MTV's Arab net thinking locally

Regionalized versions of hits front and center for debut

Arabic versions of popular MTV music programs from pop to hip hop will be the mainstay of MTV Arabia when the new channel — tabbed by executives as "the main platform for Arab youth in the region" — launches Nov. 17.

The 24-hour service, which will include an array of lifestyle programs as well as the usual menu of music videos and an animated call to prayer every Friday, kicks off with a lavish launch party Nov. 14 before going live at midnight Nov. 17 on Nilesat 14 and Arabsat 24. It will reach a potential audience of nearly 200 million across the Middle East.

The core target markets for the channel, which will utilize local talent as well as production facilities whenever possible, are Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon and the UAE, or just over half of the total audience.

"We've done a tremendous amount of audience research leading up to the launch," Bhavneet Singh, managing director and senior vp MTV Networks International, emerging markets, told The Hollywood Reporter. "This is the first platform of its kind and also a real opportunity for MTV. Following the launch, the next stage of development will be more audience research over the coming few months and feedback on the programs."

Hip HopNa, a regional talent search program geared to discovering unknown musical talent, is the flagship show of a program lineup that has been tailored specifically to cater to the culture of the region, executives said.

"We've created programs that are an Arabic version of MTV programs," said Patrick Samaha, general manager of MTV Arabia. "It is the first time that programs like this will really reflect the youth culture here, but we've been mindful all the way about respecting the local culture."

Samaha was fresh from presenting an award at the 2007 MTV Europe Music Awards to Rashed El Majed for best Arabic act, the first time an Arabic category has been included in the awards.

The programming lineup features a mix of music videos, lifestyle and animated shows, comedy and drama. The channel will also air such imported hits as "Pimp My Ride," "Punk'd" and "Total Request Live." There already are Arabic versions of popular shows like "MADE" (al Helm) and "Boiling Point" (Akher Takka), which make up about 40% of the content, a little more than the local content in other localized MTV ventures.

"This is going to be the main platform for Arab youth in the region," said Samaha, who spoke of plans for the region that include the launch of Nickolodeon Arabia next year. "We chose Dubai as a headquarters for the launch because of its position in the region as a global hub and because our partner, AMG, is also based here. An infrastructure and facilities are in place."

The launch is the culmination of an ongoing licensing agreement between MTV parent Viacom and Arab Media Group. MTV Arabia will operate under AMG, which is the media arm of TECOM, owned by Dubai's ruling family.

"MTV Arabia is a fresh take on MTV the brand," said Abdullatif al Sayegh, CEO of Arab Media Group. "Made by Arabs, for Arab youth, it is dedicated to their self-expression. As young people represent 65% of the population in the Middle East, it is time they were heard."

Increased interest in the Middle East has seen it grow both as a center for investment and for emerging creative talent. In the United Arab Emirates, oil dollars have fueled massive investment and a big increase in U.S investment in the UAE entertainment sector. September saw a deal between Warner Bros. Entertainment and Aldar properties to build a theme park, hotels and production facilities.