Can Netflix Transform the Television Landscape in the Middle East?

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Netflix CEO Reed Hastings

With over 400 million potential viewers, the region has vast potential, but with little variation in programming, audiences are starved for original content. The streaming giant could change all that.

As Ramadan came to an end June 14, across the Middle East, families broke their fasts and then, with full bellies, gathered in front of the TV to watch their favorite shows. For Arabic TV, this holy month is often compared to American sweeps. Advertisers pour their biggest budgets into 30-day serialized dramas and comedies featuring beloved actors who, like distant relatives, return in different situations year after year. These shows are to Ramadan what football is to Thanksgiving — an institution. 

Arabs, like Americans, watch a lot of TV. Over 400 million Arabs of all ages spend an average of 19 hours per week watching scripted Arabic-language series. But while American broadcasters covet the 18- to-35-year-old male audiences, Arab broadcasters cater to one demographic —middle-aged women. Heavy on plot and light on character development, this is telenovela-style entertainment that rarely challenges or inspires viewers, especially the region’s massive youth population.

The Arab writers who churn out these melodramas are eager to create more nuanced entertainment, the kinds of shows that can spark public debate and serve as catalysts for social change. Over the past six months, my USC colleagues and I have conducted more than 50 in-person and phone interviews with top Arab TV writers, producers, and network executives about the state of Arabic TV. They are frustrated with the status quo and hungry to create more engaging local content that better reflects people’s lives. Many revealed that while they write for Arabic shows, they personally only stream American shows like Insecure and Stranger Things. They told us the region needs gatekeepers willing to take a risk on content that speaks to younger audiences.

This disregard of young viewers is about to change. Earlier this year, Netflix announced its first Arabic-language production. While other services like Starz and iFlix are already in the market streaming foreign content to the Middle East, Netflix is the first to make good on its promise to invest in local storytellers. Production will begin this year on Jinn, a teenage supernatural drama featuring young Arab talent in front of and behind the camera. Young people in the region will finally see themselves onscreen, and the writers and directors will have the freedom to create content grounded in their authentic experiences.

That’s not to cast Netflix as a savior for the region. Saudi Arabia, which has controlling financial interests in media companies across the Middle East, is implementing a massive change in its approach to media production in ways that will diversify content and target new audiences. In March, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman traveled to Los Angeles to spend billions on bringing Hollywood expertise to bolster the creative and economic development of Saudi Arabia’s film and TV industry. Among the notable deals is a $400 million investment in the world’s largest talent agency, Endeavor. What this American investment really means is that Arab TV writers will finally have access to outlets that know how to profit from character-driven, complex storylines, including those that engage the region’s social issues — youth alienation, women’s empowerment, minority rights and violence — with authenticity and nuance.

At present, most Arabic broadcast shows are developed for a 30-episode Ramadan release, and must fall into familiar categories such as period dramas and slapstick comedies. Dina Harb, an Egyptian producer who runs Cairo-based screenwriting workshops, says the long-term impact of outside investment will be a changed regional TV market. “Writers are longing for a greater number of productions and the chance to develop new stories in different genres and formats that are not suitable for the current airing requirements.”

In order for real change to happen, the American behemoths investing in the region must also bring with them the market practices that are common in the U.S., particularly for Arab TV writers who are overworked, underpaid and have no control in the production process. Arab writers, for example, are routinely asked to create 30-episode shows with a two-month turnaround, a process that would take more than a year in the American market. Netflix seems to be sticking to its American development model, with time for collaboration, revision and innovation.

If Jinn is a hit, it could prove to be a major disruptor across the board, both in terms of the kind of content that gets the green light and the way television is made. Yes, a lot is riding on what is essentially a small television show, but television has more than proved its ability to impact social change, particularly with young people. And the vision is compelling: a cadre of new shows featuring relatable onscreen Arab characters of all ages who struggle — dramatically or comedically, but above all, authentically — with real life challenges.

Rachel Gandin Mark is the Director of International Programs at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where she oversees two U.S. Department of State programs: the American Film Showcase and the Middle East Media Initiative. In 2011, she produced Disney’s only Arabic-language feature film, The United.