Watching the television with family has become firmly entrenched as a part of Ramadan, and TV networks spend up on comedy, drama and social programming to reap the benefits of premium advertising rates. Keach Hagey reports Like a suffering heroine in a Ramadan historical drama, the region's media industry could do with some rescuing. Advertising spending dropped 26 per cent in the UAE and 5 per cent in Saudi Arabia - the Middle East's top two domestic markets - in the first six months of this year from the same period last year, as the effects of the global financial crisis took its toll in the region.
Lay-offs have continued into August, a month that is traditionally so slow that employers usually are not bothered, or present, to make people redundant. So it is fortunate that Ramadan, with its wildly popular comedies and historical dramas, should come just as the TV sector is hankering for a little escapism. Many in the industry are going so far as to predict the surge in advertising spending that comes with this year's Ramadan television extravaganza might be enough to help pull the industry out of its doldrums.
Among the optimists is Nezar Nagro, the president of Rotana Media Services, which is the commercial arm of the Saudi-owned Rotana Group. Best known for owning the rights to most of the world's Arabic-language music, the group tried to get in on the Ramadan TV action two years ago by switching the format of its Rotana Khalijiya channel from music to drama. As it headed into its second Ramadan, it saw a significant increase in advertising.
"Compared to last year, sales are up 30 per cent," Mr Nagro says. "I think some of the clients that didn't spend in the first half of this year, because they were worried about the recession, have now started to spend." Rotana has made a major investment to attract this advertising, spending US$10 million (Dh36.7m) on the 13 exclusive series it will air this month. While Mr Nagro hints that this investment was probably not being reclaimed through ad sales alone this year - "The idea is not to get the feedback in one or two years, but it's long term" - it is part of a broader strategy to become a Ramadan player.
"This year, Khalijiya will be one of the major stations that will be in the competition of Ramadan," he said. Several industry analysts support Mr Nagro's view that the Ramadan market is growing despite the economic downturn. Bassam Yehia, a manager at the Pan Arab Research Centre (PARC), says he has only seen preliminary data so far, but he predicts a significant increase in advertising spending this Ramadan.
"It will increase 15 to 20 per cent compared to last year," Mr Yehia says. "Now all the companies have taken care of their problems, which happened from the beginning of the year to now. Everything is settled up." This view makes sense in the context of PARC's data on the growth of the pan-Arab media market, which mostly consists of the region's 400 free-to-air satellite channels. Despite declines in many markets, PARC found the pan-Arab media grew 40 per cent in the first six months of this year, compared with last year, taking 43 per cent of the region's advertising spending.
More optimistic signs came last week from a report by the Arab Advisors Group, which found that the average advertising rate on the Middle East's free-to-air satellite television channels had hit a record high of $3,362 for a 30-second spot this Ramadan. But advertising sales at MBC, traditionally the highest ratings earner in Ramadan thanks to legendary comedies such as Tash Ma Tash, now in its 16th season, show a more mixed picture.
Mazen Hayek, the group director of marketing, PR and commercial for MBC, says the recession has been good for MBC's market share as advertisers with smaller budgets are more likely to go for the sure thing, and only the sure thing. But the satellite powerhouse, with its flagship Arabic-language MBC 1 that has many of the holy month's most popular shows, is still approaching Ramadan with some caution, keeping the same rates as last year.
"In Ramadan, MBC1 becomes in a league of its own when it comes to its ratings," Mr Hayek says. "This has led to sustained advertising on MBC 1. The levels are very close to 2008, which was by all means a record year. "Having said that, one has to take into consideration that this year there is a category of advertisers that practically disappeared from the mix, and that is real estate. If you compared apples to apples, probably Ramadan '09 is a bit less than Ramadan '08."
But MBC invested heavily in its Ramadan line-up this year. "Usually the investment in the grid of Ramadan would consist of about 25 to 30 per cent of the MBC 1 yearly grid, in terms of acquisition and production," Mr Hayek says, adding that it returns a comparable percentage. In recent years, MBC has added new revenue streams from technologies such as video-on-demand and mobisodes to its Ramadan offerings, but Mr Hayek says television watching, and therefore television commercials, remain at the centre of Ramadan family traditions.
"The other revenue streams will always be part of the equation but in Ramadan, it is the 30-second spot game that is the overwhelming source of revenue," he says. In the battle to gain a share of this revenue, broadcasters continue to pull out all the stops in terms of budgets, and of introducing elements of controversy. "We have probably the most number of big stars in huge works of drama this year that we've ever had at Abu Dhabi TV," says Karim Sarkis, the executive director of broadcast at Abu Dhabi Media Company, which owns Abu Dhabi TV and The National. "So it's our biggest Ramadan yet."
One of the biggest budget productions is Riyal Al Hasm, a controversial Syrian drama about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, complete with UK-produced post-production to render the battle scenes in cinematic detail. Such detail can help push production towards the maximum cost for most Ramadan programmes of $70,000 an hour. But one production that famously fell well outside this range, making headlines as the most expensive UAE drama production ever, will be returning this year on Dubai Media Incorporated's (DMI) English-language station, Dubai One.
Based on the poetry of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, the series, called Seraa Ala Remal, or Struggles on the Sands, was initially projected to cost Dh22m, though since then Sheikh Mohammed's media aide has said the costs could be higher. The epic screened in Arabic last year on DMI's Arabic-language flagship, Dubai TV, and this year is being re-broadcast with English subtitles, in the hope of including a broader audience.
Even stations without major budgets roll out special programming and rate cards for Ramadan. Noor Dubai TV launched at the start of Ramadan last year and this year hopes to attract even more viewers through special Ramadan documentaries and so-called "socio-Islamic" programming. New offerings include a documentary about people who have converted to Islam from all over the world, and another that celebrates the jobs of unsung heroes around the UAE.
"Our key show this year is Ba'd Taraweeh, or After Taraweeh Prayers," says Butheina Kazim, the channel manager for Noor Dubai TV. "It's usually a time when people gather around in majlises and they socialise. "It's a three-hour show and it's divided into a competition segment and a segment when we invite VIPS and well-known people from society to talk in a more informal environment about the more Islamic side of Ramadan. It's very interactive."
This mirror effect, of Muslim families gathering together in living rooms to watch the exploits of other Muslim families, whether they be Bedouins living hundreds of years ago or Syrians living today, creates an environment in which the traditional and commercial dimensions of Ramadan reinforce each other. "In Ramadan, MBC 1 is part of the ritual of the month," Mr Hayek says. "People compare it to the way that Ramadan comes with dates. It becomes a family member."