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.
Often flirtatious 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 showSuperstar 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.
Messages continue 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 channel include:
“Hany we love you so much. We want to know which school you were in and which university- Vida, Egypt”
“Hey sweety it’s been a while you are not replying to me I miss you a lot”
“Barbie, we should do something really, I’m thinking about you a lot, love Georges”
“Fady you are a jagal (gigolo) I love you”
“Hany 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 their screens.