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News presenter Soheb Cherair, left, at the Al Arabiya studio in Dubai Media City. Two more news channels will be entering the crowded sector this year, joining Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Jaime Puebla / The National
News presenter Soheb Cherair, left, at the Al Arabiya studio in Dubai Media City. Two more news channels will be entering the crowded sector this year, joining Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Jaime Puebla / The National

Better reception for regional TV

The Middle East television industry is cautiously optimistic for 2012, when two Arabic-language news stations are set for launch into an already crowded market

Cautious optimism prevails in the Middle East television industry after a year of turmoil sparked by the Arab Spring.

Hopes of bumper revenues last year were dashed after the Egyptian advertising market crashed in the first six months.

MBC, the region's largest broadcaster, expects better figures this time around. "One has to be cautiously optimistic for 2012," says Mazen Hayek, the group director of public relations and commercial at the MBC Group.

Total spending on TV advertising in the Middle East and North Africa is in excess of US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) a year. MBC pulls in the lion's share of this, although it does not disclose exact revenue figures.

MBC, which operates 10 channels including MBC1 and Al Arabiya news station, did not meet "bullish" revenue predictions last year because of the impact of the Arab Spring.

"We had a good performance in 2011, but not as good as we had envisaged," he says. "We are closing off on a fairly good year, in spite of all the turbulence. The first two quarters of the year would have sent alarming messages. The last two quarters balanced it out."

Mr Hayek adds that MBC hopes for "a two-digit percentage growth" in advertising revenues this year, compared with last year.

More than 500 free-to-air channels vie for viewers' attention in the region's crowded TV industry. The largest, such as those run by MBC, cater for the pan-regional market.

Martin Fabel, a partner at the consultancy AT Kearney who is based in Dubai, acknowledges that although there are hundres of channels, most viewers watched only a few stations regularly.

"Seven to 12 channels is what people focus on," he says. "So you could ask the question, 'what about the rest?'. Not all of them are fully fledged, top-quality channels.

"We have a big, long tail. But both the viewership as well as the advertising money is concentrated on a smaller number of channels."

The regional TV space is to become even more crowded with the launch of two Arabic-language news stations this year.

The Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince Al Waleed bin Talal is expected to roll out his Alarab station, which will be based in Bahrain. Sky News Arabia, which has its headquarters in Abu Dhabi, is scheduled to go on air in the spring.

The two stations will compete with the incumbent Al Jazeera and MBC's Al Arabiya in what is the costly business of producing TV news.

"You have two new entrants in a crowded category that makes little or no profits," Mr Hayek says.

Mr Fabel points out that Middle Eastern news stations often have wider aims than just turning a profit.

"Here in the region, news is not necessarily profitable but follows a bigger agenda," he says. "If we have a multitude of opinions in the news arena, that's certainly helpful for the market overall. But I'm not sure that's suited to grow the market economically."

Despite the upcoming launch of two pan-regional news channels, some commentators point to a more pressing demand for country-specific news and entertainment stations.

Saad Mohseni, the chairman of Moby Group, Afghanistan's largest media company, is convinced there will be more demand for localised news.

"I think [Alarab and Sky News Arabia] will still have an opportunity to make a dent," he says. "But longer term, I think they may well have to tailor their business plan and localise some of their news."

Mr Mohseni questions the dominance of pan-regional broadcasters such as MBC, which he predicts will come under pressure this year.

"It's the beginning of the end for these pan-regional [TV channels]," he says. "People are opting to launch their own [local] channels, rather than the pan-regional channels. I think that trend will continue. Local always wins."

Sunil John, the chief executive of the PR firm Asda'a Burson-Marsteller, sees demand for more "niche" television stations in the future.

"There are [around] 500 television stations, but I still think there is room for good-quality television stations to come, provided they have niche content," he says.

Prince Al Waleed's Alarab, which will provide several hours of business coverage through a partnership with Bloomberg News, fits that slot. But Mr John is not sure about Sky News Arabia.

"They are focused on general interest, and there is a hell of a lot of competition out there for them," he says. "So it will be a tough challenge for Sky Arabia."

Despite the challenges for individual operators, the TV industry overall will remain the dominant platform for advertising this year.

"In terms of media, television will continue to take the lion's share," Mr John says.

bflanagan@thenational.ae

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