Learning Curve


A bevy of Arab celebrities and socialites, members of the press, fashion bloggers and social-media influencers flocked to Dubai Design District to witness the live finale of Project Runway Middle East. It was a star-filled scene that rivaled even the most stylish events at New York Fashion Week, which plays host to the top designers’ runway shows on the original U.S. version of the hit Fremantle­Media series. The glossy production, immense glamour and successful ratings of MBC’s Middle Eastern adaptation are a testament to the opportunities that can be found in the region by format producers and distributors, many of whom are also exploring prospects within the African market.

It was just about three years ago when FremantleMedia International ramped up its commitment to the emerging markets in the Middle East, Africa and Southeastern Europe by expanding the purview of its Dubai office. Armed with megahits such as The X Factor, Got Talent and Idols, the company’s format business has been “the driving force” for sales out of this hub, says Anahita Kheder, FremantleMedia’s senior VP for the region. “It was the primary reason for establishing an emerging markets office in Dubai. Formats continue to be a very strong business for us, but unfortunately, over the past 12 to 18 months, the markets that sit under the Dubai office have suffered in one way or another.” Kheder cites declining oil prices and instability due to political unrest as the primary factors that have led to economic decline across the region.

“Angola was a huge market for us in Africa,” she says. “It skyrocketed about two years ago, and we had a formidable partner there. All eyes were on Portuguese-speaking Africa, but at some point early last year, the market froze up completely. They are now dealing with a severe economic crisis due to the oil crash.”

Nigeria was also considered a large up-and-coming market for format sales, Kheder says. “We had some very serious partners there, and some of our big shows sold into it. That market, too, has dried up. In South Africa, the rand has declined [in value]. In general, Africa has been plagued with some economic challenges that go far beyond television. The first thing that gets bumped, because of consumer spending, is ad revenues. Once ad revenue dwindles, television goes into a holding pattern, including pay TV. We have felt that pinch.”

Kheder reports that a similar situation has taken hold in the Middle East, where oil prices have had a sweeping effect, particularly in Saudi Arabia. “The ad revenue in the [Mideast] TV market is very much focused toward Saudi consumers. With the Saudi economy being affected the way it has been, that knock-on effect applies. Some of our biggest clients are cutting back on their budgets. Everyone is just trying to weather the storm. The predictions are that we will start to see the light at the end of the tunnel in 2018.”

Despite some apparent challenges, broadcasters in both the Middle East and Africa have continued to renew their flagship formats and are selectively commissioning new concepts—they are just being more discerning in doing so.

Jane Dockery, the senior VP of formats, international distribution, at Sony Pictures Television, reports having “quite a healthy format-licensing business across the region with a number of our shows.

“The Middle East has been more of a developed market in recent years, and it still continues to grow,” she says. “The growth at the moment is in Africa; we’re seeing a lot of demand there for local programming.”

Dockery says that Ramadan is the key time when the production cycle kicks into high gear in the Middle East. “That’s when everyone is off, fasting for a month, and the family spends time watching television together. Advertisers spend as much of their budget in that one month of Ramadan as they do throughout the rest of the year! There’s a massive boom in the demand for local programming during that time.”

In the Middle East, the most established areas for format licensing are Egypt, Lebanon and the GCC countries, Dockery says. “They will often get together to co-fund expensive productions like the big talent shows or dramas. They will pick projects together and split the production budget, then manage the windows so that they are all getting behind the big formats. We did that recently in the Middle East with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? It was shown on OSN and on CBC in Egypt. That way, the channels can come together and share the cost of the production and buy the biggest shows on the market.”

Sony’s catalog is home to a number of big, evergreen format hits, including Dragons’ Den. The show is particularly hot right now in Africa, where there is a rise in the middle class and a focus on entrepreneurialism. M-Net has done two seasons of Shark Tank South Africa, and KBC in Kenya recently launched its first. The format was also previously licensed in Nigeria, and Dockery says there are discussions taking place in other African markets right now as well. In the Middle East, Dragons’ Den is coming back this year with Rotana’s Khalijia channel, which is based in Saudi Arabia but broadcasts across the region. The channel targets an affluent audience, which is one of the reasons that this finance-focused series has been particularly appealing.

Another one of Sony’s evergreen formats, Millionaire, has been performing equally well across both markets. “Generally speaking, quiz is starting to make a comeback across those territories, so we’re expecting to do more deals there for Millionaire this year,” says Dockery.

Sony is also exploring opportunities in the MEA markets to exploit its slate of scripted formats. “In the Middle East, buyers are looking for drama adaptations rather than sitcoms,” Dockery says. “There are more one-hour slots there, rather than half-hours, which is why sitcoms don’t work as well. In Africa, they’re looking at sitcoms very closely and we’re having conversations about some of our classics. Scripted is definitely a booming genre across the whole region.”

Adam Barth, senior regional sales manager at DRG, echoes this sentiment. He says that in the Middle East, “things have picked up quite substantially in the last six months” for scripted formats. “There is a lot of commissioning coming out of Lebanon that is being funded by pan-Middle Eastern broadcasters, like the MBCs of the world. That seems to be where a lot of the producers are based as well.”

Barth also says that producers are getting much more aggressive in how they are tackling scripted projects. “When they come on board, it moves much quicker from option to license, and the producers are willing to take a bit more of a punt in investing on their end to localize the scripts.”

GMA Worldwide is looking to bring some of its hit Filipino dramas to partners in the Middle East and Africa for local treatments. Manuel Paolo J. Laurena, the company’s senior sales manager, lists Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and Zambia among the countries that stand out for sales prospects.

“We have not yet sold formats into the Middle East or Africa; however, the greatest opportunity for format sales is in Africa because GMA’s English-dubbed dramas are already well accepted there,” he says. “Recently, broadcasters have shown interest in French-dubbed dramas, and some are interested in dubbing the content in their own language.”

GMA’s dramas focus on “romance, love for family, the courage to strive for the best in the pursuit of happiness and justice,” which are universal themes to which audiences in any market can relate, Laurena says.

That GMA has linear channels in the Middle East helps create awareness in that market for the types of programming that GMA Worldwide is offering up.

The situation is similar at Zee Entertainment Enterprises (ZEE), which has channels in both the Middle East and Africa. “There are audiences out there already viewing our content on these channels, watching Indian series that are dubbed, adapted, edited and broadcast for Middle Eastern and African audiences,” says Sunita Uchil, ZEE’s chief business officer for global syndication and production and international ad sales.

ZEE has also already been licensing finished content from India into both of these territories for a long time, which is why the Middle East and Africa are firmly on the company’s radar as it steps up its format efforts. ZEE recently launched the Z Format Factory, an incubator to develop new formats, and Uchil says that “both of these markets are ripe for our kind of content.” She notes that there is a high affinity for Indian programming in the Middle East as well as in Africa.

Regarding scripted formats, Uchil believes that ZEE’s family dramas show a lot of promise for resonating with Middle Eastern buyers. “In Africa, entertainment is looking very hopeful because [people there] are very gregarious and fun-loving. Dance is a big form of expression there, so we’re looking at Dance India Dance to be adapted in Africa. We’d love to launch Dance Africa Dance—that’s our aspiration; we want to see the continent dancing with our dance formats!”

She recognizes that there are challenges to making inroads with formats in MEA, notably, that the broadcasters that can afford to invest in adaptations “tend to fall back on the big format names and established shows. That’s something we will have to work our way around in order to find the right landing spot.”

Indeed, FremantleMedia’s so-called “holy trinity” of formats—Idols, X Factor and Got Talent—have been available in the Middle East for a number of years and continue to get recommissioned. “Our partner for those shows, MBC, is continuing to invest in those primary formats,” says Kheder. “They are revenue drivers for us all! They’re not just the holy trinity for FremantleMedia; they play a very critical role in the MBC grid.”

Kheder points out that Africa does not have the same sort of commissioning model that is common in the Middle East. “In Nigeria, for example, nothing is necessarily commissioned by a broadcaster; there is essentially a businessperson with an interest in television and entertainment who will invest in the license and production of one of the ‘big three’ formats. They have to go out and buy airtime, as well as fund the whole production with advertising revenues. It’s an incredibly difficult model! In markets like that, we have seen our shows get put on hold until the gap funding can be found.

“There are a lot of very creative ways that we’re trying to get everything back on track,” Kheder continues. “But that’s the difference between having a straightforward commissioning partner and strong broadcaster in the Middle East, versus the model of having to buy airtime in some of the key parts of Africa—that has slowed down some of those legacy programs.”

Alongside the above-mentioned talent behemoths, new discussions in MEA are popping up around Fremantle­Media’s heritage game shows, including Family Feud, The Price Is Right and Let’s Make a Deal. Also, there’s a Middle Eastern version in the works with Media Twist for My Mom Cooks Better Than Yours, and the dating format Take Me Out has made its way onto LBC in Lebanon. “Selling a dating show into the Middle East was quite astounding,” Kheder says. “It has worked incredibly well, though. We’ve also sold the same show in Africa. We’re seeing that formats and genres that perhaps would have been overlooked before are now being considered—which is great.”

As the nuances of humor can be quite specific culturally, comedy is among the categories that seem to work best when given a local spin. Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN) has been adapting some of its successful comedic formats for regional audiences. Most recently, Comedy Central launched its first Middle Eastern production, a stand-up series titled Comedy Central Presents. “The show features more than 30 Middle Eastern comics from around the region performing in English and Arabic,” says Amalia Martinez de Velasco, the senior VP of entertainment brands for VIMN Southern and Western Europe, Africa and the Middle East. “We are also currently producing localized versions of Ridiculousness for six of our territories, including our first Middle Eastern variant, which will air on Comedy Central this spring. The show features local hosts and celebrity guests putting their own spin on the well-known clip format.”

In addition to a wider breadth of genres that are being looked at locally, formats are currently being evaluated for a broader range of time slots in both markets. ZEE’s Uchil points to Friday and Saturday nights in the Middle East and Saturdays and Sundays in Africa as prime placements for local adaptations. “For the big titles, broadcasters will look at filling in the prime-time slots, but there could be other formats, perhaps about food, which they might slot into another daypart. It depends on a number of factors, such as whether you have a sponsor, what kind of target audience you’re looking at and if that audience is going to have a larger viewership in a different time band.”

DRG is home to formats from the Strix catalog, which features a wealth of documentary-style series that are perfect for access prime, according to Barth. He believes that these shows are particularly attractive for buyers in Africa because they are cost-effective to produce and can be done at a high volume.

Overall, Barth is enthusiastic about the prospects for further format sales—both scripted and non-scripted—in MEA. He believes that taking a creative approach to both production and financing is going to be key for future success.

“For 2017, we’re excited to be speaking to producers who are willing to do projects differently,” Barth says. “The world of advertising is ever changing, especially with the SVOD and OTT platforms that seem to be popping up in these two regions in particular almost every day. These platforms don’t necessarily have the budgets to commission a massive series, but we are actively in conversations with producers in the region to come up with new business models to be able to produce a show and then license it to these platforms. This will give these new digital platforms the opportunity to get exclusive content and will also allow producers to work with new partners.”

FremantleMedia’s Kheder agrees that being innovative is imperative when licensing formats in this part of the world. “Some of the biggest opportunities are in working directly with the funders, who are the brands, and having more direct dialog with them and bringing them in as partners,” she says. “We’re not reinventing the wheel with this, but there are obvious opportunities considering the lack of risk-taking right now by the major players. Everyone is more open to bringing a third party on board to invest and help fund the format business. There are a lot of advertising agencies that are now setting up divisions dedicated to content funding and production. The fact that they are trying to put a foot in the door and have a say in the game is interesting and a real opportunity.”

Sony’s Dockery sees a few new areas of opportunity going forward for the format business in both the Middle East and Africa. “From a content perspective, we are focusing on the scripted genre at the moment—not only in selling formats in the region but also in the value of selling those finished programs. We’re looking for opportunities to create English-language programming in Africa and then to sell it across the entire continent and beyond. Same in the Middle East; there’s a very healthy market for selling Arabic prints within the region.”

In addition to securing sales, Dockery says that Sony is scouting for format concepts that are coming out of the Middle East and Africa. “We think that that is a nascent area. We’re watching it closely—very big ideas can come out of small markets. We’re keen to work with local producers to spot new formats that can travel.”