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MTV maps Mideast move

Network will broadcast musicvideos, locally produced shows

Viacom’s MTV has inked a deal with Dubai-based startup Arabian Television Network to create a version of MTV in Arabic for youth audiences in the Middle East.

Viacom had been looking for a partner to launch the free-to-air channel, MTV Arabiya, which will broadcast a mix of musicvideos, MTV programming and locally produced shows.

A joint statement by MTV Intl. and Arabian Television Network said they aim to launch the channel in the second half of 2007.

“Our partnership with MTV is a significant step in our long-term strategic vision to offer an international channel dedicated to Arab music and culture,” Abdullatif Al Sayegh, who owns ATN and its parent, Arabic Broadcasting Network, said in a statement.

Al Sayegh launched ABN in December and said he intends to build the company with free-to-air channels targeting niche auds across the Arab world.

A rep at Viacom confirmed the deal, but execs at MTV Intl. and ABN weren’t available for comment.

MTV, which has channels in 28 languages, had long sought a partner with which to launch a pan-Arab version of the music and culture channel. In August, Dean Possenniskie, former head of emerging markets for MTV, told Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, “Hopefully, we will be in the (Arab) market in the next 24 months.”

Despite conservative social mores, the Arab world already has well-established music satcasters in Rotana, which is owned by Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, and Melody Entertainment, owned by Egyptian media entrepreneur Gamal Ashraf Marwan.

Both companies have multiple channels and exclusive video deals with the most popular Arab singers, and they have lively Web sites offering ringtones, video downloads and games.

As for MTV, it will confront conservative local sensibilities and will likely have to censor videos U.S. auds would find quite tame.

The Middle East’s most conservative society, Saudi Arabia, is also its greatest source of TV advertising.

Yet MTV sees the Middle East as a huge and growing potential market. More than half the population is under the age of 25.

MTV and ABN’s initial statement was vague about what programming would be imported from the U.S version of MTV, except that it would include “musicvideos, music-based programming, general lifestyle and animated programs, reality shows, comedy and dramatic series, news specials, interviews and documentaries.”

MTV acting general manager for emerging markets Bhavneet Singh pointed out that MTV has become “part of the fabric of youth culture … by respecting audience diversity and different cultures.”

(Ali Jaafar in London contributed to this report.)