A burst of original nonscripted shows depicting societal changes is boosting ratings in the Middle East and marking a shift in perspectives as to the kind of content that works on Arab TV.
One of the most provocative new series is “Rayheen ala feen” (Where Do We Go From Here?), which portrays the day-to-day lives of six young Egyptians as they contend with current issues like unemployment, sexual harassment, economic hardship and media censorship.
Producer Fran Mires developed “Rayheen” for U.S.-government funded Arabic satcaster Alhurra, which beams the series into 22 Arabic-speaking nations. She says its aim is to consider the future of Egypt following the Jan. 25, 2011, Arab Spring revolution.
As a measure of how grimly rooted in reality the show is, during its season-two production last year, a cast member who was part of Egypt’s ultraconservative Salafist movement was fatally shot during a rally the night Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was ousted. “We were in shock, trying to absorb this, while also trying to capture all that was happening,” recounts the show’s co-producer, Mohamed Hefzi.
The series, though, decided to tackle the tragedy head-on, telling the audience how the cast member had died, and continuing the season with the remaining five members.
“You have to have closure for that character, and you have to give the family a chance to grieve, while at the same time we were trying to figure out how to work that into the story,” Hefzi says.
There have been other difficult issues: The series has tackled the subject of divorce from the perspective of a 26-year-old woman forced to deal with its cultural aspects. “To be an Arab woman
divorcee, nobody wants to touch you,” Mires says. “But she’s telling us: ‘I’m not done. I would love to get married again, but I’m not just a piece of meat.’”
While the Middle East and North Africa region, which spans 20 nations, lacks a comprehensive TV ratings system, people meters are being rolled out in some markets this year.
“Rayheen ala feen,” which has been renewed for a third season, has 500,000 Facebook fans. Now, says Mires, the goal is to set up offshoots of the show in other Arab countries, with Morocco and Saudi Arabia at the top of her list.
Social media is an essential element of hit Emirati program, “Peeta Planet,” in which two brothers, Mohamed and Peyman Al Awadhi, travel the world guided by suggestions made by followers on Facebook and Twitter. Produced by Abu Dhabi media hub Twofour54, it was the No. 3-ranked series on free-to-air satellite channel Dubai One, which has about 50 million viewers in the region; exact ratings numbers are not available. So far, “Planet” has 4,500-plus subscribers on YouTube, 8,600 Twitter followers and 23,000-plus “likes” on Facebook.
Another Emirati show, “Beyond Borders,” which challenges the children of the upper-class to live outside their comfort zones, is being touted as the nation’s first reality format — and one that’s educational to boot. The series, produced by Abu Dhabi-based Image Nation, started airing in late 2013 on satcaster MBC1, with U.S. producer Marc Lorber as showrunner.
Image Nation CEO Michael Garin hopes to expand the skein into nearby oil-rich nations beyond the UAE.
“We’ve taken six young Emiratis between 16 and 18 years old, and removed their mobile phones, Chanel bags and Gucci loafers,” says Garin of the concept. “We took them to the Philippines, where their maids are from, and introduced them to real life: They worked on farms and factories; they lived and ate with local Filipino families, and it was a life-changing experience for them.”