MBC’s uneasy reign over Arab world

Saudi-owned satcaster fends off foreign interlopers

Life is never easy at the top, but for MBC Group, the Arab world’s leading free-to-air satellite network, the past few months have proved particularly challenging.

While the satcaster has maintained its position as the Arab world’s most-watched channel — ahead of spirited efforts from LBC, Dubai TV and a revitalized Future TV — success has brought with it a fair share of headaches.

The March launch of new channel MBC Action, aimed at Arab males ages 18-25, has already proved a big success for the net. A recent survey by research group Ipsos-Stat ranked the channel sixth in Saudi Arabia, the most lucrative ad market for Arab TV execs.

Furthermore, the net has increasingly branched into the music biz. Its big-budget skein “Album,” a reality show mixing elements of “American Idol” and “Fame Academy,” saw the net inching its way into music distribution by releasing the winning group’s album.

In July, MBC also launched another channel, Al-Wanasah TV, a joint musicvid venture with Saudi singer Rashed al-Majed.

MBC Group hasn’t had it all its own way, however. It was forced to scrap its Ramadan skein “Sins Have a Price” just three days before its intended preem after Shiite audiences in Kuwait and across 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 time, ranging from an hour to several years.

Even more worrying for MBC execs, however, is the impact on its own newscaster Al-Arabiya of the imminent launch of BBC Arabic TV.

While Al-Arabiya, which launched in 2003 as a direct competitor to Al-Jazeera, has bitten into its controversial rival’s market share — even surpassing it in ratings with its coverage of last summer’s war between Israel and Lebanon — it has already felt the effects of the BBC’s Arabic-language newscaster, set to start broadcasting by the end of the year. A dozen Al-Arabiya staff have jumped ship to join the new BBC channel.

“Competition is healthy; it should be for the greatest benefit of viewers if it spurs each other on to better broadcasting,” says Mazen Hayek, MBC Group’s director of marketing, PR and commercial. “However, we are deeply disappointed that, on its foray into the Middle East region, BBC Arabic TV seems less inclined to follow a similar route to that which Al-Arabiya has been committed to since its launch — that of investing, recruiting, training, developing and growing local talents — but rather more inclined to indulge in a systematic, targeted, deliberate and aggressive poaching of Al-Arabiya staff, from editors to producers to technical staff. It seems we are not alone in thinking our people are the best. But it is disturbing and annoying to see this behavior from a collegiate broadcaster.”

Aside from their gripes at what MBC execs see as a calculated campaign by the BBC to take away their staff — a claim BBC execs deny — the future still looks bright for the net. “We will continue with our policy of specialist, highly targeted genre channels,” Hayek says. “We’re contemplating several options, but 2008 will see the launch of at least one new channel.”

One proposed channel is MBC’s long-mooted foray into the English-language news business. While rumors of a possible MBC rival to CNN, Al-Jazeera English and the BBC have been making their way around for the past few months, it doesn’t appear that its launch will occur anytime soon.

“You’re talking about an investment of $500 million over three years,” Hayek says. “You need to have a business plan that makes sense to launch a global news channel, a blank check or a political agenda to make it viable. I’m not excluding the possibility, but it’s a very expensive task.”