Mix of local, Hollywood fare makes startup a major regional player

Proving the pervasive power of TV on the cultural identity of a people, Tunis-based satcaster Nessma TV is positioning itself as a catalyst of change for the Maghreb region and North Africa’s population at large.

Maghreb is the Arab-speaking area of North Africa, comprising Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania and the disputed territory of Western Sahara, with a combined population of about 90 million, two-thirds of which are under the age of 26. There’s relatively low Internet penetration. Neighboring Egypt has a population of an additional 90 million.

In terms of TV, it’s a largely untapped territory, with the region’s Berber-based identity very distinct from the rest of the Arabic population in the Gulf and Middle East.

Nessma, which means “gentle breeze” in Arabic, was launched in 2007 by Tunisian media businessmen Nebil and Ghazi Karoui. Tarak Ben Ammar and Silvio Berlusconi’s Italo broadcaster Mediaset providing a crucial boost by boarding in 2008, each with a 25% chunk, and the Karoui brothers retaining 50%.

“In a year, Nessma has been able to put a logo and a personality on this network as a North African channel that speaks to all North Africans in their language, culture, style,” says Ben Ammar.

Beaming from Tunisia, “the most progressive, modern Arab country,” as Ben Ammar puts it, Nessma is “spreading modernism against fundamentalism,” says Nessma CEO Nebil Karoui.

“All the young Muslims in Maghreb, but also in Italy, France or England, they need to have a positive message as an alternative to that little fundamentalist mosque,” he explains.

Programming of La tele du Grand Maghreb is a mix of local and international fare, with flagship talkshow “Ness Nesma,” recently featuring famed Algerian cartoonist Slim (Menouar Merabtene) as guest, providing its most distinctive local flavor alongside the Arab version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which is especially popular during ratings-rich Ramadan month, and Hollywood staples such as “Lost,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives.”

Nessma, says Karoui, is the only Arab channel to have run BBC/HBO mini “House of Saddam,” known as “The Sopranos with Scud missiles.” It was a hit.

The satcaster will soon relaunch reality skein “Star Academy Maghreb,” adapted from an Endemol format.

But what Karoui is most proud of is Nessma’s recent Palestine Week, an unprecedented event in Arab TV held in March when programming was dedicated to the Palestinian people with the theme of “hope.”

People who embody Palestinian success stories around the world, such as cosmopolitan intellectual and UNESCO rep Elias Sanbar, Palestinian poet Ibrahim Nasrallah and helmer Elia Suleiman, whose pic “Chronicle of a Disappearance” also aired — the first time it ran on an Arab TV channel — “came and talked about themselves, their wishes, their thoughts, their dreams,” Karoui recounts.

A look at Nessma’s business side indicates that, while still a startup, Nessma is already beating LBC, MBC and Rotana in North Africa, “proving that we are the first truly independent, private satellite TV in North Africa,” Ben Ammar says.

And since January, Nessma has been beaming into Europe via Eutelsat’s HotBird satellite, tapping into a potential audience base of some 20 million “who have money, are more modern and are looking for a link with their mother country,” Karoui says.

But the vision behind Nessma, just like the vision behind Quinta and other Ben Ammar ventures, transcends mere monetary concerns.

That is why Ben Ammar was recently selected as recipient of Italy’s prestigious Ischia Intl. Mediterranean Award given to a prominent media personality — past winners include Walter Cronkite — citing his skill as an “excellent social communicator” who has worked hard to create a cultural bridge between both Mediterranean shores.

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