Arab TV executives face challenges

Saudi cleric issues a fatwa against net owners

It’s been a rough year for Arab TV execs.

Not only have they had to contend with an increasingly crowded marketplace, with more than 300 free-to-air Arab satcasters in addition to three pay TV platforms battling for their share of an $800 million ad market, but they’ve also found themselves in the crosshairs of some seriously disgruntled religious types.

Saudi cleric Sheik Saleh al-Lihedan issued a fatwa, or religious decree, in September stating that it was permissible for the owners of pan-Arab satellites to be killed, accusing them of broadcasting corrupting programming.

The hardliner accused Arab TV execs of encouraging the “deviance of thousands of people.”

The 79-year-old sheik, who is a senior figure in Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment, made his comments during a radio program in the conservative kingdom.

While threats against Arab TV execs by religious leaders are nothing new — Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti Sheik Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh issued an edict in July against popular shows such as MBC’s “Nour” — al-Lihedan’s comments have raised the stakes to disturbing new heights.

“This is huge,” says one Arab TV exec. “It basically tells anyone that they can kill someone like Sheik Waleed or Prince Waleed.”

Saudi mavens Sheik Al Waleed al-Ibrahim and Prince Al Waleed bin Talal own nets MBC and Rotana, respectively. While al-Lihedan’s comments apply to all Arab TV execs, they will most likely be seen as direct threats to the two Waleeds.

Ramadan tensions

And while al-Lihedan has subsequently tried to soften his decree by stating that Arab mavens could be killed only after receiving a trial, the furor once again has brought into question tensions in the Arab world, particularly among conservative circles in the Gulf, and between tradition and modernity.

Al-Lihedan’s initial decree was made in response to the feast of big-budget dramas that traditionally dominates Arab TV skeds during the holy month of Ramadan, as families congregate around the TV while they break their daytime fast. Ramadan, traditionally the most pious time of the year for Muslims, is also the single biggest season for Arab TV execs, with some nets making up to a quarter of their annual ad revenue as they preem nightly episodes of new skeins.

As the Arab TV biz has evolved and embraced technology, however, so has the old guard reacted in predictably reactionary fashion.

Saleh al-Fozan, another member of Saudi Arabia’s supreme judicial council, issued his own fatwa approving the killing of horoscope presenters, labeling them “sorcerers … (who) have committed a great crime.”

It isn’t just religious figures who are protesting against the current crop of dramas.

Abu Dhabi ruler Sheik Khalifa al-Nahyan ordered execs at Abu Dhabi TV to stop broadcasting drama “Sa’adoun al-Awaji” only a few episodes into its 30-part run after reportedly receiving a personal request from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who claimed the skein had earned the ire of tribal chiefs.

Leading pan-Arab satcaster MBC also decided to pull one of its Bedouin dramas, “Finjan al dam” (Cup of Blood) before airing even a single episode after fears it could stir tribal rivalry. That show, set in the 19th century, also looked at tribal conflict in the Arabian Peninsula.

One positive sign for the region’s TV execs, however, could be that auds are lapping up the programming despite the condemnation of the increasingly irate religious establishment.