Distributors and producers take note: a television oasis exists where you’d least expect to find one – the Middle East. Despite strict, government-imposed content restrictions in some countries, opportunities are out there and they’re increasing all the time. The key is knowing what to sell and who to approach: Think clean and think satellite.
Los Angeles-based distributor Planet Pictures Ltd. has been selling in the region since the early ’90s. ‘We do strong business in Israel and then beyond that, we tend to sell to pan-Middle East channels, like satellite cable channels, as opposed to individual countries,’ says managing director Jenny Hayden. ‘We’ve been distributing for 11 years but we’ve yet to make a sale specifically to some of the Arab countries, like Lebanon.’
The advent of satellite has made it easier for distributors and producers to break into the region, while sidestepping individual dealings with each Middle Eastern country. ‘Most of the companies we do business with are either British or U.S. corporations,’ Hayden says. For example, Planet Pics sells to both Middle East Television (which is owned by Virginia-based Christian Broadcasting Corp.) and Gulf DTH (a joint venture between Viacom and Kipco, a Kuwaiti company, that uses the Showcase feed).
Within Israel, satellite is not expected to make an appearance until the end of 1999, and major cable expansion came about only recently. Orna Yarmut, who runs an Israeli production company under her name, explains: ‘Although television broadcasts began in Israel in 1969, only one public channel (Channel 1 of the Israel Broadcasting Authority) was in operation until 1992, with an additional educational TV channel broadcasting during fixed morning hours.’ Now there are eight cable channels, including one devoted to documentaries.
The one down side to the recent proliferation of channels in the Middle East is the impact it has had on licensing fees. ‘It’s returned it back to the fundamental question of what’s the exposure – how many viewers, how many eyeballs,’ Hayden says. ‘Since the channels are new and don’t have a high penetration, the prices are low.’
But the potential for profit depends on whether you’re willing, and able, to sell to each country individually. For example, Hayden averages US$800 to $1,000 an hour in Israel alone. Distributor Mustapha Hamaoui of Alltime Entertainment says he gets $500 to $1,000 an hour through individual sales to such countries as Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan. The easier route is to sell to a pan-Middle East broadcaster, but it garners the same return as a deal with one country. Hayden says she finds selling in the Middle East similar to Latin America, though the returns tend to be a bit higher.
What’s the format of choice? Half-hour series, with lots of interest in wildlife, cooking and how-to programs. ‘The most popular one so far [for Planet Pictures] has been a cooking show called The Urban Peasant,’ Hayden says. The Urban Peasant – which stars James Barber, is produced by Urban Peasant Productions in Vancouver and is currently in its ninth season – was the first Middle East contract Planet Pictures landed back in the early ’90s, with Star cable station. Hayden recently contracted with Gulf DTH for more installments of Barber’s culinary creativity.
Hamaoui, whose company has head offices in both London and Beirut, agrees that half-hour series are the way to go in the Middle East. ‘They don’t like the one-offs,’ he says. ‘They often only have eight hours of telecast per day on the air… so they don’t have a very long time. When they have a documentary, they would rather have half-hours.’ Hamaoui has been a distributor since 1980, and focuses on selling in the Middle East and northern Africa.
In terms of content, Arab broadcasters are looking for family entertainment. However, judged according to North American or European sensibilities, their standards are set way far to the right of conservative. Hamaoui explains: ‘You can’t show a woman wearing shorts, you can’t see kisses on television, you can’t see even a husband and wife kissing in bed…. Anything regarding religion, politics, sex, crime, magic – all these things are not acceptable.’ In many cases, censors must screen and approve the programs before they can be broadcast.
Still, the demand for ‘Western’ programming continues to rise in the Middle East, thanks to the bumper crop of satellite channels bursting onto the scene. Local doc producers present little competition, explains Israeli producer Orna Yarmut, as the budding industry is perpetually under-funded. ‘The demand for programs, which are not local productions, has increased greatly,’ says Yarmut, adding that American TV shows are particularly popular.
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