Broadcasters across the Arab world are clambering to serve up Ramadan soaps as the coronavirus pandemic forces the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims to observe the Islamic calendar’s holy month at home rather than in a mosque.
Even under normal circumstances, Ramadan — which started on April 24 — is peak TV season for Arab audiences. Middle East TV execs often compare the period to the Super Bowl in the U.S., except for 30 days straight.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, however, “audiences are bigger than ever due to millions staying at home,” says Mazen Hayek, a spokesman for Dubai-based MBC, the Arab world’s largest private broadcaster.
Despite the coronavirus outbreak, MBC is “ready to meet audience expectations” as it does every year, though some series had to be delayed or postponed.
The broadcaster’s Ramadan TV season is kicking off with a bang thanks to political controversy sparked by its period drama “Umm Haroun” (“The Mother of Aaron”) toplining popular Kuwaiti actress Hayat Al Fahad (pictured) who plays a Jewish midwife, and also featuring the character of a rabbi, called Rabbi David.
Set in a fictional, multi-religious community in an unspecified Arab state, this explosive show marks the first Arab production depicting the lives of Jews and their relations with Muslims.
“Mother of Aaron,” which has been attacked as “brain washing” by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, is proving popular with MBC audiences — especially in Saudi Arabia, which has been pursuing warmer relations with Israel and recently welcomed U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan, even though it’s been rejected by most of the Arab world.
MBC rivals OSN, Dubai TV and Abu Dhabi TV, which are also headquartered in the U.A.E., and Qatar’s beIN are among other pan-Arabian broadcasters trumpeting rich rosters of Ramadan programs.
BeIN — which is suffering from a dearth of live sports — has launched two new movie channels to boost Ramadan offerings alongside its new soaps.
OSN’s lineup features hotly anticipated Egyptian drama “Sultana Moetz,” about a strong-willed woman, played by Egyptian star Ghada Abdel Razak. The titular protagonist runs a food truck selling liver meat in Cairo’s historic El Moez Street.
Though “Sultana” managed to complete its shoot just in time for Ramadan, that was not the case with prominent Egyptian TV helmer Tamer Moshen’s Ramadan drama “Crossroads” (working title), set in Cairo and Los Angeles and produced by Egypt’s Media Hub.
Just before the global lockdown, “Crossroads” had finished shooting on location in California, recounts Moshen, whose previous show “This Evening” plays on Netflix in Egypt.
“We flew back to Egypt to complete filming,” he says, with plans for the U.S. cast to follow. But then “the global travel ban made that impossible.” Thus, to avoid having to plug plot holes illogically, it was decided to put the show on hold, unlike some other Egyptian Ramadan shows that rushed to complete production — decisions that “will definitely affect the quality of the final product,” Moshen notes.
Lebanese Ramadan shows that had to be postponed due to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on production include Cedars Art Production’s latest instalments of “Al-Hayba,” about a family of arms smugglers working the border between Syria and Lebanon, and “2020,” which stars Lebanese-Tunisian actor Nadine Nassib Njeim.
Cedars Art did, however, manage to complete its hotly anticipated Arab version of U.S. sitcom “The Golden Girls” titled “Sukkar Ziada” which will air on MBC Egypt and Dubai TV.
Though Arab TV consumption is not accurately monitored, it’s believed that free-TV remains dominant and piracy continues to soar. However, the lockdown period is also expected to have been a boon for VOD subscriber growth.
Starzplay, which claims to be the leading subscription VOD player in the region, recently re-upped its volume deal with Warner Bros. and is offering a deluge of DC series alongside its first Arab original “Baghdad Central,” which launched in February. Right before Ramadan, they launched a curated section dedicated to medical shows, comprising “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Good Doctor,” “New Amsterdam” and “House.”
Meanwhile, for captive Middle East audiences seeking more of the missing sense of community during the holy month, as well as escapism, Facebook and CNN International have teamed up to roll out a 10-part series on Facebook Watch entitled “Together Apart: Stories of Ramadan” featuring five-minute shorts on themes such as family, community and spirituality, and illustrated by interviews and first-person accounts.
Announcing the series, Facebook noted that during the lead-up to Ramadan, the number of people tuning in to its spiritual live broadcasts increased more than threefold compared to the same period in March.