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Despite being a turbulent year for the international media, broadcasters have laid out plans to launch TV channels in the region. Jaime Puebla / The National
Despite being a turbulent year for the international media, broadcasters have laid out plans to launch TV channels in the region. Jaime Puebla / The National

Challenges galore in a year of turbulence

Unsettled by the Arab Spring, the Middle East media industry saw a downbeat 2011. Internationally, the media mogul Rupert Murdoch faced a battle of his own.

Unrest in the Arab region cast a giant shadow over the media industry this year.

But back in January, the outlook was so different. In fact, the year began with the expectation of surging advertising revenues in the Middle East and North Africa, especially in markets such as Egypt.

Such optimism was quickly dashed when popular protests toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian president, and Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's head of state.

But while unrest may have hit advertising revenues this year, television audience figures grew, buoyed by greater demand for news about Arab affairs. Some hope that this, coupled with political stability, could lead to a brighter 2012.

Zubair Siddiqui, the managing director of the media agency UM Dubai, says advertising revenues fell by 25 to 30 per cent in markets such as Egypt, and remained flat in the UAE. He believes the fortunes of the industry next year will depend on stability in Saudi Arabia.

"Because of the stability of Saudi, GCC revenues have not been affected dramatically," he says. "So long as Saudi remains stable, and things don't happen in Saudi, the GCC is going to be absolutely fine."

On the international stage, Rupert Murdoch's once-mighty News Corp faced a battle of its own, as the ongoing phone hacking scandal forced it to close the News of the World newspaper in the UK, and abandon a bid for full control of the British broadcaster BSkyB.

Mr Siddiqui says the privacy issues raised in the phone hacking scandal are "important" to the international media.

"It was all over the press, with so many people talking about it," he says. "It does raise a little bit of a stench as far as international media is concerned."

So what dominated the media headlines this year? The National looks back at the big stories.

Advertising

The Pan Arab Research Center says the Middle East and North Africa advertising market was "lacklustre" this year. Spending is expected to remain below US$7 billion (Dh25.71bn) and may close down on last year.

Karim Sabbagh, a senior partner at the consultancy Booz & Company, says that despite the downbeat forecast for revenues, there was asurge in TV and newspaper audiences.

"The amount of advertising money that went into the traditional media probably went down this year, because you have big markets that were affected," he says. "Big companies came to a standstill or had to slow down. Egypt is a case in point.

"Viewership and readership probably went up; the revenues were flat, or may have regressed."

Broadcast and publishing

Despite being a turbulent year for the international media, especially at News Corp, there were a number of media launches in the Middle East.

Read, a free weekly newspaper geared towards commuters on the Dubai Metro, launched in June. And in October, National Geographic rolled out a Farsi-language channel based in the UAE.

Broadcasters also laid out plans to launch TV news stations next year. In September, the Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince Al Waleed bin Talal said he had partnered with Bloomberg News, which will help to produce business news for Alarab, a TV news station set for launch next year. Sky News Arabia, another Arabic-language news station, is set for launch in the spring.

Digital

The year began and ended with talk about Twitter. The microblogging site was seen by some as a facilitator of the Arab uprisings at the beginning of this year. And this week, it emerged that Prince Al Waleed had invested $300 million in the site.

Isam Bayazidi, the chief executive of the Middle East online advertising network ikoo, says the political use of social media sites such as Twitter - as well as e-commerce - were the year's dominant themes in digital media.

"[Digital] advertising grew this year, by at least 50 per cent. But the main focus was e-commerce and the role that digital media has played in general, politically speaking," says Mr Bayazidi. He pointed to daily deals sites such as GoNabit, which was acquired by the US giant LivingSocial in the summer.

Public relations

The region's public relations (PR) industry, which is valued at $500m, faced a tough year.

"This year has been as challenging, if not more so, than the previous two," says Dave Robinson, the regional president and chief executive of the PR firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

Mr Robinson says an uplift in spending by multinational companies in the second half of the year was counterbalanced by regional governments reducing their PR budgets.

"The Arab Spring effect has presented mixed fortunes for a lot of agencies," he says. "Government spending was the only area of growth in 2009 to 2010. That's tailed off in the second half of this year, especially in Abu Dhabi, and also in places like Egypt and Bahrain."

 

bflanagan@thenational.ae

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