Group accused of encouraging 'deviance'

LONDON — It’s been a rough year for Arab TV execs.

Not only have they had to contend with an increasingly crowded marketplace, with more than 300 free-to-air Arab satcasters in addition to three pay TV platforms battling for their share of the $800 million ad market, but they’ve also found themselves in the crosshairs of some seriously disgruntled religious clerics.

Saudi cleric Sheik Saleh al-Lihedan issued a fatwa, or religious decree, in September stating it was permissible for the owners of pan-Arab satellites to be killed after accusing them of broadcasting corrupting programming.

The hardliner, who has previously attracted controversy for failing to denounce acts of terrorism, accused Arab TV execs of encouraging the “deviance of thousands of people.”

The 79-year-old sheik, who is a senior figure in Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment given his position as head of the supreme judicial council, made his comments during a radio program in the conservative kingdom.

While threats against Arab TV execs by religious leaders are nothing new — in July, Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti Sheik Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh issued an edict against popular shows such as MBC’s “Nour,” condemning them as evil and ordering auds to stop watching them — al-Lihedan’s comments have raised the stakes to disturbing new heights.

“This is huge,” says one Arab TV exec. “It basically tells anyone that they can kill someone like Sheik Waleed or Prince Waleed.”

Saudi mavens Sheik Waleed al-Ibrahim and Prince Waleed bin Talal own pan-Arab nets MBC and Rotana, respectively. While Sheik al-Lihedan’s comments apply to all Arab TV execs, they will most likely be seen as direct threats to Saudi ones such as the two Waleeds.

And while Sheik al-Lihedan has subsequently tried to soften his decree by stating that Arab mavens could only be killed after receiving a trial — of which he would be one of the judges — the furor has once again brought into question tensions in the Arab world, particularly among conservative circles in the Gulf, between tradition and modernity.

Al-Lihedan’s initial outburst was made in response to the feast of big-budgeted dramas that traditionally dominates Arab TV skeds during the holy month of Ramadan as families congregate around the TV and break their daytime fast. Ramadan, traditionally the most pious time of the year for Muslims, is also the single biggest season for Arab TV execs, with some nets making up to a quarter of their annual ad revenue as they preem nightly episodes of brand-new skeins.

As the Arab TV biz has evolved and embraced technology, however, the old guard has responded in predictably reactionary fashion.

Saleh al-Fozan, another member of Saudi Arabia’s supreme judicial council, issued his own fatwa approving the killing of horoscope presenters, labeling them as “sorcerers … (who) have committed a great crime.”

And it isn’t just religious figures who are protesting the current crop of dramas.

Abu Dhabi ruler Sheik Khalifa al-Nahyan ordered execs at Abu Dhabi TV to stop broadcasting drama “Sa’adoun al-Awaji” only a few episodes into its 30-part run reportedly after receiving a personal request from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who claimed the skein had earned the ire of tribal chiefs in the conservative Kingdom.

Leading pan-Arab satcaster MBC also decided to pull one of its Bedouin dramas, “Finjan al dam” (Cup of Blood) before airing a single episode after fears it could stir tribal rivalry. That show, set in the 19th century, also looked at tribal conflict in the Arabian Peninsula.

One positive sign for the region’s TV execs, however, could be that auds are lapping up the programming despite the condemnation of the increasingly irate religious establishment.

MBC scored record ratings for its season finale of Turkish sudser “Nour” when it bowed Aug. 30, with some 85 million people tuning in to see the exploits of a beautiful, young woman who marries into a wealthy family.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more