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Where West meets Middle East

With 65% of the Middle East's population under the age of 25, it's of little surprise that MTV recently staked its claim with MTV Arabia. What's more surprising, though, is what the audience research for the Arabic free-to-air satellite channel revealed about the youth in the region. Although they face certain issues distinct to their surroundings, they're just as obsessed with technology, spending money, and having fun as their designer-clad peers around the world.
December 1, 2007

With 65% of the Middle East’s population under the age of 25, it’s of little surprise that MTV recently staked its claim with MTV Arabia. What’s more surprising, though, is what the audience research for the Arabic free-to-air satellite channel revealed about the youth in the region. Although they face certain issues distinct to their surroundings, they’re just as obsessed with technology, spending money, and having fun as their designer-clad peers around the world.

Nemisa Shah, research manager of emerging markets at MTV Networks International, oversaw the audience investigations, which included mixed-gender focus groups with 15- to 30-year-old participants. The most revealing finding, says Shah, is that these youth lead very complicated lives. This group faces a constant internal battle to be respectful to their religion, while at the same time discovering their own identities, she furthers.

During one focus group, for instance, Shah recalls a group of girls all dressed in either their hijab or abaya: ‘When they started speaking, they sounded exactly like all the other kids – they talked about designer labels, music on their iPods, downloading… Underneath, they’re just like other girls anywhere else. They want to flirt, they want to text, they want to wear short skirts.’

And there are other similarities the region’s youth have to their Western counterparts: MTV’s research shows they like to text on their mobile phones, have sleepovers and learn pop stars’ dance moves. But religious beliefs can affect their tastes for programming: participants in an MTV Arabia focus group took no issue with a clip during which a Western man sat on a toilet seat, but expressed they wouldn’t want to see an Arab doing the same thing in a local version because ‘it’s disrespectful.’

Dany Karam has been working in the Middle Eastern TV industry for a decade, and agrees that lifestyle shows can work in the region, but usually only if they cater to the local audience by respecting its cultural specificities. As for reality shows, they can also do well, but ‘not if they expose the private lives of the contestants, and certainly not if both sexes are mingling together too much,’ says Karam, who is creative director of the newly opened Endemol Middle East, which will produce all Endemol formats in the region. He adds that he is speaking in general terms, since programming tastes and tolerance for risqué behavior can vary in the Middle East from one area or country to the next.

One thing that is more consistent is the length of programs aired in the region. Karam says generalist broadcasters air roughly 90-minute primetime shows, and roughly 45-minute access primetime shows. (A live primetime show can last up to two hours.) Thematic children’s, music and travel channels air roughly 30-minute programs. But during the month of Ramadan, the whole grid is changed and game shows and entertainment shows become longer and air later at night.

And that’s the key viewing time for youth in the Middle East, according to Shah. Since it’s difficult for kids to get control of the remote at home, they watch between one and three in the morning ‘when the parents go to bed,’ she says. Some things really are universal.

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