Cairo's huge new studios aim to give a much-needed boost to local production
Egypt is the Middle East's production powerhouse. With its huge new 3.5 million square meter Media Production City just outside Cairo at 6th October City, plus major investments in new studios in the city in the Giza suburb from the likes of Sheikh Salah Kamel for his ART/ADD bouquet of Arabic pay channels, the local media sector is booming. The publicly owned Egyptian Radio & Television Union (ERTU) is also on a fast-expansion track.
The Egyptian government is firmly behind new TV and film production, talking of tax breaks and other incentives to attract producers and broadcasters back to what it sees as the Arab world's natural home for journalism and entertainment excellence. Egypt's minister of telecommunications and information Mohammed Safwat Al-Sherif says: "Our plan includes Nilesat and the Media City, and we want to see current and future media prosper. Egypt wants to continue leading in information, in media, and Arabic production. Today, in this new century we have these tools with the Production City and Nilesat, allowing our people to use the Internet, to watch TV and more importantly to see education available for all. As for the future, then the Internet, TV on demand as we want also to see services for the media grow. Nilesat helps complete the whole picture, and allows Egypt to lead in this area."
For some arch-conservative Gulf States like Saudi Arabia, censorship is a reality. It seems secular Egypt does not want to follow this route. Al-Sherif: "We have to recognize that globalization is taking place. We have to deal with globalization. To succeed we have to have the tools of globalization. Satellites are with us and they are not going to go away. Neither is the Internet. We can deal with the Internet, and the TV and the other [technology developments]."
Indeed, the minister could not have been clearer. "We have a long history of a liberal approach to the media, and the skies must be open. Citizens must be able to read what they like and watch what they like. With people watching whatever they want it is stupid to have censorship. Our media is free. Our media already discuss everything under the sun, which is their role."
In February this year the minister announced that Egypt would back the development of new thematic channels, additional to those already in place. Speaking before the People's Assembly, Al-Sharif stated that launching the new channels was a key part of Egypt's national security. The widespread access to foreign satellite channels has introduced Egyptians to information and ideas, which in the past were not available. The minister, in a show of pragmatism, said he believed in facing facts, and that people have the right to information in a democratic society. However, to preserve Egyptian identity, it was vital that Egypt launch new channels to compete with foreign programming. "Egyptian media has to possess the ability to deal with new elements, which we face now," said Al-Sharif.
Over the past two years or so the ERTU has started up some six new digital television channels, focusing on arts and culture, news and current affairs, music, sports and children's programming. The channels are designed both to exploit ERTU's immense programming library but also to provide a shop window for Egypt's new production and entertainment talent. Hassan Hamed, who ran the thematic channels division prior to his recent appointment as head of ERTU, says, "Our thematic channels allow us to experiment, to try new ideas, new concepts. It is giving our young journalists a chance to innovate, the same with our creative staff, our producers. The next step is to expend the transmission hours. We are running 16 hours a day on each channel, and we are growing to 20 hours. The same with our news coverage, which already includes live transmission of the Egyptian parliament, which is also creating a huge feedback."
ERTU's intention is to continue funding their new digital channels for the time being and while the audience builds, but the medium term objective is to encrypt and seek subscription revenues. The new facilities are being used to turn out variety shows, "western" style chat shows and drama series as well as music and family-specific entertainment.
A walk through the labyrinthine corridors of ERTU's Nile-side headquarters to the departments responsible for creating these thematic channels is in itself a fascinating experience, and one cannot help but be impressed by the age—or youth—of the creative and engineering staff working on the new digital networks. They are almost all youngsters. Some come from Cairo University's Mass Communications department. Others from a privately-backed TV production and journalism school (the Adham Center, publisher of TBS) at the American University in Cairo, which is also helping train youngsters in 21st-century broadcasting techniques and at the same time fill private sector vacancies.
However, if these trained and enthusiastic young people represent the "upside" of Cairo's reputation for excellence, there is a quite definite downside. This comes from the massive over-manning within the film and TV production sector. Few will speak about who does what and how the reported 30,000 staff are employed at the ERTU. After decades of stodgy programming, Egyptian state television is finally spicing up its political coverage, but critics say it may be a false dawn.
But TV is changing. A plethora of political debates, talk shows and social comment is now on air after years of drab propaganda, endless soaps and outdated cabaret acts that were apparently designed to keep the minds of the masses off politics - perhaps by numbing them. With names such as "Breakthrough," "In Depth," and "Without Censorship," the new programs are a stab at an Egyptian version of TV glasnost aimed at countering the lure of incoming and highly appealing Arabic satellite channels.
Hussein Amin, a media studies professor at the American University in Cairo and chairman of the board of the ERTU Space Committee, says the developments are a new phenomenon "and the idea behind it is that in the new world of television, censorship basically does not exist."
However, in this wonderful land of contradictions, Egypt's grand mufti has issued a religious decree, or fatwa, against television game shows, judging them to be a form of betting which is outlawed by Islam, he said in a statement. Sheikh Nasr Farid Wassel said programs on Egyptian television such as "Who Will Win the Million?" and others in which viewers telephone in with answers to questions asked on air, were "forbidden by Islamic law."
"These contests are a modern form of betting...because all participants contribute money to the prize through the price of their telephone call," said the grand mufti, one of Egypt's leading Muslim clerics. Sheikh Wassel also accused the program organizers of "defrauding, deceiving, and swindling" viewers out of their money and only offering a small portion of those funds back as prizes. Egyptian television has witnessed a recent surge in game shows such as "Who Will Win the Million?" which offers a million Saudi riyals (around $270,000) and the Egyptian show "Pyramid of Dreams," whose grand prize is LE10,000 (around $2,600) and a car.
The mufti, who is appointed by the state to issue non-binding formal religious opinions, urged the media not to broadcast such programs "in implementation of the law of Allah."
However, setting these special challenges aside, the new investment in TV facilities has not yet helped boost the local ailing film production scene, and without new movies the dozens of Arabic channels that look to Cairo as their main source of supply will increasingly look elsewhere. Last year Ahmed Heikel, co-founder of a local investment bank, set up Fonoun, a new film-production company designed to significantly boost the number of feature-length movies produced in Egypt well past the current 25 or so a year. In its heyday the output numbers were five times higher and Cairo's output saw exposure throughout the Arab world and internationally.
Fonoun's investment fund is reportedly $450 million, a staggering amount in local terms, and as part of the process Fonoun has acquired about 30% of all Egypt's cinema screens as well as the rights to older movies. It says it will make twelve movies in 2001 and an increasing number in 2002. Some local critics have argued that the new company doesn't have the skill set needed to achieve anything like this level of production. However, the new product is certainly needed.