Pan-Arab TV exhibits growing pains

Business faces fragmentation and localization

The pan-Arab TV dream may be coming to an end.

After nearly two decades of rampant expansion ever since the 1991 launch of Saudi Sheik Al Waleed al-Ibrahim’s MBC — the first privately owned pan-Arab satcaster — the Arab TV biz is having to face up to the twin challenges of fragmentation and localization.

A number of leading TV execs from the region are in advanced negotiations with Arabsat, one of the Arab world’s two satellite platforms (along with Nilesat), to splinter its pan-Arab signal into three beams within the next three years. That would see Arabsat’s current satellite footprint, which covers the whole Arab world from Mauritania to Oman, broken up into three distinct markets: the Gulf and the Levant, Egypt and North Africa.

The ramifications of the deal, if it goes through, would be huge for a market that now has more than 300 free-to-air satellite channels serving a population of better than 300 million people across 24 countries.

The jewel in any satcaster’s sked for many years has been the ability to deliver a show that appealed to Arab auds everywhere across the geographically and culturally diverse region.

When Lebanese satcaster Future TV bowed “Superstar” — the pan-Arab version of “American Idol” — in 2003, for example, the reality skein became a phenomenon across the Arab world, with auds taking to the streets to cheer on their country’s contestant.

Other channels soon followed with their own efforts, notably LBC’s “Star Academy” and Rotana’s “X-Factor.”

Increasingly, however, the most profitable business model to running a commercially successful channel — with the exception of MBC, which remains the most popular net across the region — has been to eschew the pan-Arab TV model in favor of catering to the local market.

Kuwait’s Al-Watan, for example, which launched in September last year, has quickly become one of the most popular channels in the country by concentrating almost entirely on Kuwaiti auds. Al-Watan’s rise has been mirrored by the faltering of Kuwait’s Al-Rai channel, which launched to much fanfare as the country’s first privately owned satcaster in 2004, only to suffer in recent months as it attempted to extend its appeal to auds beyond its own borders.

Similarly in Egypt — one of the largest consumer markets in the Arab world, with a population of some 80 million — local channels such as Dream Drama, Panorama Drama and Oscar have all proven hits with local auds.

The prime reason for the latest shake-up appears, invariably, to emanate from execs’ search for ad dollars.

The largest single market in the Arab world is Saudi Arabia, accounting for up to a quarter of the region’s $800 million ad market, followed by the Gulf as a whole. That has led many Arab TV execs to skew their programming toward Gulf-centric tastes, which can diverge wildly from those in countries such as Lebanon or Egypt.

Also, the per capita spending power of Saudi and Gulf consumers is generally higher than in other Arab countries. In an effort to sell multinationals such as Procter & Gamble or Coca Cola TV spots based on their highest rate cards for the Gulf, Arab execs are often compelled to offer them multiple free spots to cover the rest of the Arab world, where buyers can’t afford the same ad rates.

“This move will mean the end of buy one, get 12 free,” says Mazen Hayek, MBC Group’s director of marketing, PR and commercial. “In Saudi Arabia, you have 30 million consumers, but then you get the whole 300 million consumers for free when you buy an ad. It’s illogical. With the new model, you’ll be able to localize content and adjust your ad rates for each market.”

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While all 300 million inhabitants of the Arab world are, on paper at least, united by the same language, the truth is that dialects, as well as cultural tastes and sensibilities, diverge wildly.

“The Arab world isn’t Germany,” Hayek adds. “There are four different times zone from one end of the Arab world to the other. There are big differences in viewing patterns and media consumption habits. Splitting the satellite beams cold mark the beginning of a new positive era of customization and a greater use of talent and engagement with audiences.”

The attempts to split Arabsat’s footprint into three separate beams is already meeting resistance from various sectors of the Arab TV biz.

Some question whether the potential for spillover between feeds, such as Moroccan auds being able to tap into the Gulf beam for example, would leave the entire venture an exercise in futility, particularly as rival satellite platform Nilesat, which is part owned by the Egyptian government, has given no indication it is ready to alter its pan-Arab feed.

Also, the ad markets in territories such as North Africa and the Levant, while growing, are still under-developed. Leading pan-Arab satcasters MBC, LBC and Dubai TV all tried to launch dedicated North African channels in 2006 only to retreat months later after auds and coin failed to live up to their expectations.

While the growth in the number of free-to-air Arab satcasters has continued unabated ever since 1991 — often backed by wealthy, powerful individuals eager to build their own media empire regardless of the often money-losing returns — the break-up of the pan-Arab model could spell the end for many smaller channels, many of whom won’t be able to afford to pay for three separate spot beams.

Regardless of the commercial arguments for and against the move, there is a more existential dilemma that is troubling some Arab TV execs. In a notoriously fractious and often divided part of the world, pan-Arab TV has been a rare unifier, bringing auds from across the region together. The Arabsat deal could, potentially, have an adverse affect on that feeling of togetherness, no matter how illusory.

“I think it’s a bad idea,” says Dubai TV’s managing editor Ali Jaber, who previously helped mastermind the pan-Arab prototype while head of Future TV. “The only real money in the region is in the Gulf, so what you’ll see is all the good programming being broadcast to the Gulf. Also, it will be politically alienating to the rest of the Arab world. It will damage any feeling of Arab oneness.”

And while the Arabsat deal still has some way to go before becoming a reality, the drivers behind it may want to remind themselves of the power that a genuine pan-Arab show can still have.

MBC’s “Nour,” a Turkish sudser dubbed into colloquial Syrian, brought in an astonishing 85 million viewers for its season finale Aug. 30, turning the skein into a pop-culture phenomenon, while earning the devoted attention of femmes from across the Arab world and the ire of numerous religious clerics who accused the show of corrupting its viewers.

“It was a socio-cultural phenomenon like we haven’t seen before,” says Hayek. “It’s one of the only times journalists have been able to print good news about the Middle East.”