Dubai TV stays ahead of the curve

Satcaster focuses on key demos, aud demands

When Dubai ruler Sheik Mohammed al-Maktoum ordered the emirate’s state-owned TV network to be revamped in 2003, he had a clear mandate. The driving force behind Dubai’s spectacular growth wanted a modern communications network that would mirror the glittering urban developments that were sprouting out of the desert with breathtaking speed.

After tapping as Dubai TV managing editor Lebanese TV maven Ali Jaber, who had masterminded from scratch the ascendancy of Lebanese satcaster Future TV, Sheik Mohammed gave his youthful team a free hand to build a 21st-century media network.

“The problem with Dubai TV before its relaunch was that it was stuck in the 1960s,” says Jaber. “It had archaic programming, outdated decorations and presenters who were mostly mummy-like. Sheik Mohammed wanted a communications tool that was modern, could keep up with the growth of the city of Dubai and capture audiences with its integrity.”

Working closely with local exec Hussain Ali Lootah, who was appointed CEO of parent company Dubai Media Inc., Jaber set about fashioning a multichannel bouquet led by Dubai TV, the flagship channel.

Officially relaunched in mid-2004 as a pan-Arab satellite channel featuring general entertainment, Dubai TV would soon be joined by English-language channel Dubai One, which began broadcasting on Dec. 25 that year, local terrestrial channel Sama Dubai, the Dubai Sports Channel and most recently the Dubai Racing Channel, which launched in June of last year.

The impact on the Dubai Media’s bottom line was dramatic. Dubai Media Inc.’s total revenues jumped from $1.4 million in 2004 to $70 million n 2005. The net’s various channels currently generate $130 million a year.

“That’s a more than a 100-fold increase,” says Jaber. “If anything, the biggest challenge has been reconciling the constraints of a state-owned public broadcaster with a private sensibility. We’ve had to work hard to make the incumbent bureaucracy less suspicious of change while laying out the road map for the viewership to let us compete commercially.”

Along the way, the ambitions for Dubai TV have somewhat changed. What began as an attempt to challenge reigning Arab TV champ MBC — the first privately owned pan-Arab satellite channel — has subsequently matured into a more-focused approach to grabbing auds.

Dubai TV, as its name suggests, now predominantly targets Emirati and Gulf viewers. It has launched nightly newscasts in both Arabic and English that cover the Emirates, and it has also been something of a pioneer in supporting local Emirati TV productions.

In 2008, Dubai TV execs financed and produced “Struggle on the Sand,” a $6 million, 30-episode skein based on Sheik Mohammed’s poetry. The historical epic, which at the time boasted the biggest budget for an Arab TV skein, was set in the 18th century and followed feuding Bedouin tribes during the occupation of the Arabian peninsula by the Ottoman Empire.

The royal connection has also continued with the wildly popular “Al-Maidan,” a show dedicated to a native Emirati folk dance that aired on terrestrial channel Sama Dubai and regularly features Dubai Crown Prince Sheik Hamdan al-Maktoum.

DMI execs can also lay claim to have given birth to a genuine pop culture hit with local animated skein “Freej.” The brainchild of Emirati artist Mohammed Hareb, “Freej” has grown from its modest beginnings on Sama Dubai to become a multimedia hit. The satirical take on a group of Emirati women caught between tradition and modernity now occupies a key slot on Dubai TV’s important Ramadan grid, and has also spawned a theme park as well as plans for a feature film adaptation.

Dubai TV, however, has also managed to retain considerable regional appeal thanks to the success of shows such as music skein “Taratata,” which brings together singers from around the Arab world, such as Lebanese popsters Haifa Wehbe and Ragheb Alama, to perform collaborations and cover classic Arab tracks.

An exclusive, multiyear, free-to-air programming deal inked with Warner Bros. in June 2004 — described at the time by Warners’ vice chairman of sales Mickie Steinmann as the largest free-to-air Middle East TV deal the U.S. media giant had ever signed — has also helped keep its slots filled with aud-grabbing programming.

There have been, of course, missteps along the way.

Some of Dubai TV’s more ambitious forays into drama, such as ensemble medical series “The Critical Moments,” did not live up to expectations, while other projects, such as a long-mooted Arabic-language adaptation of “Ugly Betty,” have yet to come to fruition.

That said, Dubai TV and its bouquet of channels have emerged as genuine contenders in the increasingly competitive Arab TV marketplace.

As for the future, all eyes are focused on the digital generation. There are more mobile phone contracts in United Arab Emirates than there are people, a huge indicator of the local appetite for technology. As a result, Dubai TV execs are busily digitizing their library to be able to maximize the commercial opportunities afforded by new media.

DUBAI MEDIA INC. CHANNELS

DUBAI TV

Arabic-language satcaster that beams general entertainment including comedy, drama and news programs.

Topper: Abdulatif al-Gergawi

DUBAI ONE

English-language general entertainment channel dedicated to Western skeins like “Friends,” “The OC” and “Scrubs.”

Topper: Najla al-Awadhi

SAMA DUBAI

Arabic-language terrestrial channel dedicated to shows and news about life in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates.

Topper: Ahmad al-Mansoori

DUBAI SPORTS CHANNEL

Arabic-language sports channel featuring live sports broadcasts and analysis from around the world.

Topper: Rashid Amiri

DUBAI RACING CHANNEL

Arabic-language channel dedicated primarily to horse and camel racing as well as motorsports.

Topper: Darwish al-Shihi

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