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The Middle East @ Work

Middle Eastern TV goes interactive

Marketplace Staff Mar 5, 2008

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Scott Jagow: I’m at an Egyptian cafe this morning. Here, you’ll find men sipping tea, and smoking shisha, the tobacco of Egypt. And they watch satellite TV. The satellite dish has changed the Middle East as much as any technology.

At this cafe, a group of men told me — and our interpreter — how they loved getting news from around the world, but they don’t like some of the other channels.

Cafe patron (voice of interpreter): Of course, it’s the nudity — because it’se an Islamic country, and we’re all bound by many traditions.

Jagow: Can you name any American TV shows?

Cafe patron: Oprah.

Jagow: Oprah!

Jagow: It’s not just American talk shows on the satellite. Commentator Marwan Kraidy says Arabic television has come a long way.

Marwan Kraidy: It is tough being an Arab television executive today. With more than 300 channels, your industry is intensely competitive. Your target audience is fragmenting, and your slice of the advertising pie is shrinking. And if this was not enough trouble, you cannot really trust audience research companies, because they’re cozy with the advertising industry.

So what do you do? Go interactive. How? Think mobile phones.

It is no wonder that reality TV has been so popular in the Arab world. To viewers, it brings the weekly excitement of voting someone off the island. To the media business, it makes interactive TV possible, which means big money. Interactivity brings in a steady stream of revenue, independent of advertising

How does this new business model work? Consider Star Academy, now entering its fifth season on the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. For four months a year, eight women and eight men are sequestered in the “academy,” where they learn singing and dancing.

Some contestants become celebrities. They walk out with recording contracts, and music videos are made to promote their songs. The videos play on Arab music TV channels. Viewers use text-messages, for which they pay up to a couple of U.S. dollars a pop, to request their favorite videos. The new celebrities return to Star Academy to share their experiences, mentor new contestants, and regale their fans with a song or two.

For the Arab media business, this is a virtuous cycle where manufacturing celebrities creates steady revenues, which sometimes surpass advertising receipts. By harnessing interactivity, Arab reality TV has created a new business model premised less on ratings and more on paid viewer participation.

So, if you are an Arab television executive today, you don’t worry as much about ratings. Because you know that real TV means real money!

Jagow: Marwan Kraidy is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s working on a book about the politics of Arab reality TV.

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