x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Local TV for local people?

The Arab world's television advertising industry could be worth US$1 billion a year but the key is how to reach viewers in such a disparate market spread across five time zones.

Inside view of the News Room in the MBC office at Dubai Media City in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
Inside view of the News Room in the MBC office at Dubai Media City in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

The Arab world spans five time zones - as do the Middle East's numerous satellite television channels.

Unlike in most other parts of the world, the majority of Arab TV channels are broadcast across the entire region, from Morocco to Oman, with the same programmes and advertisements shown at the same time.

This is despite huge differences in the various Arab countries, in everything from dialects to economic development and consumer habits.

There are many locally focused channels broadcast across the region, such as Abu Dhabi TV and Dubai TV. But the biggest and most commercially successful channels tend not to target specific markets.

This has huge implications for the region's television advertising industry, which some experts estimate was worth US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) last year.

That is because it is impossible for advertisers to target audiences effectively using the largest satellite channels: what gets beamed to rural Tunisia is the same content as urban Dubai receives.

Likewise, it is difficult for the free-to-air channels to fully exploit the commercial potential of prime-time advertising slots because when it is 8pm in Casablanca, it is midnight in Muscat.

Some commentators say that stronger demand for more localised broadcasts could present a challenge to the leading players in the satellite TV industry, such as MBC and ART. While these broadcasters create much of their own content, they also transmit a lot of western programmes dubbed in Arabic.

"The pan-regionals have had their day. And I think that you will see a lot more local [channels]," said Saad Mohseni, the chairman of Moby Group, Afghanistan's largest media company.

"I think MBC and others will struggle because for how long will people watch dubbed content? People want to see their local stuff," he said.

Mr Mohseni said Moby Group planned to launch five channels outside Afghanistan over the next 18 months, focusing on the Middle East and South Asia markets. He said local shows appealing to local TV audiences was the way forward.

"I think you will see a shift from pan-regional to country-specific channels … I think that people need to see characters that are reflections of themselves on television," said Mr Mohseni. "'Pan' anything doesn't work … People need local shows. It's as simple as that."

However, some other media executives see the future of Middle East broadcasting in a different light.

Mazen Hayek, the official spokesman and group director of public relations and commercial at the free-to-air TV operator MBC Group, said the pan-regional model would remain dominant in the short term.

David Butorac, the chief executive of the pay-TV operator Orbit Showtime Network (OSN), which transmits identical broadcasts across several regional markets, said there was a need for more local content. "Television in just about every market is a very parochial product," he said.

He said that while he believed demand for pan-regional broadcasts would continue, OSN planned to tailor international content to different countries, as well as produce more localised programmes.

"It could still be pan-regional content, but you need to make sure you personalise it," he said. "As we grow, we will be developing content that is specific for markets."

More locally focused channels could boost the amount of advertising spending in the region, said Jawad Abbassi, the founder and general manager of Arab Advisors Group.

A greater number of local channels could encourage more spending by local companies. "I think it would be a positive shot in the arm for advertising spend on TV," said Mr Abbassi.

However, he said he "would strongly disagree" with the idea that the pan-regional broadcasters could be toppled, given the continued strong demand for general pan-regional content.

Part of the challenge in making TV more local is technological. Currently, there are no "spot beams" in the region. This technology allows satellite broadcasters to send different signals to different areas. That would allow broadcasters to create local programming and sell market-specific advertising. Mr Abbassi said "eventually, I think we will have some spot beams", while other commentators said discussions had been held on the topic.

Another technological advance is internet protocol TV (IPTV), which has been launched in several regional markets such as the UAE., This also enables the targeting of content and advertising.

Mazen Nahawi, the founder and president of News Group International, a news management and monitoring company in Dubai, said IPTV "will benefit viewers, advertisers and broadcasters collectively".

But he disagreed with the notion that pan-Arab broadcasters could lose their grip on the market because of the lack of local channels.

"Does that mean the end of pan-Arab programming and the decline of pan-Arab broadcasters? I would say absolutely not," he said.

"Audiences want both strong pan-national and local broadcasting, and it is best when they work together."


The number of TV channels in the Arab world:

487 free-to-air satellite

Almost 500 free-to-air satellite TV stations in the Arab world vie for a share of the audience and, of course, ad revenue. According to the Arab Advisors Group, there were 487 free-to-air channels in the Arab world as of April last year. About 80 per cent broadcast in Arabic. Commentators point out that the majority of these channels are not profitable. Many are government-controlled, used for political ends, or are vanity projects. Despite this, Jawad Abbassi, the founder and general manager of Arab Advisors Group, last year said he expected the number of stations to rise to about 550.

124 pay-TV satellite

The three biggest pay-television networks in the region have a total of 124 channels, according to Arab Advisors. Orbit Showtime Network has 82 pay-TV channels and three pay-per-view channels, while ART has 24 channels and Al Jazeera Sports operates 15, according to an Arab Advisors report published late last year. However, the report said “viewers seem to favour the free content of free-to-air channels rather than paying for TV content”. Other players in the market include the Abu Dhabi Sports channels owned by the Abu Dhabi Media Company, which also owns and publishes The National.

138 terrestrial

There are 138 terrestrial TV stations broadcasting in 19 Arab countries, according to Arab Advisors. Before the advent of satellite television, local terrestrial broadcasts were the “main source of entertainment and information for people in the Arab World”, the group said. More than 50 per cent of the terrestrial stations are in the Palestinian Territories, Iraq and Egypt. The vast majority of the terrestrial stations in the 19 surveyed countries are fully government owned. But the majority of Palestinian Territories’ and Iraqi terrestrial TV channels are privately owned.

* compiled by Ben Flanagan