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At 20, MBC delivers Arab TV vision

Network accents appeals to diverse cultures

Twenty year ago, Arab TV viewers saw a broadcast that didn’t look like any other Arab channel at the time. Aired from London, it was the first free-to-air, 24-hour television network across the Arab world, with Arabic audiences and content in mind, that wasn’t controlled by a state government. MBC brought the region a degree of true representation of Arabic society and culture, in all its shapes and forms.

Celebrating 20 years, MBC airs a mix of U.S., Turkish and original Arabic content, and its growth — since its inception, MBC has added eight channels, two radio stations, a magazine, portal websites and a documentary production house — has opened up a market of approximately 41 million TV households for producers in those regions.

As major TV players head to Cabsat in Dubai (Feb. 28-March 1), Hollywood has noticed the huge upside for MBC and the Middle East market.

For instance, when MBC threw a launch party for its new MBC Action channel in 2007, it was a scene straight out of Hollywood. A replica of the downed Oceanic 815 airplane from “Lost” was built; the program served as the flagship show on its new fledgling channel.

“It was a spectacular event, which really brought home to us MBC’s commitment to launching and marketing U.S. series on an epic scale,” says Giovanni Mastrangelo, Walt Disney Co.’s general manager of media distribution.

MBC’s greatest success may be its ability to rise above its biggest hurdle — appealing to all the diverse cultures in its broadcasting market. The network has overcome language barriers and avoided cultural and religious taboos that might offend segments of its viewership.

“It is a big audience with different habits, and when creating programming, you have to make sure you have representation from all those countries,” says Ziad Kebbi, veteran Middle East production executive and current president of SPT Arabia, Sony’s local production studio for the region. “They have been careful in trying to come up with the right formula in representation of their audience, adapting the shows to the local cultures and making sure they are acceptable for everyone.”

Based in Dubai since 2002, when MBC Group chairman Sheikh Walid al-Ibrahim relocated the headquarters, the satcaster was also the first to buy U.S. formats for local adaptation.

One of the company’s first big hits, a Middle Eastern version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” was careful to offer a mix of contestants from across the region.

When the show launched in 2000, it served as a key accomplishment in the region, according to Mel Alcock, the Europe, Middle East and Africa CEO for FremantleMedia Enterprises, which has licensed such programming as the “Idol” and “Got Talent” formats.

“This proved the strength and value of international formats when done right, and began what was to become the re-invention of Arabic entertainment,” Alcock says.

MBC has continued to adapt internationally popular formats to the Middle East. In particular, MBC4’s launch of “Arabs Got Talent” achieved higher ratings than any other talent show in the region. Again, a key to its success was its cultural mix. Initial auditions took place in more than 13 countries, with 1,500 auditioning for a spot on the show.

MBC also has embraced scripted programming, playing a key role in the success of U.S. series across the Middle East, Disney’s Mastrangelo says. “It was the first broadcaster in the region to invest in U.S. network series and see their potential.”

To that end, Disney has been able to establish such brands as “Hannah Montana” and “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” on MBC3, as well as ABC Studio’s “Grey’s Anatomy” on MBC4.

MBC recently made a long-term deal with Warner Bros. on a WB TV series, which ensures its Middle Eastern viewers will see Warner’s TV content not long after those shows make their debut on American television.

That effort to accelerate the broadcast window is a reflection of MBC’s growing sophistication, according to Roni Patel, vice president of sales for the Middle East, Benelux and Nordic for Warner Brothers Intl. Television Distribution.

“They have evolved the WB TV series business dramatically by buying out the pay TV window,” Patel says. “They are a company prepared to invest in good quality content.”

MBC has picked up smaller properties to complement globally established fare. As an example, Kebbi points to MBC’s decision to televise “The Dr. Oz Show” before it had developed a strong international presence elsewhere.

Disney’s Mastrangelo agrees: “For me, the work that it has done in championing new TV programming, such as Turkish series in the region, really stands out.”

MBC was also first to establish professional presentation in terms of packaging and content, along with state-of-the-art technology. It has several online platforms including a free VOD portal. Additionally, MBC offers MoBC, SMS and MMS services, mobile applications, mobile TV, video-on-demand and live streaming.

With MBC’s increasing efforts in social media, games and other online venues, one can only expect more region-leading achievements in the coming years.

“They have always been sophisticated in their approach to technology and understanding their consumers, says Julie Jenkins, Paramount Television’s senior vice president for television distribution in Asia Pacific, Africa and the Middle East. “And they have been innovative in their approach to bringing the best viewing experience to the largest audience in the Middle East.”