REFLECTING THE REGION

Channel’s audience swings after Arab Spring

Ten years after its launch as the first 24-hour free-to-air movie channel in the Arab world, Dubai-based private satcaster MBC2 has become Hollywood’s strongest bridge to the Middle East and an interesting indicator of the Arab Spring’s impact on TV in the region.

Revolution has not been a biz booster for the studios.

“Before the Arab Spring, Hollywood movies were watched more in the Arab region than they are now, especially within countries where there was oppression, like Egypt,” says MBC group TV director Ali Jaber.

These days in Egypt, Tunisia and other nations where the 2011 Arab uprisings spread, ratings for MBC2, which practically airs only Hollywood product, have dipped, as audiences go from “escapism to engagement: from movies that people watched to get away from the pressures of a regime, to news and talkshows that reflect their reality and their opinions,” says Jaber, who is also a TV academic.

That’s not to say “Twilight,” “Mission: Impossible” and Bond have lost their appeal for Arab auds, which are a young demographic (65% of the population is under 35). After all, MBC2 has 3.7 million Facebook fans, the most of any media outlet in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Interestingly, in Saudi Arabia, which has been apparently unaffected by recent turbulence, ratings did not drop.

But the movie channel, which claims a whopping 65% of the market for movie channels in the region and boasts more than 160 million viewers in a swathe of territories spanning Mauritania to Oman, is rethinking its approach to programming while looking to restructure its output deals with, among others, Warner Bros., Sony, Fox and Universal.

MBC2 has already changed how it makes deals with Disney because the Mouse House wanted to bundle some TV series and dramas.

“The days of output deals with Hollywood majors is over; cherry-picking is the way to go now,” Jaber says.

Bundling is bad because in the Arab world sitcoms, with the exception of “Friends,” don’t work, nor do HBO-style dramas or any “brainy movies with lots of dialogue.”

What clicks most are “actioners and a bit of horror,” notes Jaber, who has no intention of abandoning Hollywood product. He just wants to try to “give our audience a bit more ownership” and make it more “grounded in the region” thanks to systematic ratings research and product packaging by Arab programmers.

Lebanese TV presenter Raya Abirached, who hosts MBC2’s Hollywood celeb show “Scoop With Raya,” best encapsulates this approach. She’s “an Arab speaking Arabic who can really bridge the gap between the Arab world and Hollywood,” instead of merely running U.S. E! material with subtitles, says Jaber.

But the most significant recent post-Arab Spring change in the MENA region that Hollywood should be addressing is ramped-up piracy, not politics.

Twelve pirate movie channels have launched since 2011, beamed via legitimate satellite operators NileSat, owned by the Egyptian government, and Noorsat.

These channels are eroding MBC2’s ratings especially by airing blockbusters such as “Avatar” before MBC can play them per its licence agreements.

To make matters worse, these pirate outlets are regularly rated and sell advertising.

“The studios have been procrastinating; they have not put any effort into fighting it,” laments Jaber, who claims one phone call from the commercial attache of the U.S. embassy in Cairo to NileSat topper Tharwat Mekky would stop what he calls “the biggest theft of intellectual property in the history of piracy.”

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