The Arabic media mogul is the man behind some of TV’s biggest hits and now he sees opportunity as Gulf’s biggest broadcast market is shaken up
Aiman Al Ziyoud turns his focus on Saudi cinema
Ayman Al Ziyoud will be familiar to fans of Arabic factual TV, and if his face isn’t familiar from his stint as host of the hard-hitting talk show Adam, as well as many hosting slots on MBC 1, the shows he now produces under the banner of his Charisma Group production house surely will be. Charisma is responsible for the hit Arabic adaptations of CBS shows Entertainment Tonight and Insider, as well as original programming such as the talk/magazine shows Ya Hala and Fashion Time, and his productions are screened across the region by broadcasters including MBC, LBC and Rotana.
Charisma doesn’t just deal in factual programming, the company was also behind hits such as the successful 2010 drama Touq, and the 2008 Saudi movie Menahi, which was bought by Rotana and screened in parks and malls across the kingdom, making it the first movie to be publicly screened in Saudi since cinemas were banned three decades earlier.
Al Ziyoud has had a long and auspicious career, although his entry into the media industry came as a news editor in the little-known French language radio branch of Jordan Radio and TV, cutting and splicing tapes together to make up the day’s news broadcasts. From there, his voice landed him a spot as a presenter, and he soon moved to TV, eventually ending up as a key figure at MBC, both on screen and behind the scenes. Al Ziyoud produced many shows for MBC as well as hosting them and he would eventually go on to oversee the launch of the broadcast giant’s digital operation in the mid-2000s.
Al Ziyoud formed Charisma in 2005 while at MBC, going full time with his baby in 2009 and taking the copyright to many of his own shows with him. Charisma is now one of the biggest independent production companies in the region, producing, on average, 1,500 hours of original programming a year – and Al Ziyoud says this can stretch to more than 3,000 hours when the company has a big drama in production.
Al Ziyoud was one of the first producers in the region to focus heavily on local content. Contrary to 2018, when MBC is awash with local shows, Netflix is seeking out Arabic content, and organisations like twofour54 are pushing the local content agenda, Al Ziyoud says that in Charisma’s early days the main broadcasters were largely focused on bringing in Western content. His talent show, The Album, was one of the first to buck this trend when MBC bought it in 2006, and Al Ziyoud says things have improved a great deal for local producers since then.
He cites the formation of Dubai Media City and twofour54 Abu Dhabi as two key moments in the development of the industry – the former for its success in monetising the media industry, and the latter for bringing world class studios and facilities to the UAE, as well as investing in local talent. Al Ziyoud says there is still a long way to go, however: “Our biggest problem is the lack of a distribution arm for local Arabic content because it’s not a fully-fledged industry, and the amount of content produced doesn’t really justify it,” he says. “It is beginning, though. Turkey has been importing some Arab dramas – they have a similar culture, a similar level of aspiration – but it’s slow. There’s still a lack of an industry, and although it is growing, not much makes it beyond the region.”
Given that Al Ziyoud’s first success, The Album, was an entirely homegrown show, and his assertion that there is now growing demand for local content, it perhaps seems strange that the major broadcasters’ more recent forays into talent show TV have largely consisted of Arabian versions of popular Western formats like The Voice and Pop Idol, while two of Charisma’s most successful shows are Arab versions of popular CBS magazine shows. The producer doesn’t see a contradiction: “I don’t think it’s an obsession [with adapting Western formats] – these formats travel all over the world,” he says. “It’s a success story, like McDonald’s. You franchise it and it comes with all the know-how, and it’s an easier sell to advertisers because it’s established in other markets. I think it’s purely a business decision, and an excellent offering for viewers.”
The recent announcement that Saudi cinemas are to reopen could also lead to dramatic change within the local production industry, and Al Ziyoud admits that the opening up of the region’s biggest market is something he’ll be watching closely. “Saudi cinemas will be a huge boon for the whole industry, but they need to start slowly,” he says.
Currently, the producer surmises that if Saudi Arabia is in too much of a rush to fill cinemas with its own productions, it could be self-defeating. “If they just start putting out content without the experience and skills in directing, editing, storytelling, people will be very excited at first, but they’ll get bored after a month. It really could kill the industry before it’s born, so slowly is the key.”
Another common question among observers of the nascent Saudi media industry is exactly what kind of movies will be allowed in the traditionally ultra-conservative kingdom, but Al Ziyoud doesn’t seem concerned about the issue of censorship. “I think what passes in the UAE will pass in Saudi,” he says. “Saudi is changing really rapidly and wants to give people more freedom. When it comes to media in general, our role is to push boundaries, talk about taboos. You can already do that on TV – we covered all sorts of personal, religious, intimate issues on [Al Ziyoud’s talk show] Adam, and if it’s done responsibly, you choose the right words, you don’t offend society, it’s accepted.”
Al Ziyoud ends on a philosophical note. “I have a big motto that I live by,” he says. “Live and let live. I think that’s increasingly becoming the case all around the region, and even in the last year things have evolved a lot, especially in Saudi Arabia, where the level of openness and acceptance has become more personalised and less controlled, as long as it doesn’t harm society. So let’s live and let live.”