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Nets needed for Mideast high wireless act

Arab nations have largest population of digital-savvy consumers

YouTube has 90 million daily views in Saudi Arabia, the highest average consumption in the world — and only 1% of the content is in Arabic. Politics has cast a new light on the Middle East-North Africa region, but those changes may be less significant than the digital revolution. The area has 160 million people under the age of 30, and boasts the globe’s biggest digital concentration. The challenge to Western companies is to figure out what to deliver to them.

The Middle East conjures many images — from oil-rich sheikdoms to the exotic spires of Riyadh to the uprising in Tarhir Square. But perhaps a more uniform image should be that of hoardes of hip youths completely and wirelessly connected to the rest of world.

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The Middle East is among the world’s youngest regions, with a median age that hovers in the low- to mid-20s, fostering the highest density of digitally enabled youth on the planet, a whopping 48% of the local population, dwarfing the 25%-26% in the U.S., the U.K. and Russia, China’s 31% and an average 34% everywhere else, including Latin America.

The numbers come from a recent study unveiled by Viacom at the October Abu Dhabi Media Summit, marking the first time Viacom’s MTV ran analytics on the region.

To better tap into this highly connected but woefully underserved 160-million-strong Generation Y, MTV, YouTube and many smaller content providers, some of them local, are aiming to churn out more region-based content. The study says that more than 80% of Middle East millennials stay connected to the Internet wherever they may be. In fact, given a choice between going on vacation with no access to the Web or staying home and being connected, 55% of Egypt’s millennials (those born in 1981 and later) say they would rather stay local. In other words, in millennial bulge areas like Cairo, Riyad, Abu Dhabi or Amman, opportunities abound for savvy content providers.

One digital driver has been politics and the Arab Spring.

Millennials “have a stronger (affinity for) digital because it gives them parallel access to new things, and allows them to read the deep changes going on around them,” says Viacom executive VP Antonio Campo Dall’Orto.

At the media summit, YouTube global head of content Robert Kyncl pointed to the 420% rise of video uploads in Tunisia as the revolution launched and continued in 2010. More recently, its CitizenTube channel has become a key outlet for anyone wanting an update on the latest bombings in Syria. Jordan-based Karabeesh, which means “scribbles” in Arabic, has been scoring millions of YouTube hits with cartoons satirizing either toppled leaders Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But politics is just one digital driver in the region for Mideast millennials.

In entertainment-hungry Saudi Arabia, where movie theaters are banned by conservative clerics, YouTube has the highest average consumption in the world, an average 90 million video views per day, followed by Egypt and Morocco. And Kyncl pointed out that 50% of YouTube consumption in Saudi Arabia is through smartphones or tablets, often by kids who have moved beyond PCs and laptops.

“Today, MENA (Middle East and North Africa) represents 5% of all YouTube’s consumption, but only 1% of content is in Arabic,” Kyncl notes. “There is tremendous consumer demand, and we need to pay a lot more attention to the region.”

According to Dall’Orto, among the many reasons content creation in the Middle East is still at such an embryonic stage is that the region is not perceived as having a large middle class. “But that is changing, and it represents a huge opportunity for us,” he says.

YouTube, which has partnerships with pan-Arab broadcaster MBC as well as Al Jazeera, Rotana and Melody Music among others, is looking to boost its Arabic content.

But bridging the content gap in this fast-growing market, or even just finding the right mix, is not easy.

“(The region needs) a greater variety of(content), but you need to be careful not to violate the local sensibility,” says Dall’Orto, who cites talent shows like “X Factor,” “Arab Idol” and “Star Academy” as examples of what works on several Arab outlets, as well as MTV reality show “I Used to Be Fat,” which airs on MTV Arabia.

“You can’t show ‘Jersey Shore’ or ‘Skins’ there,” he says, referring to some of the racier content on MTV.

Viacom Intl. CEO Bob Bakish says he’d like to produce a “critical mass” of original programming in the region, citing plans for a Middle East Comedy Central feed and an Arabic version of “Cribs,” featuring home tours of local celebs.

In July 2010, News Corp.’s Fox Intl. Channels made Abu Dhabi its regional hub for the Middle East and North Africa. FIC produces a collection of docus and 3D productions there, while operating 13 channels that feature movies, dramas and its National Geographic outlets. But unlike Viacom, Fox doesn’t seem to be in a big hurry to hop on the Mideast millennials bandwagon.

Still, there are plenty of local companies spawning fresh pan-Arab content targeting either the Web or TV, and aimed at young auds. For instance, Teshkeel Media Group debuted its Islamic-inspired superheroes series “The 99” during Ramadan on MBC this summer. Teshkeel founder Naif Al-Mutawa announced in Abu Dhabi that a second season of the toon, in which each character is named after one of the 99 Attributes of Allah — such as Al Jabbar the Powerful, a gawky Saudi Arabian teenager who becomes a He-Man-like figure — is now in the works, with several international distribution deals in place. Teshkeel hopes to air “The 99” Stateside on the Web.

Other companies zeroing in on Middle East-set content for millennials include Los Angeles- and New York-based BoomGen Studio, whose flagship transmedia project, a sophisticated iTunes app, “Operation Ajax,” is a thriller that unfolds in the early Cold War days when global power-brokers begin to take interest in ruling regimes in the Middle East as the oil rush explodes.

On a larger scale, Abu Dhabi-based government-funded media hub Twofour54 has announced production of its first two unscripted formats: “Peeta Planet,” a half-hour series in which two Emirati brothers, Mohamed and Peyman Al Awadhi, travel the world, with the audience deciding via social media what countries they will travel to next; and “Nayla’s 100,” which follows the path of a 100 dirham note ($27) as it gets passed around among different people, providing insight into their lives. Plans are to air the shows in 2013, though Twofour54 has not yet inked a broadcasting deal.

And now, the ratings of these new shows may be able to be measured, as the first United Arab Emirates TV ratings system, now in startup stage, was announced at the Abu Dhabi summit by a company called Emirates Media Measurement. Local TV execs see this development as a key to unleashing growth in the Middle Eastern market.

It’s not hard to imagine what the key demographic would be. What: Mideast millennials are the world’s most digitally enabled.

The takeaway: Growth ops exist for content tailored to the region that can be accessed via smartphones and tablets.

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