Arab Spring undercuts holiday TV slate

Production companies reduce output due to regional unrest

TEL AVIV — The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is a time for community, when families gather around the TV set to break the daily fast.

It’s the season when studios roll out their biggest shows, with their biggest stars, with dramas tailor-made for the season, which is determined by the phases of the moon and this year roughly corresponds to the month of August.

However, as the Arab Spring uprisings persist into summer, production and advertising budgets across the region have fallen.

In Syria, the powerhouse of Middle Eastern TV production, President Bashar Assad’s increasingly bloody crackdown against anti-government protesters has led many Arab stations to boycott Syrian skeins, pushing the number of new offerings this season down to 28.

In Egypt, only 32 new series will hit the air, down from last year’s 50. A judge has nixed the live streams of the trial of deposed president Hosni Mubarak, which has had auds’ wrapt attention.

The Egyptian economy has been particularly hard hit since the uprising began Jan. 25, forcing advertisers to be more cautious about the programs they support.

But while the Arab Spring means Muslim viewers have less variety on the smallscreen, the subjects are similar to previous years; changed circumstances haven’t yet permeated TV productions.

“It takes Arab companies a year to create a television series — sometimes over a year,” says Ramzi Khoury, senior Arab region advisor at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. “The companies haven’t had time yet to shift in accordance to the Arab Spring.”

A handful of this year’s Egyptian programs are edgier and more politically open, including “Al Zenati Mojahed,” a comedy examining the difficulties of life under Mubarak, and “Al-Muwatin X” (Citizen X), allegedly based on the story of Khaled Said, a boy killed by the Egyptian police in June 2010.

But for the most part, the airwaves are once against stuffed with traditional sudsers, including “Bo Kareem and His Harem of Seven,” airing on Dubai’s MBC1 and Kuwait’s Al Watan TV, and “Al Jreeb,” from Kuwait’s Al-Rai TV.

Somaya El-Khashab and Fifi Abdo are heating things up in the Egyptian “Keid El-Nessa,” a racy, pan-Arab twist on “Desperate Housewives” in which two rival wives compete for the affections of the same husband.

Three new programs depict Egyptians’ newly piqued interest in relations between Muslims and the country’s Coptic Christian community: “Wadi el-melook” (Valley of the Kings), “Adam” and “Dawaran Shubra” — the latter a collaboration between BBC World Service and Misr Intl. Films from Khaleed el-Haggar focusing on relationships in Cairo’s heavily Coptic Shubra neighborhood.

Syria’s “Fi hadrat al ghayb,” a soap based on the life of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish starring Syrian Firas Ibrahim, has come under fire for what viewers say is poor casting and historic inaccuracy. Another Ramadan offering, “Al Ghaliboun” charts the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Powerhouse Dubai One has rolled out two special English-language programs for the holiday, “City Wrap” and “Understanding Islam.”

However, viewers’ tastes have changed since the rebellions, and many Arabs believe programming will soon follow suit.

“A majority of viewers aren’t fans of the Syrian and Egyptian shows and soap operas any more, because they realize they are fake,” says Abdul-Hakim Salah, a Bethlehem-based journalist with the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency. “There will definitely be a change in programming.”

Khoury agrees. “Freedom allows for creativity, and it also allows you to tell the truth,” he says. “In the future, you will find that reality will find a way into even the soap operas. Realistic situations will be portrayed much more openly than they were under the dictatorships. Sex will be tackled much more openly. Religion will be tackled much more openly.”

As for what that means for Ramadan TV in 2012, you’re free to be surprised.