The Next TV Revolution
Arab television has
reached a new milestone. Now that the satellite revolution has
“liberated” the airwaves from the grip of state
control, business and technology have come together once again
to stimulate change in the Middle East. Just as Arab regimes
have come under political pressure thanks to the emergence of
Pan-Arab all-news networks, conservative elements of Arab society
are now under threat from a lucrative new broadcasting model
known as interactive television.
For a number of reasons,
both social and economic, the phenomenon of interactive television
has taken off in the Middle East like few other regions in the
world. It has sparked an uproar among religious authorities
across the Islamic world, driven multi-national brands out of
multi-million dollar contracts, and even caused an unprecedented
tug-of-war between heads of state in the region. It has seen
young people across the Middle East communicate in ways never
before imaginable, crushing age-old taboos with languages of
their own creation. This cataclysmic movement is powered by
a technology known by its three letter acronym: SMS, Short Message
Service. SMS runs an endless stream of messages from viewers
along an ever increasing number of screens in households across
the Arab world.
Over the past five
years, SMS text messaging has become one of the most popular
means of communication in the region. In Saudi Arabia, for example,
over 60 percent of mobile subscribers now send text messages,
with the majority of users aged 18 to 24, according to a recent
survey by AC Nielsen.
SMS fills a gap,
especially for young people, in a region marked by poor Internet
infrastructure and low connectivity rates. In fact, mobile phone
companies in the Middle East often enjoy larger customer bases
and much higher growth rates than Internet service providers,
according to Jordan-based research firm Arab Advisors Group.
“Broadcasters want to capitalize on interactive TV and
the huge growth in the mobile industry,” explains Jawad
Abbassi, the group’s president and founder.
Much of that growth
stems from the recent liberalization of the region’s telecommunications
sector. Much like the Arab world’s burgeoning television
industry, the telecommunications industry only became open to
private investment over the last decade. It was just a matter
of time before entrepreneurs managed to link the two, creating
a new synergy to fuel one of the world’s fastest growing
communications industries. In purely economic terms, the move
could not have come at a better time.
With regional governments eager to get on the media map, the
growth in the number of Arab TV channels, now hovering well
over 200, has far outpaced the region’s nascent advertising
market, valued at under $300 million, according to industry
estimates. Stations now realize that tapping into SMS may close
the gap, if not increase the pie altogether.
The SMS trend originally
was popularized by the controversial reality show Star Academy,
which brought together a group of young pop star hopefuls—unmarried
men and women from across the Arab world—to live under
one roof and have their lives filmed. The unprecedented experience
was then shared by audiences across the region, who not only
determined the outcome by voting off candidates, but also pushed
some boundaries of their own by carrying out a series of personal
conversations on the bottom of the screen.
in nature, the messages were pouring in even as the contestants
slept (the show is broadcast 24-hours per day), challenging
cultural restrictions and sparking a bonanza of revenues. Even
politicians were hooked. The late Palestinian leader Yasser
Arafat, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Libyan president Muamar
Qaddafi were all reported to have reduced national telecom rates
to help bolster their respective native son’s chance of
winning. Saudi authorities, however, were less amused.
As clerics across
the region issued religious edicts against the show for its
unorthodox mixing of the sexes, telecom authorities in the Kingdom
– the biggest source of SMS traffic – attempted
to ban its citizens from participating by cutting off access
to Star Academy’s local hotlines. But just as
Arab autocrats find themselves unable to stop the often embarrassing
Al Jazeera signal from reaching the homes of their citizens,
Saudi Arabia’s infamous religious police were powerless
when faced with the technology of SMS.
Despite the ban,
young Star Academy fans in Saudi Arabia managed to
vote for their favorite candidate by using a multitude of Web
sites that offer SMS sending services. The authorities’
worst nightmare seemed to come true when a Saudi candidate won.
A never-before-seen level of pop hysteria hit the Kingdom as
crowds of young men and women flocked to greet the victor at
a local mall. The SMS ban was re-imposed during subsequent seasons
of the show, and Nescafe even pulled out of a multi-million
dollar sponsorship deal to avoid upsetting the region’s
biggest consumer market. Yet the rise of SMS was just beginning.
In the three years
since Star Academy was first broadcast, around 60 new
music video and chatting channels have hit the airwaves, according
to senior officials at Egyptian satellite operator Nilesat.
Most, if not all, rely on a variety of SMS chat bars and related
services as a primary revenue stream. In addition to casual
banter, viewers can now play an array of on-screen games, match
mates with a “heart meter” or determine compatibility
based on SMS horoscope readings.
“SMS is a brilliant
way to cover costs and generate profits for a station,”
says Ziad Batal, who has created and produced a number of new
Arab reality shows including Street Smarts, which will
be airing on Dubai’s Infinity TV. Batal is also working
on Dance Makers, a belly-dancing talent show for Beirut-based
broadcaster MLive, as well as Hoop Challenge, a basketball-themed
reality show for Washington’s Alhurra. Viewer participation
and text messaging will be an important aspect of all three
shows. “The SMS component is as important as media buying,”
he says in reference to traditional television advertising.
In keeping with the
tradition of non-disclosure in the region, however, stations
and telecom service providers are unwilling to go on the record
with revenues or the volume of calls. Privately though, sources
close to Arab broadcasters say some of the major music stations
generate just under $1 million per month from SMS. More serious
productions such as Star Academy and its rival show
Superstar are estimated to generate far more. Indeed,
with the help of SMS revenues, budgets for the two shows were
so large that they actually set new precedents in the industry.
“SMS allows for the development of larger and more sophisticated
productions as some of the production costs can be covered by
SMS revenues,” said a source with Lebanon’s LBC,
which produces Star Academy.
Apart from meeting
big budget standards, the latest SMS channels have increased
profitability by sticking to library material and relatively
cheap programming. With an average of half the screen devoted
to text bars (streamed in English, Arabic, French or a mix of
all three), the new channels either feature music videos, which
have become increasingly sexually suggestive, or scaled-down
game shows, where a lone female host lures audiences to phone
or text-in for a chance to win. In a sign of the money-making
potential, a handful of channels have even gone so far as forsaking
programming altogether, devoting the entire screen to text messages,
and creating the equivalent of a live TV chat room.
to originate mainly in conservative countries like Saudi Arabia
and often deal with physical appearance, with some overtly soliciting
personal information, or even proposing marriage—racy
stuff in a region where dating is often restricted or forbidden.
Recent messages in English on Nagham, a popular music video
we love you so much. We want to know which school you were in
and which university- Vida, Egypt”
sweety it’s been a while you are not replying to me I
miss you a lot”
we should do something really, I’m thinking about you
a lot, love Georges”
you are a jagal (gigolo) I love you”
Hany Hany My love, Fatima Algeria”
Realizing that viewers
are more interested in the SMS dialogue than watching the actual
content on screen, stations are now employing massive call centers
to screen the thousands, if not millions, of SMS messages received
on a daily basis. Once a computer automatically removes phone
numbers, email addresses, and profanities, a second or third
layer of human editing is necessary to decipher coded messages
that may disguise phone numbers through riddles or poetry. Of
course, some messages inevitably fall through the cracks. The
emergence of MMS, multimedia messaging service, which allows
the sending and receiving of personal videos, will undoubtedly
raise the stakes even further.
Stations feel they
must walk a delicate line. Now, in addition to avoiding potential
conflicts with political power holders, they must also head
off a possible conservative backlash. As SMS revenues continue
to grow and more content goes interactive, the filtration process
could become more controversial. Industry insiders say that
SMS-related services already generate an equal if not greater
amount of revenues than television advertising. Will the region’s
biggest broadcasters, leading news networks such as Al Jazeera
and the MBC-owned Al Arabiya, feel the need catch up and tap
into this new cash cow by soliciting a greater level of participation
from their viewers? Will audiences of controversial political
and news programs be allowed to text any message of their choosing,
even politically controversial ones?
SMS already has proven
to be a valuable tool among young people in organizing recent
anti-government protests in Egypt, Kuwait and Lebanon. As interactive
television becomes a critical revenue stream for regional broadcasters,
it too may help in providing new avenues for challenging authority.
After all, future generations of Arab youth are likely to expect
and demand much more control over the images flashing across
Battah is the managing editor of the
Journal of Middle East Broadcasters.