MENA TV Business Is Turning the Silver Screen Into Golden Investments

Published November 14th, 2018 - 09:14 GMT
The jury of the TV show “Arab Idol” take part in a tribute for the Kuwaiti National Day last year. (AFP)
The jury of the TV show “Arab Idol” take part in a tribute for the Kuwaiti National Day last year. (AFP)

Fifteen years after the Arab region’s first “shiny floor” reality TV show was broadcast, the format’s popularity is undimmed as rival channels vie to snap up localization rights for hit Western programs.

These light entertainment shows provide broadcasters with loyal, engaged audiences across the young and family demographic that advertisers crave, although relatively high production costs mean that only a handful of companies can afford to buy international franchises.

The BBC recently sold Middle East and North Africa (MENA) format rights for the local adaptations of two of its shows: “No Kitchen Required”, to Abu Dhabi’s Quest Arabiya, and “Astronauts: Toughest Job in the Universe” to Dubai Media Inc.

“Factual entertainment programming is gaining momentum in MENA and these formats tie in with the editorial needs of our clients,” said Natasha Hussain, BBC Studios general manager for the Middle East and Mediterranean.

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“‘No Kitchen Required’ offers a mix of adventure and cooking that meets Quest Arabiya’s need for male-skewing content with an original twist. ‘Astronauts: Toughest Job in the Universe’ ties in with the UAE’s ambitions in space research and exploration, and a need for a high-profile entertainment show.”

Ramadan has historically been peak season for Arab television, commanding the highest advertising rates. Blockbuster dramas still dominate the schedules during the Muslim holy month, but shiny floor shows — reality-based competitive formats that include viewer participation, have enabled broadcasters to generate advertising revenue more evenly throughout the year.

“We believe localizing Western reality shows provide Arab audiences with innovative and striking content,” said Khalid Khouri, general manager of Quest Arabiya, whose target audience is primarily young Arab men. “They want to explore, travel and learn about other cultures, and are inquisitive by nature.”

The company, a partnership between Image Nation Abu Dhabi and Discovery Communications, will also start production on its regional version of Discovery’s “Top Fisherman” later this year. It hopes the show will tap into the Gulf’s history of fishing, which before the discovery of oil was one of the main industries.

“Advertisers see the growth in reality TV. Unlike dramas, the opportunities for a brand to be well integrated within a reality show are much more vivid,” said Khouri. “That has allowed advertisers to be more supportive of such genres.”

The Arab world’s first notable talent show import was the regional version of Britain’s “Pop Idol,” which first aired in 2003, with “Star Academy” following shortly after.

“These shows appealed to the local culture and mentality. They proved to have a strong social influence among audiences who invested emotionally and physically in supporting their favorite participants,” advertising consultancy Hall & Partners wrote in a 2015 report.

Saudi Arabia’s MBC Group acquired the regional rights to “Pop Idol,” relaunching the format as “Arab Idol” in 2011, also buying localization rights for “Got Talent” and “The Voice,” while rival Rotana Group snapped up “X-Factor” for a short-lived run.These shows largely proved to be huge hits, the Hall & Partners report noted, attributing their success to high-quality production, celebrity participation and audience engagement.

Yet in the past five years only about a dozen non-scripted program formats have been imported to MENA and remade, said Khulud Abu Homos, CEO and founder of Dubai-based Arab Format Lab, which adapts international formats from Hollywood, Europe and Asia for Arabic-speaking audiences.

“Realwity TV was successful during the era of ‘Big Brother,’ but since then it hasn’t been very popular aside from talent shows,” said Abu Homos. “Reality TV showing ordinary people’s lives doesn’t attract much of an audience. Polished reality shows are more attractive, these shows are unscripted, but aren’t truly ‘reality’.”

About 15 channels claim about 70 percent of the Gulf television audience, and a few broadcasters, namely Abu Dhabi Media, Dubai Media Inc., MBC Group and Rotana Group, generate most of the TV revenue, according to Hall & Partners. The hundreds of other channels largely rely on dubbed and subtitled content to fill their schedules.

Advertisers are agnostic about which shows to advertise with, the genre is unimportant, what matters is the audience size, said Abu Homos, which in the Middle East and North Africa is youth-dominated.

Nearly half the MENA population is under 25 and TV viewing is a popular pastime, UAE residents spend an average of 20.8 hours per week watching television, according to the 2016-2018 Arab Media Outlook report, while the average for Saudi Arabia and Egypt is 18.1 and 18.2 hours, respectively. General entertainment shows account for nearly half the audience share in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, a September 2018 report from Ipsos found.

Quest’s Khouri said MENA television audiences were increasingly interested in outdoor content, and adventure and activity-based programs.

“We see a huge potential in this genre for our target audience,” she said. “Everyone is looking at distribution and incremental reach to deliver the highest return on investment, and since our shows are distributed across multiple platforms, that allows us to reach incremental audiences on the go.”

MTV Lebanon has produced four series of the BBC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” and the British broadcaster sees MENA as an important market.

“We have serious ambitions in the region and expect to build on our recently announced factual entertainment formats shortly, as well as in scripted content,” said the BBC’s Hussain.

“We believe that the demand for original, edgy content, which is also family orientated and respectful of local cultural sensitivities is on the rise. But we also noticed a new trend where scripted formats are becoming increasingly important for MENA broadcasters.”

The BBC acts as a production consultancy for its clients, offering help during development and production of local versions.

“Broadcasters and investors increasingly understand that buying an international program format isn’t just about remaking a successful concept but also serves to bring in expertise that can train our own talent,” said Abu Homos.

“The most important thing about buying TV formats and localizing them is that you can benchmark yourself against other versions around the world and train your talent with support from the makers of the original format.”

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