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This story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Slightly more than a year ago, televisions around the world were tuned to uprisings on the streets of Tunis, Cairo and Damascus. The Arab Spring protests set off a shock wave that toppled dictatorships in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen and forever changed the politics of the region.
On Arab screens today, a quieter revolution is under way. Its heroes are the local versions of Simon Cowell, Jon Stewart and Bree Van de Kamp, and some believe its impact might be as transformative and far-reaching as the demonstrations in Tahrir Square.
Throughout the Middle East, networks are opening up to more Western-style TV. Whether it’s an Afghan version of The Office, a Turkish take on Desperate Housewives or a Kuwaiti South Park, broadcasters are serving up shows that a few years ago would have been considered political and social no-gos.
“You’d be surprised how Western Arab TV is now,” says Jamie Lynn, senior vp international distribution at London-based FremantleMedia Enterprises, who has been selling Western formats in the region for nearly a decade. “If you turned off the sound, you’d think you were watching in Europe or the U.S.”
In many cases, you actually are watching Western (or at least Western-owned) TV. Fox International, through a deal with Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal‘s Rotana Media, operates two satellite channels in the region, bringing subtitled and dubbed versions of hundreds of Hollywood films, along with such series as Glee and Modern Family, to homes in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. Turner Broadcasting operates an Arab version of its Cartoon Network from Abu Dhabi. In 2011, Sony Pictures TV opened a sales office in Dubai.
“Recent years have seen a boom in TV channel launches across the Middle East,” says Stuart Baxter, senior executive vp distribution for Sony in the region. “It offers a real growth market that SPT’s business can thrive in.”
For distributors facing saturated or shrinking domestic and European markets, the Middle East is an oasis. It’s big (67 million households representing 300 million-plus viewers) and young (as much as 60 percent of the population of some countries is under 20 years old). The Pan Arab Research Center estimates gross advertising revenue for the region hit $9.2 billion last year, up $700 million from 2010. These figures have to be taken with a grain of salt — there are no agreed-on metrics for measuring ad spends in the Arab world — but everyone agrees the market is only getting bigger.
“It’s all positive,” says Richard Broughton, senior principal analyst at U.K. research group Screen Digest.
Not all of that growth is enriching Western companies. Many of these new TV formats are unapproved ripoffs — like the Office-style mockumentary series The Ministry on Kabul’s Tolo TV. But increasingly, licensed adaptations are finding their place. Disney teamed with Turkey’s Kanal D for an Istanbul version of Desperate Housewives. Last year, FME launched a take on American Idol on Saudi-controlled satellite channel MBC.
Arab Idol was an instant hit: As many as 43 percent of Saudi viewers tuned in, and the show has a half-million Facebook fans and 27 million views on YouTube. This comes despite, or perhaps because of, female contestants performing in sexy outfits that would get them banned, or worse, if worn on the streets of Riyadh.
MBC gets around Saudi Arabia’s proscriptive religious laws by being based in more liberal Dubai and broadcasting across the Arab world. It’s a tactic that takes advantage of a lack of regional censorship.
Lynn won’t say if Arab Idol is having a political impact. “We’re just excited to see people across the region singing into hairbrushes,” he says. But many do see Western-style TV winning hearts and minds in the region.
A May 2009 WikiLeaks cable from two Saudi media executives revealed their opinion that U.S. shows airing on Arab satellite TV are doing more to convince Saudi youth to reject violence and terrorism than millions of dollars worth of U.S. propaganda. Citing the MBC channels and those of the Fox-Rotana service, they said fascination with U.S. culture was spreading. “You no longer see Bedouins but kids in Western dress who are now interested in the outside world,” the cable concluded.
Shows broadcast on the 500-plus channels available via satellite in the Middle East are still censored for content — a Jamie Oliver special featuring pork, forbidden by Islam, wouldn’t make the cut, and nudity is off-limits — but broadcasters push the envelope. Danger Bell, a sketch comedy on Tolo TV, mocks the Taliban and politicos with chutzpah that would make Stewart proud. Egyptian TV — a bastion of censorship before the Arab Spring — recently aired Al Mowaten X (Citizen X), a 24-style thriller inspired by Khaled Said, who was tortured and killed by state police then became a unifying symbol for Tahrir Square protesters.
But Paloma Haschke, a journalist and Middle East media expert based in Cairo, says whatever the on-air changes, little has filtered to the Arab street. “If you go to an average, poor Arab household, they might watch Arab Idol. They might even vote for their favorite candidate,” she says. “But when they turn the TV off, nothing has changed. Most people here would say the real revolution hasn’t started.”
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