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Pan-Arab Satellite Television: Now the Survival Part

The second half of the 1990s saw advertisers queuing up to buy tickets to watch the pan-Arab satellite channels sprinting towards mass audiences across the GCC markets. The Arab general public responded in kind, especially in the more affluent states, where satellite dishes are found in every fourth home.

The satellite channels, more than any other Arab media, breathed new life into the so-called pan-Arab or regional market. In the pre-Arab-satellite era the predominance of the local media meant that marketers had to plan locally and replicate local strategies in every other market. The satellite channels eliminated this process to a large extent in the visual media. This is how is pan-Arab television proved its worth to advertisers and mushroomed into a half-billion-dollar industry by 2000 (at rate card value).

Uniting many Arab markets has been the major achievement of the pan-Arab satellite channels. The major satellite channels swayed audiences into their fold by giving television entertainment a new meaning and content through a variety of new programs and repackaging of more traditional ones. Many local TV channels found themselves redundant, while a few others rejuvenated and repositioned themselves as competitors to the more prominent satellite channels.

Equally important, the pan-Arab satellite channels, led by Al-Jazeera, sparked a new buoyant mood among the Arab general public, and a certain degree of boldness became very evident in their content. This relative boldness touched on two aspects: public political discourse, and culturally sensitive codes that govern male-female relationships, or more specifically the cultural codes that pertain to women's behavior and dress code in public.

While Al-Jazeera took the lead in disintegration of taboos in the first area, the Lebanese channels were instrumental in whetting the general public's appetite in the GCC markets for the latter. Arab audiences seem to be pleased with both breakthroughs. More importantly for the media, these programs can generate advertising revenues, especially the former program genre.

The implications of the popularity of these two types of programs are many, not just culturally, but also because they are money-generating TV programs. This is especially so when analyzed within the context of supposedly ultra-conservative societies such as Saudi Arabia, where local brands compete with international brands for advertising space on the most notoriously culturally relaxed program on LBC, "Ya Leil Ya Ain." Of equal significance is the sponsorship by a Saudi brand of what is considered to be by far the most politically controversial talk show aired on satellite, Al-Jazeera's "Al-Ittijah al-Muakis" ("The Opposite Direction"). Both of these two popular types of TV programs are cited here to illustrate that the pan-Arab satellite channels have been able to stimulate certain cultural changes which other media or local television would not have been able to introduce.

The success of one type of program on one TV channel does not mean that it can replicated on another channel. One would have to look into the culture behind the product concept of each of the leading satellite channels to understand what lies behind their success. Delving into the premise of this argument may require a separate investigation. But a major outcome of the forceful presence of the pan-Arab satellite channels is the emergence of a brand personality of a selected few of them. Such product differentiation was not possible in the local, government-owned TV environment.

The success of privately owned or semi-private satellite channels prompted a very few government-owned TV channels to attempt to renovate themselves, totally or almost so. But program-mix and repackaging renovation of government channels, which are hardly able to walk into the living rooms of Arab families outside their respective markets, is not enought to put these channels into the major league. It may prove to be more difficult to renovate a brand image of a channel than to revitalize its program mix. Fixing a program mix may simply require that more money be pumped in. Facelifting a brand image requires that all the marketing mix elements be activated.

There seem to be many loops in this developmental stage of the pan-Arab satellite channels through which certain of these channels can make a comeback. The TV media environment has yet to bid farewell to channel-led viewing in favor of program-led viewing. This is in part due to immaturity of the TV industry, and is even more related to the severe shortage of programs. More programs and thus more program variety could eventually differentiate one program from another, not only between competing channels, but more critically, among programs of the same channel.

The first type of program that falls prey to this imperfect program differentiation is talk shows of various natures. A particular channel may have more than a half-dozen different labels for political or entertainment talk shows. But it remains anybody's guess to identify the brand character of each one. The chance to call in and voice an opinion is often one of the few features differentiating live shows.

The predominance of live or recorded talk shows has been welcomed by audiences, especially in societies where the general public does not have many chances to voice their opinions on public issues. But the predominance of live programs, talk shows, or game shows is due to the fact that they are usually less expensive to produce. On some TV channels, a few call-in games or competition programs also generate revenue from the incoming phone calls. Viewers are advised that a minute will cost them x-amount of money. Initially when charging for incoming calls became a practice, a few channels failed to realize that they should have advised viewers about the charges.

Game shows offering the chance to win cash prizes in a variation of a lottery have gained social acceptance. This need not be considered a trend that has been introduced by satellite channels to societies where lotteries are officially banned. It could be argued nevertheless that lottery on TV is no longer considered a taboo, especially when in Ramadan such programs attract thousands of callers.

At any rate, pan-Arab satellite channels operating from outside the GCC markets have been instrumental in introducing certain doses of a more relaxed culture which local channels would not entertain because of local cultural restrictions. For advertising, this has meant that certain imported commercials need not undergo lots of editing before being put on air. This is good news to advertisers: it cuts costs, and at the same time leaves more room for creativity of the local advertising producers. The same applies to those who are producing video clips.

The fact that the pan-Arab satellite channels, or at least a few of them, have been trendsetters in many areas of life in the Arab societies cannot be denied. What is still not clear is the magnitude of their impact as an agent of change, socially, culturally, and politically. By all local and regional standards, these channels have been a novel medium; otherwise they would not have attracted such wide audiences. Media and sociology researchers have yet to examine the full impact of this phenomenon. The scarce and sparse research work that I am personally aware of is more fraught with apprehensions about the content of these channels. Hardly any government or private funds have been allocated for scientific research on the impact of pan-Arab satellite channels specifically, or of media in general.

Strangely, the most vociferous opponent of the satellite channels is the print media. Editorials and analyses which I have read or monitored over the past several years have mostly been very critical of the content that is believed to dominate the satellite channels' program mix. The ever-present argument is that the satellite channels are too long on entertainment, too short on educational content. Again, this stance taken by the print media against the pan-Arab satellite channels has not yet captured the attention of media researchers.

Similarly, while audience data on what Arabs watch on TV abounds, missing is what motivates them to watch what they watch. I could cite only very limited privately commissioned studies that have delved into any degree of systematic research. Television program directors are often oblivious to what makes one TV program rise and another fall—that is, if we assume that they have purchased available audience data, which is not yet commonly practiced by even some of the more prominent local channels or the satellite channels. 

Pan-Arab satellite channels can be lauded for putting the concept of marketing into practice in the Arab television industry. Local television had for too long sat on its laurels waiting for the advertising agencies to send in their bookings. Aggressive marketing teams have totally changed the marketing culture. But this marketing culture has not yet proven to be totally to the satellite channels' benefit. The just about half-billion dollars (at rate card value) that the pan-Arab satellite channels are expected to generate in 2000 is a figure highly inflated by the industry. Industry insiders will be happy if actual figures are half that, if not much less—and of course advertising agencies' 25%-30% commission would still need to be siphoned out.

The pan-Arab satellite channel industry has thus far shown that it learned to run before learning to walk. Increased competition within the industry itself and from other media, be it new media or other mainstream media, do send a number of SOS signals. What the industry is able to generate now barely gives it enough nutrition to walk, and its era of running is quickly fading away.

The debate over the health of the pan-Arab satellite channel industry shrouds it with uncertainty. Many content providers have joined or are planning to join the fray. All newcomers have signed on to join very sophisticated tracks. But audiences have yet to buy seats on the viewing podium. Every successful satellite channel has a transponder on Arabsat 2A. Analogue transmission! yes, but every new entrant would be willing to pay whatever a less popular or poorly subsidized satellite channel would demand to have a frequency on Arabsat 2A. We are well into the digital age, but talk to consumers about its benefits and about the features of digital telecast. Neither Arabsat and Nilesat nor the satellite channels have made any concrete efforts to promote digital telecast.

Market analysts—who admittedly lack qualitative data to back it up—believe that what is driving the switch to digital telecast in the GCC markets is not what additional digital channels they can receive on Nilesat or Arabsat 3A. The driving force is the multitude of channels that can be accessed on the European satellites that orbit the region. This is certainly bad news for both Nilesat and Arabsat, despite the fact that they—and the new pan-Arab satellite channels—benefit from the switch.

At any rate, the switch to digital telecast has yet to take the GCC region by storm—unlike the boom analogue telecast caused in the region in the 1990s. Industry insiders hint at different philosophies held by Nilesat and its competitor Arabsat. It is reported that while Nilesat believes that the future trend is most likely to be pay-TV, Arabsat envisages the continuing pattern of free-to-air telecast.

Irrespective of what the future trend might be, limited financial resources hint that either way will be a bumpy ride. Proponents of pay-TV claim that good programming cannot be sustained by advertising alone. In other words, viewers must pay for premium programs. But as it stands now there is not enough evidence that either pay-TV or free-to-air channels can afford to acquire enough premium programs to distinguish their respective program mix.

The TV production industry is notoriously plagued by lack of financial resources and creative ideas that could keep the Arab television industry afloat. There are no precise figures on what the TV production industry produces annually. Unconfirmed figures tell us that Syria, for instance, has produced about forty series in 2000. Press reports claim that most of them are characteristically mass produced. Not very comforting news to potential viewers! The press also tells us that mass production is not unique to the Syrian TV production industry; its Egyptian counterpart does not fare any better. We often read how TV series stars have to rush from the filming of an episode of one series to another, before they could even remove their makeup. It is a typical situation where a TV star gets burned out from over-appearance on different series on different channels even within one evening. Blame it on repeats, yes, but what do repeats signify other than scarcity of programs. And virtually all Lebanese TV stars, although they may not appear in more than one Lebanese TV series in one night, are likely to be heard in more than one dubbed Mexican series.

The above is no more than a few qualitative observations that still need to be substantiated with figures, which the TV industry still lacks interest in compiling. For many years Arab television production saved its best for the month of Ramadan. It truly succeeded in providing entertainment that superseded what used to be shown in the remaining months of the year. But industry insiders say that, unlike previous Ramadan TV grids, in this coming Ramadan 2000 the satellite channels do not have much to entertain their audiences with. Only a few channels were able to commission a selection of premium quality series.

To boost their coffers many of the leading pan-Arab satellite channels have hiked up their rate cards 50% to 100% as of the latter months of 2000. Some industry observers consider it to be a step that should have been taken many years ago, as the rates were considerably low by international norms; international advertisers are believed to have gotten away with the lowest rates they would experience anywhere in the world. It is still somewhat early to envisage the reaction of the advertisers to the new higher rates which are likely to be implemented in 2001. The Palestinian-Israeli tension at the time of this writing has only shrouded the prospects of advertising expenditures in the fall of 2000 in added uncertainty.

Unilever, one of the biggest FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) marketers in the Arab world, has decided to suspend its advertising until the end of 2000. This action has been taken in response to the general public outcry for boycotting American products. Procter & Gamble, another major FMCG marketer, has taken somewhat similar steps, although less drastic, in order to maintain a low-key public profile so as not to agitate the public against them. It is reported that other American-labeled brands are equally wary and are bound to reduce their advertising exposure.

Hopefully, regional tensions are not more than temporary bumps in the regional advertising track. But they do nevertheless add to the financial burdens of the Arab TV industry. The impact of prolonged regional tension on regional advertising budgets could be far-reaching, not in terms of the remaining 2000 budgets, but for 2001 in particular. Time is high to reflect on the next stage of the lifecycle of the pan-Arab satellite channels. Their chances for continuing to run full speed ahead are dim. Limited financial resources do not support it. "Crisis" might be too strong a word to use, but $250 million is hardly enough to sustain the lifeline of those satellite channels in the major league, and renders those in the minor league almost redundant.

The issue at hand is not at all whether digital telecast will take over analogue. Nor is it pay-TV versus free-to-air. Nor is it free media zones versus the current market scenario, which is free enough by the standards of the free Arab market economies. The current sour relationship between the Egyptian government (and media as well) and Al-Jazeera, after Al-Jazeera's much-trumpeted setup in Egypt's Media Free Zone, does not set a good precedent for the prospects of such zones. At risk is the survial of the pan-Arab satellite channel industry in a manner that could maintain the viability it has demonstrated thus far.

About Jihad Fakhreddine

Jihad Fakhreddine is the Research Manager for Media at the Pan Arab Research Center (PARC). He writes on the Arab media and the US public diplomacy.

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