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The Daily Show host Trevor Noah on Saturday took a break from his packed schedule to help launch Comedy Central in the Middle East, a move that network owner Viacom hopes will build its audience in a region that it sees as a major growth market and one where it can nurture local talent.
A few minutes before 7 p.m. local time, when the channel officially went on air, Noah took to the stage at the launch event at Dubai’s prestigious Armani Hotel to count down to its start.
“This is really exciting. I’ve even brought my own remote,” said Noah at 6:58 p.m., pointing to a five-foot high model of a remote control. “The reason I had this made was because I often lose the remote control in the couch,” he quipped to rapturous applause. “And this is actually coming with the channel. Everyone that actually watches Comedy Central, you will be receiving this remote.”
Noah served up gags aplenty, with several focusing on life in Dubai. The South African comedian, for example, said that the city’s taxi drivers had taught him how to conquer fear. “I feel like taxi drivers in Dubai are part of a car chase and still fulfill their job requirements,” he quipped. “They’re like, ‘I’m going to die, but I must pick up somebody along the way.'”
Having previously launched MTV, Nickelodeon and Nick Jr. in the Middle East on pay TV operator OSN in 2014, the Viacom International Media Networks unit was keen to bring Comedy Central to the region. After all, pay-TV penetration is growing rapidly in the Middle East, and young, tech-savvy audiences — especially in oil-rich Gulf countries, such as the United Arab Emirates — are leading demand.
Cue Comedy Central, which alongside The Daily Show will offer OSN subscribers the chance to watch such other hit shows as Inside Amy Schumer, Tosh.0 and a dedicated block of Spike content. Ensuring as wide an audience as possible, all of the content will be subtitled in Arabic.
While Viacom wants to expand the reach for stars such as Noah, the company also is intent on creating a platform for local comedians through locally produced programming, which Comedy Central also has done in other countries, helping fledging local comedy scenes develop further and possibly get a shot at wider international exposure. Viacom has been following this global-local, or “glocal,” strategy across its networks and markets.
“We’re going to bring Comedy Central’s biggest global hits and also invest in local production. We want the channel to be the leader of comedy in the Middle East,” says Raffaele Annecchino, managing director for South Europe, Middle East and Africa at VIMN. “There’s a huge comedy scene in the Middle East. For me, it’s been a discovery, and we’ve already started scouting talent.”
As one of the leading pay-TV operators in the region, OSN has a track record in producing local drama, entertainment and comedy content and one that it is proud of, says CEO David Butorac. To date, the majority of comedy in the region has developed on social media, and moving it more to television is something that OSN and Viacom want to help with.
“There’s a lot of great talent on social media … and the transition from social media to mainstream broadcasting is an easy one, so we will continue to invest heavily across all genres to ensure that we can provide a local service for our local audience,” says Butorac.
There is, of course, the issue of ensuring that the channel’s content conforms to the social and cultural norms of a region, which is regarded as more conservative than most. For the Middle East, Viacom and OSN are creating a bespoke channel, which will be leaving out any Comedy Central shows that are thought too risque for the region.
While bleeping out swear words and other edits is an option, it isn’t the preferred one, say executives. For Noah, understanding the target audience is key to producing successful global shows.
“I don’t think of [my] show as being an extremely controversial one. There is always a line, but the perception of the line changes from place to place,” Noah tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s the same in the U.S. Profanity is not seen as something that can be commonly thrown about. There are seldom times where it isn’t bleeped out … which, according to European standards for the most part, is deemed as primitive.”
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