Toppers hope holiday turns around sagging ad revs

The holy Muslim month of Ramadan couldn’t have come too quickly for Arab TV execs struggling with falling advertising revenues brought on by the economic downturn.

Ad revenues dropped by some 25% in the United Arab Emirates and around 5% in Saudi Arabia — the biggest ad market in the Arab world — in the first six months of 2009 as the real estate and financial sectors buckled under the credit crunch.

That has made this year’s Ramadan holiday, when families gather around their TVs every evening after breaking their fast, all the more crucial for TV execs.

The month, which this year began in most Arab countries Aug. 22, is the single most important season for the webs, mostly free-to-air satcasters, akin to the sweeps in the U.S.

During Ramadan, channels can take in 25%-30% of their annual revenues and spend proportionately as much on productions and acquisitions.

And while execs are enjoying the influx of program sponsors and advertising, all but a handful are scoring lower revenues than in previous years.

One such exception is Saudi-owned MBC, based in Dubai. The net’s flagship MBC1 channel, which was the first privately owned satcaster in the Arab world when it bowed in 1991, continues to dominate ratings and revenues.

That’s thanks in large part to a sked made up of returning hits, or musalsalat as they are known in the region. Returning shows are “Bab al-hara” (The Neighborhood’s Gate) about life in a Damascus suburb in the 1930s when Syria was under French rule, and satirical laffer “Tash ma tash” (No Big Deal), a cultural phenom in Saudi Arabia for poking fun at the conservative establishment. That brand familiarity with auds has helped MBC cut through the tough competition as rival nets bring out their biggest budget programs of the year.

“MBC has become part of the Ramadan ritual for Arab families,” says Mazen Hayek, MBC Group’s head of PR. “We have been able to build viewer loyalty because our schedule is made up of flagship shows.”

With budgets for the highest profile dramas reaching $5 million, the pressure to deliver a hit — and the financial endorsements that come with it — is immense. “Tash ma tash,” for instance, has four sponsors this year, each paying some $2 million.

Other channels are trying their best to make a dent in MBC’s lead.

Saudi’s deep-pocketed Rotana Khalijiya and the UAE’s Abu Dhabi TV have invested heavily in their Ramadan skeds, each spending upwards of $10 million not including marketing costs.

Rotana is betting on its $6 million drama “Hedou nesbeh,” about the Iraq war seen from the perspective of two local journalists who fall in love during the U.S.-led invasion of the country.

“It’s the first time an Arab TV station has tackled Iraq in such a way,” says Rotana general manager Turki Shabanah. “There has already been a lot of talk about the show. The production values are so high it’s like cinema, not TV.”

Abu Dhabi TV’s big projects include Syrian drama “Rijl al-hassem,” about Arab-Israeli espionage, and Egyptian soap opera “Al-Rahayah,” starring popular Egyptian thesp Nour El-Sherif.

Still, the general economic situation has not been favorable and the level of sponsorship is lower than last year, says Abu Dhabi TV topper Karim Sarkis.

To cut costs, Dubai TV is re-airing $6 million historical epic “Struggle on the Sand,” based on Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed’s poetry and set in the 18th century among feuding Bedouin tribes, which bowed last year. This time, however, the skein is on English-language satcaster Dubai One with English subtitles to tap a wider audience.

Arab TV execs’ jobs are made even tougher because there is no credible rating system across the region, making it difficult to gauge a show’s success or to assess its commercial value.

“We don’t get the value we deserve,” Sarkis adds. “The quality of what we’re offering has risen, but the ad values haven’t matched it. The ad market in the Arab world is anything from three-to-four times undervalued.”

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