The winds of political change sweeping the Middle East are impacting the broadcast sector. Once the undisputed regional leader of television production, Egypt is facing stiff competition from its Arab neighbours, as Lebanon, Syria and even the tiny state of Qatar muscle in on its turf. REALSCREEN looks at the state of television in a changing world
Until September 1996, the Lebanese broadcasting sector was out of control. Pirating was rampant, and the number of stations ballooned to 54. Although the civil war was over in 1991, numerous factions continued to hang on to their transformers, hoping to spread their propaganda.
Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri put an end to electronic proliferation in 1996, and legally blessed six stations. The others were forcibly shut down. In a few short years, the chosen six have developed one of the most sophisticated programming schedules in the Middle East, not to mention the hippest graphic logos and interstitials.
The new kid on the block is Future TV, owned in part by the Prime Minister himself, as well as a group of Shiite Muslims. Despite conservative financial backers and a family target, Future TV offers a host of young presenters and staffers representing not only the Shiite Muslim community, but also the Maronite Christian, Sunni and Druze groups.
‘The prime minister has a real obsession with trying to make the ownership of Future TV a model for its new audio-visual law,’ says Future’s ceo, Ali Jaber.
The station liberally mixes programs produced in the region with popular western sitcoms and drama. Future, as well as mtv (Murr Television), Tele-Liban, and Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (lbc), is actively trying to dethrone the Egyptian-produced soaps, game shows and variety/comedy series which dominate the television waves.
‘I expect Lebanese TV to be leader again in the Arab world because of its history of liberty and freedom,’ says Jaber. The liberal Lebanese shows are certainly most popular on Arab Radio and Television(art) boutique packages uplinked in Europe, Australia and the u.s. through numerous carriers, including dth carriers in France.
As art’s worldwide penetration increases, its demand for Lebanese shows will most likely increase, says Andrew Patton, manager of international business development and marketing, ART Egypt.
Despite its reputation for political repression, Syria is also emerging as a leader in the Middle East television scene. In terms of Syrian television, the quality jumped when the government eased restrictions on private production.
‘All Arabic countries are asking for Syrian programming,’ says Mr. Khaldoun Al Maleh, general director of Shamra Television in Damascus.
Arabic audiences love big dramas thick with subtext, and companies such as Shamra and Cham are finding financial backing through pre-sales to the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (mbc), based in London, Dubai Television, Orbit and art. These broadcasters are bigger spenders (us$15,000 per hour) than Syria’s own state broadcaster, which pays only us$1,000 per hour.
Cham Television is the largest production company in the region. Not only did it pump out 250 hours of documentaries and drama in 1997, it has also produced tongue-in-cheek shows such as the hugely popular series, The General Manager, which poked fun at bungling mid-level officials. Because the series stopped short of criticizing the highest official – President Hafez Assad (Syria’s ruler since 1970) – it escaped censorship.
While drama is Cham’s main focus, the company has also produced a number of documentaries on medical and archaeological subjects strictly for Arab Radio and Television network.
‘Because of our success at festivals in Cairo and Tunisia, we are looking to distrbute to non-Arab-speaking countries such as the u.s., Australia and China,’ says producer Mazen Rifka.
Egypt & Jordan
Not to be outdone by the aggressive Lebanese and Syrians encroaching on its market, the Egyptian government is putting the final touches on an enormous production facility. Located next to the pyramids, it will come complete with outdoor sets and props, ranging from the palaces of the Phoenicians to the souks of contemporary Cairo. ‘They have made it easy for the Egyptian production center to remain the largest,’ says Shamra’s Patton.
Although very little Egyptian production is sold into non-Arabic-speaking markets, the demand for programming within the region is growing in proportion to the proliferation of both terrestrial and satellite stations.
Programmers keep a wary eye on dress length and any shows which might offend the religious, but according to Said Ragab of Laser Egypt, one of the country’s largest distributors, the ‘rate of rejection’ has decreased in recent years. For Ragab, that means the tolerance level at the government-owned stations in Egypt has also increased. Ditto for Syria, whose censors are now accepting shows featuring women wearing short sleeves.
On the documentary front, Egypt remains a big buyer of wildlife films, including National Geographic fare, Explorer Magazine, Really Wild Animals, Planet Hunters and Tiger of the Highlands from the bbc. Sales to terrestrial broadcasters in the Middle East range from us$500-$1,200 per hour. The highest rates are in the Gulf countries and Egypt.
In Jordan, programming prices are low, but its range of acquisitions, particularly for documentaries, is broader. Hala Zureiqat, head of Jordan TV Channel 2, programs in English. Unlike buyers from other countries that restrict buying to wildlife programming, she is also picking up shows dealing in current affairs and social issues such as drug abuse. ‘It is an issue that they are dealing with in Jordan now, so to make people more aware, we might program such a show.’