'Shankaboot' targets teens with edgy themes

The BBC is pushing Arabic drama onto the Web — five frantic minutes at a time.

The BBC World Service Trust has put up the coin for Beirut-based Batoota Films to launch the Arab world’s first Web-based series, called “Shankaboot,” about a 15-year-old moped delivery boy (Hassan Akil) who spends his days careening through Beirut’s chaotic streets.

With its handheld camerawork, stylish production values and sense of humor, the series is a far cry from the melodramatic sudsers that dominate pan-Arab satellite TV.

“What we have here in the Arab world are dubbed soaps that are produced in Turkey and Mexico,” says Lebanese-born Batoota producer Katia Saleh. “I think we broke the boundaries by doing a drama that was so close to the people, the language is the language that people actually speak.”

A month after its soft launch, the Web-only drama has attracted 5,000 fans to its Facebook page and has received nearly 30,000 page views on its Web page, where the first 10 five-minute episodes are hosted.

The producers are planning to complete another 10 episodes in time for a formal launch — complete with advertising campaign and band-serenaded launch party in Beirut — in May.

By then, the site will also fully incorporate the interactive features, such as discussion forums and links to Facebook and Twitter feeds, which make this a new kind of television.

“We want the website to be an open platform for the youth to talk about the series and the topics brought up by the series” such as drugs, sex or corruption, Saleh says. “We are trying to go into controversial topics that are not brought up on TV because of censorship.”

The Arab world’s restrictive TV environment gives Web TV an edge that such Western webiseries like “lonelygirl15″ and “KateModern,” which ran between 2006-2008, lack.

BBC World Service Trust project director Michael Randall says the U.K. government-backed media development entity was looking for the online TV project in the Middle East more as a way to reach Arab teenagers than to skirt censors.

It’s more about connecting with “an audience we feel is shying away from mainstream media and looking for media online,” he says. “It’s about trying to introduce a new kind of Arabic-language content online.”

“Shankaboot,” which seeks a pan-Arab 15-to-24 aud, but has a distinctively Lebanese slant, faces technical challenges unique to its region.

“We’ve made it available in as many resolutions as YouTube will allow,” says technical director Simon Channon. “But we’ve got fairly restrictive download speeds in Lebanon.”

Batoota’s Saleh, who has previously helmed documentaries for Al-Jazeera English, says funding for the first 50 episodes is now in place, but after the initial push from the BBC, the series is expected to find advertising and sponsors to become self-supporting.

“We are the guinea pigs,” she says. “But I have a feeling in 10 years, TV and radio will no longer exist.”

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