Arab satcasters seek Ramadan ratings

Middle East feasts on shows during fast

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan hasn’t even reached the mid-point and sparks are already flying as the battle for Arab auds heats up among the region’s satcasters.

The month of fasting, which runs Sept. 13-Oct. 12 this year, has become the key season for Arab satcasters, akin to the sweeps in the U.S. During Ramadan, channels can take in as much as 20% of their annual ad revenue as families gather around the set after breaking their fast.

While the battling nets have launched the traditional mix of expensive, hot-potato dramas (dubbed musalsals in Arabic) and an increasing number of homegrown laffers, two skeins have already fallen foul of irate Kuwaiti viewers.

Saudi-owned satcaster MBC was forced to scrap its 30-seg skein “Sins Have a Price” three days before its intended preem after Shiite audiences in the country and the region protested at what they perceived was an attack on the Shiite form of temporary marriage known as “mutaa.” The mutaa, which is not practiced by the Sunni branch of Islam, allows a man and a woman to marry for a limited range of time, ranging from an hour to several years.

A backlash by several Kuwaiti Shiite members of parliament, as well as incidents of angry crowds stoning the Kuwait offices of MBC, led to the satcaster axing the skein for fear of further stoking sectarian tensions. MBC issued a statement denying the skein “includes any insult to anyone. It tackles the behavior of men and women who misinterpreted and exploited religion. … It does not criticize the concept of mutaa marriage, but the way some people misuse it.”

It isn’t the first time privately owned MBC, the Arab world’s most popular satcaster, has run into trouble with one of its Ramadan musalsals. In 2004, the channel was forced to ax serial “The Road to Kabul,” which followed the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan, after death threats were posted on a website belonging to Islamist extremists.

“Sins” exec producer Nayef Al-Rashed has also found himself in hot water with Kuwaiti MPs after another skein, “Al-Wazeerah,” Arabic for a female politico, was branded an “insult against ministers and lawmakers.” The show, which was supposed to be the centerpiece serial for newly launched private Kuwaiti net Al-Watan, shows the female minister having to fend off sexual harassment from her male colleagues.

Elsewhere, Arab TV execs are banking on their customary blend of big-budget dramas to draw in auds.

  • MBC has “King Farouk,” which follows Egypt’s king from his birth in 1920 through the upheavals of the 1950s that saw him being overthrown by the Free Officers Coup, led by future Egyptian prexy Gamal Abdel Nasser, and wraps withhis death outside Egypt.

  • Dubai TV is hoping to lure auds with “Al Masrawiya,” from Egyptian helmer Ismail Abdul Hafiz and scribe Osama Anwar Okasha. It retells a century of Egyptian history through the fortunes of one town, which they actually rebuilt for the serial.

  • Lebanese satcaster LBC has “Top of the World,” the latest Ramadan musalsal from Syrian helmer Najdat Anzour, particularly famous for his hot button-pushing epics. Skein centers on the controversy in 2006 following the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

  • Future TV has adapted for the small screen the blockbuster novel “The Yacoubian Building,” which was also a huge bigscreen hit last year for Egyptian shingle the Good News Group.

  • Future also boasts Omar Sharif’s first appearance in a Ramadan musalsal with “Tenderness and Nostalgia,” a semi-autobiographical tale about an Egyptian emigre’s return to Cairo following 30 years abroad.

“The competition is very fierce,” says Future TV’s Leyla Wehbe. “In Egypt alone, you have something like 45 series being produced this year just for Ramadan. People cannot watch all of them so that’s where the competition comes in. Syria is also producing a lot of series now and we’re also seeing something new with the rise in production in the Gulf. They’ve made something like a dozen series.”

While Arab TV execs remain tightlipped about the exact cost of rights to each skein, the level of competition has seen bidding rise from half a million dollars for exclusive rights for a skein to $2.5 million in the last four years alone.

The drive for auds has seen satcasters develop niches, namely with comedies.

MBC, for example, can earn upward of $10 million on the back of its mega-successful Saudi laffer “Tash ma tash.” The show is traditionally the top-rated skein in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan and remains the satcaster’s most valuable cash cow.

Dubai TV is bowing two Emirati comedies, “Jaber naghmosh” and “Ghamshamsham,” while LBC has “A Man and Six Women,” the first Arab skein to be filmed in front of a live studio audience. Centering around a man and his femme relatives, the skein is produced by Lebanon’s Sabbah Media Corp. and Egypt’s Screen 2000 in collaboration with the Egyptian Media Production Centre. “People are very hungry for laughs,” says Dubai TV’s Ali Jaber.

Unsurprisingly, laughs are proving a hit with auds in war-torn Iraq. Iraq’s popular private television Al-Sharqiya launched with political comedy as its main theme in March 2004, and London-based Iraqi media tycoon Saad Bazzaz is pushing the boundaries this Ramadan with its sharp mix of satire, current affairs and comedy.

Al-Sharqiya’s main draw is “The Leader,” featuring popular actor Rasim al-Jumaili (who’s in exile in Damascus), sending up Iraq’s politicians. The program shows the hefty Jumaili surrounded by bodyguards, one an attractive female, poking fun at Iraq’s latest crop of political leaders, who have been panned internationally for their inability to effect reconciliation across bitter sectarian divides.

Jumaili has been made up to look like the portly Iraqi prexy Jalal Talabani.

Religious fare is also ubiquitous, with everything from docs on the life of Prophet Mohammed to talkshows on Islamic law. Dedicated religious channels such as Saudi Prince Waleed Bin Talal’s “Al-Resalah” (“The Message”) also make sure the season’s spirituality isn’t overshadowed.

Not that execs aren’t open to the concept of backhanding auds into watching their shows. Gameshows are also de rigueur this year, with LBC’s “A Thousand Tragedies in One Night,” MBC’s “Cash Taxi,” Future’s “Arabic Readers Competition” and Rotana Music’s “Every Day a Million” all offering cash prizes.

Janet Fine contributed to this report.

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