Arab conglomerate trys to compete with MBC

When Saudi Prince Al 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 claim to have created one of the Arab world’s most powerful media behemoths.

The newly conceived LBC-Rotana conglom — including Prince Waleed’s six existing Rotana channels, religious channel Al-Resalah, LBC and two English-language joint ventures with Fox: Fox Movies and Fox Series — looked to be in prime position to challenge the Arab world’s current market leader, fellow Saudi Sheik Al Waleed al Ibrahim’s MBC Group.

Many commentators opined that a genuine contender to MBC’s long-held dominance in the pan-Arab TV market had finally arrived. Surpisingly, though, early results have been mixed.

The ingredients for quick success all seemed to be in place. There was the 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.

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

So the new company certainly headed into its first Ramadan season this September filled with confidence. Gulf-oriented satcaster Rotana Khalijiya 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.”

Youth Appeal

Yet initial figures from research orgs Ipsos, Mindshare and Parc all indicate that Rotana Khalijiya has failed to make a significant dent on MBC, though it should be noted that TV ratings in the Arab world are notoriously imprecise due to the lack of people meters.

The net’s low numbers may be understandable, given MBC’s near monopoly on Arab auds, but what may prove of greater concern to LBC-Rotana execs is the net is also trailing Dubai TV and Abu Dhabi TV.

One long-term issue Rotana execs must address is the cultural gap between what made the Rotana music channels popular in the first place and their new appetite to become a production powerhouse for Gulf auds.

When Prince Waleed launched his first 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 nonstop rotation of titillating musicvids and interactive features allowing Arab kids to text 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 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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