BEIRUT– A totally new — and somewhat crude –type of programming is invading Arab households. Switch on a TV anywhere in the Middle East and a large chunk of the broadcast spectrum will be dominated by channels streaming viewer-generated text messages along the bottom of the screen, across the sides, and, in some cases, enveloping the entire screen . This new breed of low-budget broadcasters, which seem to be multiplying , has come to number at least 50 over the past couple of years, with most airing music videos as a backdrop to live, text-in conversations.
Trend reflects the industry’s hottest new source of revenue as well as a genuine thirst in Arab society — largely among young people — to communicate on television, free from the limitations of the real world. The tone of the messages is telling. Many take the form of flirtatious love notes, featuring Arabic terms of endearment such as habibi (sweetheart) or hayati (my love) couched in a smattering of exclamation marks. For an extra charge, viewers can add emphasis with MSN-style smiley face graphics, known as emoticons, or opt for “VIP” messages, broadcast instantly ahead of the tens of thousands of others in queue. Channel operators say most messages come from Saudi Arabia and other conservative countries, where dating, let alone flirting, is a taboo. In addition to playing a constant stream of “clip-et” (the Arabized plural of music video clips), many of the channels are featuring young and inexperienced female presenters against a backdrop of kitsch green screen sets, pitching everything from call-in gameshows to televised fortune telling. But aside from being an outlet for frustrated youth, text ticker channels have evolved into a “get-rich quick” plan for an industry that suffers from abysmal advertising revenues.
Few if any major Arab networks are profitable. This is because annual TV ad spending for the entire region — estimated to be below $500 million after discounts — is barely equivalent to that of a modest-sized broadcast market in a single U.S. city.
With little-to-no production cost, telecom revenues — not commercials — are the lifeblood for the booming text TV segment. Egypt’s Mazzika channel, for example, claims to receive well over one million messages per month. In fact, so lucrative is this business of capitalizing on young people’s desire to communicate, that many of the channels have foregone airing broadcast content altogether.
The result is a messy mix of text soup moving in multiple directions across the entire screen; an eye-sore for media critics, but a seemingly boundless opportunity for both young audiences and mega telecom corporations.