platforms of delivery, interactivity and user-generated content, Arab TV execs — just like execs in Europe and America — are having to change to stay relevant.

“If we don’t adapt, we’re going to be out of the game,” says Dubai TV’s Ali Jaber. “The main thing is to set our new technologies to the cultural constraints and traditional values in the region.”

While youth auds have traditionally been more open to daring, cutting-edge programming, the fact remains that social mores in the Middle East trend toward the conservative, particularly in the lucrative Gulf region. It’s one of the main challenges facing AMG topper Abdullatif al-Sayegh as he sets about launching MTV Arabiya before the end of this year.

“You have to be responsible towards your society, especially when it comes to the Arab world,” al-Sayegh says. “There has to be a two-way dialogue. You have to ask your audience and see what they want. Right now, you cannot impose anymore.”

Execs at both AMG and MTV are remaining tight-lipped over specific programming on the new channel, and whether the more provocative MTV shows will be imported into the Arabic version. MTV Networks Intl. general manager Bhavneet Singh does, however, confirm that “we are carrying out a considerable amount of in-depth research in order for us to cater to the local traditions and sensibilities while continuing to provide the best in entertainment in true MTV style.”

As things stand, Arab TV execs already aim large portions of their skeds toward younger auds. The season finale of LBC’s “Star Academy” — the top-rated show across the region — saw 7┬ámillion SMS votes flood in as Iraqi singer Shada Hassoun eventually triumphed in the pan-Arab talent content.

The continuing success of the reality skein — now in its fourth season — along with the fact that music channels such as Rotana, Melody and Nujoom bring in millions of dollars in revenue from SMS messaging are indications of youth spending power.

“The youth segment shapes a key market dynamic that any entertainment channel has to pay attention to simply because it is the single largest demographic,” says Pierre Daher, LBC’s CEO. “Shows like ‘Star Academy’ provide a real platform for the Arab youth to fulfill their dreams beyond just dreaming for a better future.”

Channels are differing in the way they stay in touch with their auds. Execs at Dubai Media Inc., for example, aired “Al Maidan,” a dance skein on terrestrial channel Sama Dubai, which caters solely to the U.A.E. market, centered around the traditional Emirati dance of the yola. Show was a huge hit with local youth. MBC, on other hand, launched a whole channel, MBC Action, in March aimed directly at 18- to 24-year-old males. The channel, comprising programming like “Prison Break” and “Lost,” is already proving a ratings winner.

“There’s a huge potential to tap into the youth market. The sky is the limit,” says Mazen Hayek, MBC’s group director of marketing and PR. “This is a region where TV is a national sport. Arab youth are very much in tune with global trends.”

Platform spike

All the major pan-Arab satcasters are amping up their multiplatform and digital activities. LBC, MBC and Dubai TV, along with Rotana, are all increasing their VOD capabilities, IPTV and show downloads.

Future TV has taken a cue from YouTube by giving 36 digital cameras to students each week to film their own short clips. The best four are then aired on popular skein “Me Now.” “We got excellent feedback,” says Future TV’s Layla Wehbi. “We have to see how much potential there is in the market, but 60% of my screen is already aimed at empowering the youth.”

“The Internet is changing so much. I see it as the main driver of all these platforms,” al-Sayegh says: “when you feel like it, when you want it, where you want it. It’s your space, your tube, your life. Five years from now, 50% of all content here, whether newspapers, radio or TV, will be created by users.”

While these digital technologies have given users around the world greater freedoms and empowerment in their viewing habits, whether Arab youth will use them to circumvent long-standing issues of censorship and conservative values remains to be seen.

“Even the youth have been brought up with these values,” Jaber says. “I don’t think that Arab youth are a carbon copy of Western youth. The Arab youth like a bit of this and a bit of that, too. We can’t assume they will get too risque just because they can. Put it this way: I don’t think we’re going to see a Playboy Channel anytime soon.”

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