Kristin Brzoznowski surveys a range of distributors about the demand for content from linear and digital platforms across the Middle East.
Words like “dynamic,” “diverse,” “challenging” and “changing” come up quite frequently when discussing the current television landscape in the Middle East. Indeed, there are political, social and economic issues facing many countries in the region, and ad budgets are feeling the pinch, but content distributors are shifting their program-sales strategies accordingly. They’re also starting to deal with different players as the pay-TV market continues to grow and competition between global OTT behemoths and local on-demand upstarts heats up.
“The Middle East nowadays is a challenging market; it’s not what it used to be four or five years ago,” says Miroslav Radojevic, sales director for the Middle East and Africa at Global Agency. “Faced with lower budgets, channels have been changing their business and programming orientations a bit, and the rest of the chain—producers, advertisers, distribution companies—has accepted the new ground rules.”
Global Agency has changed its approach to the market as well, he adds. “We’ve started to focus on regions like North Africa and GCC, as well as Lebanon.”
Those moves are paying off, according to Radojevic, with Global Agency returning to DISCOP Dubai this year after a successful event in 2017, armed with a slate of Turkish dramas.
“People in the Middle East love Turkey because of its geographical characteristic, culture and lifestyle, and they love that Turkey is like a bridge between the West and East,” Radojevic says. “It is easier for them to connect with Turkish culture than other international cultures. Tradition is still very important [in people’s lives], but modern conditions and ways of thinking are increasingly playing a strong role. The conflict between tradition and modernity, the past and the present, brings about an incredibly rich environment for a Turkish drama.”
Inter Medya is also riding high on the wave of demand for Turkish titles. “The Middle East has always been an important market for Inter Medya and for Turkish products in general,” says Can Okan, the company’s founder and CEO. “We have been selling our drama series as well as our feature films quite successfully in the region and have noted an increasing interest lately.”
Okan believes that Turkish dramas resonate with audiences in the Middle East because of their “high production quality, talented performances and intriguing storylines.”
Late last year, Inter Medya clinched a deal with OSN for Mrs. Fazilet and Her Daughters and recently signed an agreement for season two. Okan says the series is “perfect for the MENA audience,” with its story of a single mother from a modest background who dreams of becoming successful and wealthy by using her two daughters. The company is launching its brand-new title The Pit, produced by Turkish-drama powerhouse Ay Yapim, at DISCOP Dubai.
“Until now, the trend that we’ve seen in the MENA region is oriented toward dramatic scenarios and emotional plots,” Okan explains. “Tragic destinies, inevitable conflicts and shocking escalations make Turkish series appealing to Middle Eastern buyers. Lately, we have noticed a lot of interest from the MENA region in our dramedies such as Hayat as well.”
Fredrik af Malmborg, the managing director at Eccho Rights, has noted that having A-list talent attached to a Turkish drama is becoming all the more alluring in the Arab market. “If you are going to get paid premium, it’s all about what stars are involved,” he says. “Having a series like Brave and Beautiful—with Kivanç Tatlituğ and Tuba Büyüküstün, who are two big stars in the Middle East—triggers a higher license fee.”
Brave and Beautiful is among the Turkish series that Eccho Rights has on air with MBC currently, and Insider will join the lineup soon. The company also recently signed a package deal with beIN for three Turkish dramas to air daily as part of a new entertainment offering in the Middle East: beIN Drama HD1.
Eccho Rights is also seeing increasing interest in Indian dramas, according to af Malmborg. The company has in its catalog the Star India originals Amla, which is an adaptation of the Turkish hit Fatmagül, and Broken Hearts. “The fees for Indian series are much lower than for Turkish series, but it’s a growth area,” he says. “There is a major population of people in the Middle East of Indian origin and background, and these series also attract a broader audience.”
He sees growth prospects for Korean scripted series in the Middle East as well, even though the episode counts are generally shorter than that of Indian and Turkish series, making them a little bit of a tougher sell in the region.
GMA Worldwide, meanwhile, is looking to make inroads into the market with Filipino dramas and is attending DISCOP Dubai for the first time this year to further those efforts. “From our experience in other territories, we find that straight dramas and melodramas are the best sellers,” says Manuel Paolo Laurena, the company’s senior sales manager. “Dramas that illustrate real-life experiences, show strong family connections, love and betrayal, and economic class conflicts may appeal to the viewers from the Middle East, as these kinds of stories have no geographical boundaries.” He says GMA Worldwide has already received several inquiries from buyers in the region for both finished series and remake rights.
Magdalena Szwedkowicz, the VP of sales for CEE and MENA at Fox Networks Group (FNG) Content Distribution, also points to scripted as the genre that’s had the most traction in this market thus far. She, too, says Turkish drama is a hot commodity and lists Latin series as being in demand as well. “Whenever we sell Turkish series in this region, we are asked if we have dubbing in Arabic,” says Szwedkowicz. “The smaller channels prefer to buy the series already dubbed; if not, they will have to factor that into their investment.”
Middle Eastern buyers are also hungry for Western content, she adds. “Our shows like The Walking Dead, Legion and Genius are perfect fits for them.” She also highlights Deep State, FNG’s first regional scripted commission for Europe and Africa.
Even though its high-quality American shows and top-rated Turkish dramas have made their way onto a number of platforms in MENA, Szwedkowicz notes, “The majority of viewers are watching local programming, so that limits the non-Arabic-language syndication.”
FNG Content Distribution is now beginning to explore the potential for selling formats in this part of the world. “In our experience, formats are most appealing to free-to-air buyers in MENA, rather than pay TV,” Szwedkowicz says.
FremantleMedia has sold a slew of formats into this market already, notably its global franchises. “The entire FremantleMedia catalog is here: Idols, Got Talent, The X Factor, Project Runway—we can’t make enough shows!” says Anahita Kheder, the senior VP for the Middle East, Africa and Southeastern Europe at FremantleMedia International. “The format business has been fantastic, but it is changing—it is not necessarily going to grow in the same way. The face of the formats that we’re bringing to this market is also changing.”
STARTING TO ADAPT
Kheder spotlights the interactive mixed reality series Lost in Time. “It has a fantastic marriage of technology and entertainment, which we’re seeing as a trend now. Middle Eastern buyers always want to be at the forefront of trends. The first global rollout of Lost in Time, after the pilot market, is the Middle East: Dubai TV. With the forward-thinking mentality of Dubai as a city, the state broadcaster was the first in.”
Kheder explains that the company has also been making a conscious effort to be seen as a major player in the scripted space. “During the course of the last year, we’ve managed to give our identity a bit of a tweak in the Middle East and reinvent what we’re known for. Our scripted genre was a real hero in 2017.” She points to The Young Pope and Hard Sun as two titles that have helped to shape this new identity.
Like Szwedkowicz, Kheder is well aware that viewers in the Middle East do love their local programming. “The good news for us is that we are associated with Arabic product,” she says. “Your average viewer sees Arab Idol as local content, very much so. The fact that it’s a franchise doesn’t diminish its Arabianness. Arab Idol is embedded into society here; it is a local brand.”
Kheder continues, “From the finished- content side, that shift has been quite obvious over the past seven years. We’re lucky to have brand equity with the likes of American Idol, Jamie Oliver and now a lot of the scripted content. The franchises on the tape side are going to remain our drivers.”
She cites a recent deal with Fox Life that includes cooking shows featuring Oliver and Nigella Lawson. “Arabic content is fantastic, and there is a multitude of great Arab celebrity chefs, but Jamie Oliver is Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson is loved here. That most definitely helps us fight for some shelf space.”
Alongside its healthy drama business in the region, Global Agency is hoping to see local adaptations for some of its formats coming in the near future, as Radojevic says there are currently a few deals under negotiation. “In terms of formats, MENA is picky since it’s a bit of a conservative market. The channels are focusing on talent shows, game shows and lifestyle rather than dating shows, factual reality or reality entertainment.” He adds that Lebanon is more open to reality formats than most of the other markets are.
“The United Arab Emirates, especially Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and Qatar are solid buyers, focusing mostly on ready-made content,” says Radojevic. “Lebanon is the leader in terms of format production.”
He has seen “positive movements” in Morocco and Algeria as well. “We are expecting more from Egypt in the near future. It’s a big market, with almost 100 million people, and it would definitely be one of our [priorities] for the next two years.”
Szwedkowicz says that FNG Content Distribution does a lot of deals with the larger media groups, which tend to have a wide variety of channels, usually in the general-entertainment space. “They typically buy for the whole MENA region,” she says. She also lists the GCC countries as solid buyers—highlighting UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait—and says that North Africa is emerging, notably Tunisia and Egypt.
“We’ve closed deals with practically all of the major SVOD providers in the region,” Szwedkowicz adds. “We do volume deals mostly. These services are growing and there are new ones being launched. The growth of STARZ Play and launch of iflix have given us great partners to work with.”
The proliferation of digital players across the region is cited by many distributors as one of the most dynamic new developments in this market. Amazon Prime Video and Netflix have both launched here, and there are local streaming brands such as icflix, Seevii, OSN’s WAVO and MBC’s Shahid Plus.
“We have received interest from several digital platforms for our series and movies and currently have ongoing negotiations with a number of them,” says Inter Medya’s Okan.
FremantleMedia International recently signed an SVOD agreement with Etisalat, a leading telco in the UAE region, for around 100 hours of programming. “It’s our first-ever deal with them, for a multitude of lifestyle and factual content, and there are a lot more on the horizon,” says Kheder.
While she sees this “digital revolution” as being quite exciting, Kheder says there are inevitably challenges that come with change. “The market is still shifting; no one has really found their feet yet.”
Another challenge that has plagued the content market in MENA is piracy, though Eccho Rights’ af Malmborg says he has seen some headway made in curbing illegal file-sharing. “Fighting piracy is about making the pirated content harder to find, but it’s also about supplying better alternatives,” he says. “The viewer wants to watch series online. If it’s not available, it’s easy to understand that the fans will find the content anyway. We need to work more with the media companies in the Middle East to supply them quicker with legal alternatives.”
Looking ahead, af Malmborg sees more opportunities on the horizon for producers from this part of the world to strengthen their ties with the international community. “Co-productions between Turkey and the Middle East make a lot of sense,” he says.
Eccho Rights is also actively looking for series from the Middle East to take out to the global market. “There are a number of really good producers here who are doing good series—Arab Telemedia being one of them, and MBC does a number of very strong originals,” he says.
“Even though people are not that used to watching drama in the Arabic language, there should be more SVOD services like Netflix and iflix investing in originals, and I think OSN and beIN should do more original productions that can be sold elsewhere.”
Also, as digital continues to gather momentum in this market, bite-sized programming is an area ripe for exploration. “My office is going to start looking at short-form Arabic content,” says FremantleMedia International’s Kheder. “It’s a space we haven’t been in, and with the likes of Facebook Watch on the horizon, it’s not going to happen tomorrow, but that’s where the business is going. We’ve already had advanced discussions around a short-form scripted series that is the brainchild of one of our colleagues at FremantleMedia India. We have a stake in Munchies and create short-form content for a lot of platforms worldwide; I would like to replicate that in this region.”
Her plans for furthering business in the Middle East also include “looking at localization with a little bit more of a magnifying glass—looking at Saudi content and Egyptian content as opposed to just pan-Arab discussions.”