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Talent Shows Give Voice to Pan-Arabic Youth

On a balmy evening in the tightly secured Beirut studios of the Middle East Broadcasting Corp., young Iraqi singer Sattar Saad was crowned winner of “The Voice Arabia,” sparking celebrations in the streets of Baghdad and drawing an estimated 100 million viewers across 21 Arab countries, where global talent formats, fueled by a huge young audience wired to social media, are fast becoming a phenomenon, with implications that transcend mere TV stardom.

Draped in an Iraqi flag, Saad, 23, received the trophy from his coach, Iraqi pop music superstar Kadim Al Sahir after the three-hour finale, which saw guest star Ricky Martin take the stage to perform his new songs “Adrenalina” and “Come With Me.” In his dressing room, Egyptian actor Mohamed Karim, host of “The Voice Arabia,” sized up the impact of the show. “People in the Arab world are trying to find something to make them happy,” he said, adding, simply, that victory offers hope.

Talent-show formats are particularly driven by a young demographic, something the Arab world possesses in droves: The population of the Middle East has between 180 million and 200 million people under 30. Social media conversations generated by the shows bring millions of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Keek followers to MBC platforms, and offer fans a sense of community.

According to data published by Facebook.com, the social site has 56 million active users in the Middle East region, with 6.5 million active users on Twitter — and these numbers are growing every month. Per a new pan-Arab survey conducted by Northwestern U. in partnership with the Doha Film Institute, nearly two-thirds of Internet users in the region say social media strongly impacts their entertainment choices, and more than half (55%) choose to comment or share their opinions about entertainment online.

“When a mention in an episode of ‘Arab Idol’ generates 300,000 tweets in a couple of minutes, or when something that happens onscreen generates a couple of hundred of thousand likes on Facebook, that shows you how much TV is becoming a bridge to social media and vice-versa,” MBC spokesman Mazen Hayek said.

The “Arab Idol” finale in June generated 120 million viewers — ratings similar to the soccer World Cup final in the region (the Middle East and North Africa territories lack a comprehensive TV audience measurement system, but that may soon change). Hayek noted that the success of the shows also can be traced to the fact that young people in troubled spots from Oman to Libya look at the competitions as a gateway to the world, and as their best platform for artistic self-expression.

Indeed, just as the curtain fell on the second season of “Voice Arabia,” MBC, the top Arab satcaster, was wrapping auditions for the third season of “Arab Idol,” held for the first time in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

On March 17, hundreds of Palestinian youths lined up hoping to follow in the footsteps of Mohammed Assaf, last year’s champion, a onetime wedding singer from a Gaza Strip refugee camp, whose winning song was “Ali al-keffiyeh,” a call for Palestinian unity. Assaf toured North America in 2013, and addressed the United Nations, which designated the 24-year-old as a youth ambassador.

His victory became a symbol for many, while also jump-starting dialogue about local issues. Indeed, during the 2013 season of “Arab Idol,” after a Syrian man from Aleppo sang a song about the city, which that week was under heavy shelling, the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper the National ran a headline that read: “Half of Syria is destroying itself and the other half is watching ‘Arab Idol.’”

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