Almost four years ago I went to meet with Orbit's vice president of programming Ross Chalder at the Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC), where Orbit was setting up in preparation for their first broadcast out of the new facilities during their World Cup 98 coverage. It was still the early days for Media City; in fact, it was still the early days for Egypt's Media Free Zone.
Recently I returned to Media City on assignment for TBS to meet with Hala Sirhan at studio 602, used exclusively by Dream TV, Egypt's first privately owned satellite network. I was surprised at what had happened in four years. Although I had been aware of future plans for this vast 3.5 million square meter Media City complex and the adjoining Nilesat earth station, I was surprised to see what seemed then as a desert mirage metamorphose into a functioning, bustling mega-production city.
In February EMPC, which already hosts an array of the biggest names in regional satellite broadcasting, got a big boost when MBC (the Middle East Broadcasting Centre) moved some of its production out of Europe and into EMPC-including, notably, the hugely popular Arabic-language version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" ("Man Sayarbah Al-Milyon," or "Who Will Win the Million"), hosted by the hugely popular George Kerdahy. The show can be seen on Nilesat as well as terrestrial Egyptian television.
At present EMPC hosts three complexes; two are constructed by EMPC and consist of 11 studios which function as indoor filming, production, and post-production facilities. The third is the Mubarak International Media Complex, which contains 18 individual studios and is in its last phase of completion. This does not include the 18 outdoor shooting locations that are physically located within Media City.
According to Abdel Rahman Hafez, chairman of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) and the Egyptian Media Production City, the Mubarak International Media Complex is the best and main project of Media City. Six of the 18 studios have been completed, and another 12 are scheduled for completion by the end of May 2002 to be inaugurated on Egyptian Media Day. This is a joint Sensaka and Sony handled project, involving equipment worth 89 million dollars and construction that cost 224 million dollars, built on a space of 400,000 square meters. It is expected that only one studio will not be ready by May, as it is being outfitted with sound equipment for use as a radio studio.
Various media companies are already using most of these studios. The first company to rent facilities was Orbit, which now has five studios, four in the oldest complex and a 700 square meter studio in the newest complex. MBC has two 1062 square meter studios, while Al-Jazeera and Tamima channels have a studio each in complex B. Another new channel, Tiba, is also using a 700 square meter studio. Egypt's new privately owned satellite channels have set up shop here; Al-Mehwar uses a studio in complex C and Dream TV has a 700 square meter studio in complex A.
"We have many clients now," says Hafez. "We also have the ERTU, which has a studio in complex A and two in complex C, and ART, which has a studio in complex A. We are now negotiating with Kuwaiti owned station El Magd and Tiba productions and the ERTU for another two studios, so we have a lot of demand on our studios."
The outdoor filming areas are not working as well as originally anticipated. According to Hafez, production is slowing down everywhere, yet there are initiatives made by EMPC to re-activate production in Media City. EMPC is involved in a joint project with the Egyptian Company for Cinema Production and Distribution, which has agreed to rent the Al-Ahram Studio for a twenty-year period. With a capital investment of 21 million, there are long-term plans to produce Egyptian films. Fifteen films will be produced as early as 2002.
Another of EMPC's mega-projects coming up for inauguration on Media Day 2002 is the completion of the first phase of the Movenpick Hotel. With an initial investment of 200 million pounds, the hotel will house 400 rooms on an area of 18,000 square meters, complemented by a 12,500 square meter conference center, recreation facilities such as swimming pools and shopping malls, and a theater and cinema complex.
Perhaps one of the most interesting of EMPC's new developments is the International Academy for Media Sciences (IAMS), which has already been approved by the Ministry of Education and is expected to open its doors to students in September 2002. As I spoke with Mr. Hafez I had been wondering about the availability of skilled professionals to service all these projects. It's true that Egypt has traditionally been the Middle East's center for talent and human resources and has long supplied much of the Arabic-speaking world with its movies and TV shows, but the existing support services may not be sufficient for all those who choose to move into Media City.
The IAMS is the answer to this question. The academy, with its four main divisions in film production, media production, advertising production, and multimedia/Internet production, will be offering bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, and professional diplomas. The academy will have a board of trustees consisting of representatives from the board of directors of EMPC, the director of the academy, private businessmen and media tycoons, international organizations, and some public figures.
Naturally the resources needed to teach students are located on-site, and officials hope that the academy will attract students not just from Egypt but also from other parts of the Middle East and Africa. The aim for this particular undertaking is that it become an institution offering an education coupled with hands-on training thus far unbeknownst to this part of the world where, according to Hafez, the majority of skilled professionals are self-taught as there is little opportunity for formal training.
Another EMPG project that Mr. Hafez spoke of is the formation of a new companies that will be involved with various projects. One of these will be an global digital media company with a capital of 100 million pounds which will be offering interactive TV, video-on-demand, Internet services, TV via Internet, and the production of TV programs. Another will be an investment and marketing media company with EMPC as a shareholder, together with Video Cairo Sat and Step Ahead Company. This company is already negotiating with LBC, ART, Emirates TV, and a group of Egyptian producers. They are also currently in negotiations with ERTU, Al-Ahram, Akhbar al-Youm and Al-Tahrir organizations. With a capital investment of 50 million pounds, the company aims to provide production facilities, teleport services, main TV channels, variety channels, news channels, drama production and distribution, advertisement production and distribution, and production and distribution of programs in the Arab region.
A third of these companies, by the name of Propaganda Arabia, will be focusing on promoting and organizing concerts and finding sponsors for international celebrity events. EMPC has a 30 percent share and entrepreneur Gamal Marwan has a 69 percent share.
A visit to Egypt's Free Media Zone is not complete without a stopover at the nearby Nilesat earth station. I've seen new international channels burst onto my TV screen with the help of a Nilesat decoder, I know of the launch of two privately owned Egyptian TV stations and I've heard rumors of video-on-demand services. Nilesat Deputy Chairman and Chief Engineer Salah Hamza fills me in.
According to Hamza, the coup for the season is the arrival of the Star network on the scene. The Star channels are an addition to the channels already provided by the ART/1st Net digital television platform, one of several platforms providing pay-TV in the region. This new addition means that Nilesat is now providing its viewers with a potential choice of 146 channels.
Another newcomer to Nilesat is the "Heya" ("She") Lebanese satellite TV station, which targets women viewers with topics such as fashion, cooking, and marriage. Another new arrival in international channels is Tiba, a station from the Emirates owned by Sheikh Maktoum, and a third LBC station (Lebanon). As for new radio stations, Nilesat has started to broadcast Voice of America radio.
Nilesat is now hosting three new privately owned Egyptian stations, Dream TV, Al-Mehwar TV, and the Egypt Tourism channel. "We have Dream 1, Dream 2, and they are also thinking of launching Dream 3, all of them free-to-air satellite stations which I believe have been very successful with their experimental launch," said Hamza. "Al-Mehwar will carry a mix of an entertainment and a currents affairs focus. The third station is to promote tourism in Egypt, and is run by Farid Erman who was with Egyptian TV." Hamza added that the Tamima home shopping channel has started to broadcast some cultural and entertainment programming.
Hamza believes that the Nilesat landscape is changing with the addition of these locally owned stations. With more businessmen being attracted to TV as a new investment area, there are currently more investors interested in joining the pack. Dream TV is the perfect example of this. "Dream TV is a success, and the owner is using the station to put his own commercials" for his other companies, says Hamza. "It's a good business for him."
"When investors sees success stories like Dream TV or Space Toon, which is a Bahraini children's channel, they think about doing the same. So of course we will find others coming to us, but the question is who will be able to continue. Many Arabs and Egyptians living abroad are thinking of having their own channels to express their views," explains Hamza.
What about a private Egyptian news station? I ask.
For the moment, Hamza explains, none of the stations have the budget for their own newsgathering or for correspondents. So they make a deal with the Egyptian TV news operation, which is government-run but, says Hamza, with an independent opinion to some extent. A news station could add commentaries to this news, which means they will be able to express their own point of view.
Among the new choices for audiences is the recent introduction of video-on-demand by Showtime. Showtime has 100,000 subscribers, a small number in a country with a population of nearly 70 million. It is unclear as yet whether there is a demand for such a service, which would deliver entertainment to the user any time day or night—but with an accompanying degree of expense in a region where the idea of pay-TV is still alien. Hamza points out that due to local social habits, an individual is willing to pay, say, 20 pounds for a mobile phone call (a technology that has been rapidly adopted in the region), but would scream at the thought of paying the same to watch a sports event.
As a regional satellite operator and service provider Nilesat has been quite successful in a relatively short time span. At the last count Nilesat had approximately 10 million viewers, mainly located in the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and Hamza says the number has risen even higher. Viewership is not limited to the Middle East, which is Nilesat's target, but includes Arabic-speaking audiences in many other areas. He credits this success to the wide variety of choices available to the audience. "Nilesat is the carrier of ART/1st Net, as Sheikh Saleh Kamel has moved all of ART's Arabic channels over. We have Showtime, all the Egyptian channels, and a large number of free-to-air channels such as BBC World and Al Jazeera," says Hamza. Nilesat broadcasts some these stations cost-free for viewers in order to attract and retain its audience.
In a parallel manner to EMPC, Nilesat owns five to six percent of many the channels it carries. However, Hamza says that this is a relatively small percentage, as Nilesat should not compete with its TV channels, and the five percent does not allow Nilesat to influence the programming content in any way.
A half hour on a couch with a remote control in your hand can verify that statement. Every shade and color in the region appears to have a voice on this satellite, from government voices such as Iraq's satellite station to political parties such as Hezballah's Manar station, from religious programming such as that seen on Iqra to talk shows hosted by westernized Arab youth on Zein TV. Nilesat will host any station that broadcasts content within a reasonable range as long as it does not cross lines that offend cultural and traditional values. Hamza explains that, as an example, if a station that specializes in religious programming does not promote fanatic ideas and does not attack any other religion, they are free. But if they cross that line it would be another story. He adds that this has not happened yet.
The down side to this picture appears to be the less successful Internet service. Nilesat has already established a company with Mena Net (a local ISP), called the International Data Broadcasting Company (IDBC), and is negotiating with several other companies in an effort to boost the appeal of the Internet via satellite concept. Datacasting, Web TV, multicasting, broadband, advanced services and solutions—the technology is available, but the interest and awareness may not yet be there. But who knows—maybe given a few years this situation will change. Given the transformation I've seen from empty desert to mega-production complex in just a few years, I wouldn't be surprised.