Holiday viewing period includes U.S. productions

TEL AVIV – This Ramadan, 18 months after the bloom of the Arab Spring, Middle Eastern television execs are as divided as politicos about the revolutionary wave’s long-term effects.

The monthlong holy festival, which ended this year Aug. 18, is the hottest season for Arab TV with families gathering nightly around the box while they break the customary daylong fast. According to the Pan Arab Research Center (Parc), the cost of a TV ad is up 20% for Ramadan 2012. The numbers are potentially huge: The total population of the Middle East and North Africa is about 350 million. Television access, especially satellite TV access, varies dramatically from country to country, but roughly half of those 350 million are TV viewers.

According to the Pan Arab Research Center, the average Arab viewer consumes 50 additional minutes of TV each day during Ramadan.

While every major U.S. studio and network have programming deals and outlets in the Middle East, Ramadam belongs to the big Arab content creators, who typically use the period to unveil their best and most-hyped shows. It’s also a time when viewers expect religious content. But Hollywood major Sony, for one, is using Ramadan to launch five shows, including an Arabic version of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

This year, however, the most anticipated show in the Arab world is also its biggest.

“Omar,” a joint production of Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Corp. (MBC) and Qatar TV, is one of the largest TV dramas in the history of Arab TV. The skein, with an estimated budget of around $67.8 million, traces the life of Omar ibn al-Khattab, regarded as the founder of the Islamic state.

Having an actor depict Omar or other friends of the Muslim prophet Mohammed is an act prohibited by some religious clerics, and as such, “Omar” generated huge controversy before it even aired. The publicity, says MBC spokesman Mazen Hayek, only added to the ratings.

“Omar” has been banned in Egypt, but is getting broad play across the rest of the Arab world.

Other big programs on MBC are the comedy “Wi-Fi” and the youth-focused “Khawater 8,” which trumpets social advocacy and volunteer work.

All three fit ideally into the MBC Ramadan grid, which consists of religious, drama, comedy and gameshow programming. MBC has followed this grid faithfully for 21 years, Hayek says, and despite the shake-ups in the Muslim world, the formula remains unchanged.

“Drama is not meant for politics and current affairs,” he says. “The people who are interested in breaking news and developing stories watch them on the news. I haven’t seen a drama that has a correlation to the Arab Spring.”

Execs at the two-year-old OSN! Yahala HD may beg to differ. Along with three cooking-themed dramas and the return of last year’s hit “Hindistani,” a Bollywood-style Arab musical comedy, OSN has unveiled “Al Ghish Mamnoua,” in which host Muna Abdal Wahab puts Arab politicians and leaders in a mock classroom and grills them, final-exam style.

Wahad snagged several big-name guests, including Muslim Brotherhood member Ahmed Abu Baraka. Coaxing a Muslim Brotherhood leader to answer tough questions on his political record was no small coup, says Khulud Homos, senior veep of programming at the Dubai-based channel.

“Yes, viewers want drama, but they also want something that is closer to their reality and is out of the box,” she says. “We know that everything is changing, and we cannot hide behind that.”

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