Early signs have been mixed

LONDON — When Saudi Prince Waleed bin Talal upped his stake in Lebanese satcaster LBC to a controlling 85% in July and merged the popular net with his own multimedia titan Rotana, the billionaire maven could lay claim to having created one of the Arab world’s most powerful media behemoths.

The newly conceived LBC-Rotana conglom, which includes Prince Waleed’s six existing Rotana channels, religious channel Al-Resalah, LBC as well as the two English-language Fox joint ventures Fox Movies and Fox Series, was, on paper at least, in prime position to challenge the Arab world’s current market leader, fellow Saudi maven Sheik Waleed al Ibrahim’s MBC Group.

The combination of a deep-pocketed owner — Prince Waleed is regularly listed as one of the world’s richest men — and the programming savvy of LBC topper Pierre Daher overseeing the company’s assortment of channels led many commentators to opine that a genuine contender to MBC’s long-held dominance in the pan-Arab TV market had finally arrived.

That Rotana included the Arab world’s most powerful music label, as well as the production banner Rotana Films Studio, gave the LBC-Rotana group a multi-media platform on which to fully exploit its content.

The new company certainly headed into its first Ramadan season in September filled with confidence.

Gulf-oriented satcaster Rotana Khalijiya — Khalijiya is the Arabic word for Gulf — invested like gangbusters in drama, adding a whopping 11 skeins to its grid, marking the most substantial investment of any Arab satcaster in original drama during the biggest Arab TV season.

“The merger between the two groups into one company means bigger everything,” says Rotana Khalijiya topper Turki Shabanah. “Bigger marketing, bigger acquisitions, bigger sales. It’s a major package when you put all these channels together, including Fox. There are benefits everywhere.”

The early signs, however, have been mixed.

While TV ratings in the Arab world are notoriously imprecise due to the lack of people meters, initial figures from research orgs Ipsos, Mindshare and Parc all indicate that Rotana Khalijiya has failed to make a significant dent on MBC. While that may be understandable given MBC’s near-monopoly on Arab auds, and in particular the lucrative Saudi market, ever since it became the first privately owned pan-Arab satcaster to launch in 1991, what may prove of greater concern to LBC-Rotana execs is the net is also trailing behind the likes of Dubai TV and Abu Dhabi TV.

One long-term issue that likely needs to be addressed by Rotana execs is the cultural gap that exists between what made the Rotana stable of music channels popular in the first place with their newfound appetite to become a production powerhouse for Gulf auds.

When Prince Waleed launched the first of his Rotana channels in 2003, the emphasis was firmly on music. Shrewdly leveraging the exclusive deals he had inked with many of the region’s top pop stars through the company’s record label, Prince Waleed’s Rotana satcaster quickly became popular with youthful auds thanks to its non-stop rotation of titillating musicvids and interactive features allowing Arab kids to SMS each other live on-screen from all corners of the region.

Similarly, LBC became synonymous with its bevy of good-looking, short-skirted presenters.

Increasingly, however, execs at both nets have been busy tapping into Gulf auds, with LBC even taking the previously unthinkable step of employing veiled presenters.

Rotana, too, seems to have undergone an identity crisis.

“The words Rotana and Khalijiya are a contradiction in terms,” quips one Arab TV exec. “Rotana became famous by having pretty girls dancing around wearing next to nothing. I don’t see how they can now become a serious operation.”

While the naysayers may have their doubts, the fact remains that LBC-Rotana remains a formidable presence on the Arab TV scene. The question now is whether both Prince Waleed and Sheik Pierre, as Daher is affectionately known in Arab TV circles, are able to translate their indisputable ambition and know-how into tangible results.

“Each station in the Rotana Group will have its own direction and its own manager, but there will be synergy across the platform,” says Daher. “Our aim is not to challenge MBC; our aim is to challenge ourselves. We now have a bouquet of 10 channels that will aim to make the right offering to our viewers.”

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