On Location


NEW YORK: Jay Stuart explores the buzzing local production sectors in the Middle East and Africa.

From the booming Nigerian film sector to the burgeoning Arabic-language drama business to the vibrant demand for entertainment formats, the local production community in the Middle East and Africa appears to be firing on all cylinders.

Producing original television content for a large region of the world is a challenge, even when audiences speak the same language. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where 340 million Arabic-speaking viewers comprise anything but a single homogeneous market for programming. Sometimes different countries even want their own versions of the same Arabic-language shows based on imported formats. In the Middle East, this sort of demand has generated its own unique spin on localized production.

Alliances have cropped up, with groups of broadcasters getting together to bring a format to life. A pay-TV player will commission a format, for example, and bring on additional producers and smaller free-to-air (FTA) broadcasters from across the region. “This is an interesting dynamic in the market,” says Anahita Kheder, FremantleMedia International’s (FMI) senior VP for the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Europe. “In one of these deals, there are multiple parties investing, which also results in an increased reach for the format. This really helps us when we’re trying to get new formats on air. It’s a nice way of working as smaller FTA players, who don’t necessarily want to take that risk in going alone, are partnering with a pay-TV player.”

Kheder explains that there are also producers grouping together and working on the production of one format, and then going on to involve multiple commissioners across the region for that one single production. What’s really remarkable is that often the broadcasters of these joint formats are all on the same satellite network.

“A good example is the Egyptian networks,” Kheder continues. “Their focus and target is the Egyptian market only, so joining up on a production with a Gulf broadcaster, on the same platform, isn’t a big worry; they don’t see [Gulf broadcasters] as competition. The Gulf viewers and Egyptian viewers consume this content very differently and have loyalties to what they would consider Gulf channels and Egyptian channels. So CBC in Egypt, for example, is seen as an Egyptian channel, even though it’s available on a Gulf television feed. The Saudis would very rarely switch on CBC, as they would prefer to watch MBC. Then you have smaller players like the Lebanese, who make Lebanese entertainment for a Lebanese audience. You can bundle FTA broadcasters who sit on the same satellite network together and they can air the same show at the same time. They feel that the benefits outweigh what would normally be considered competitive cannibalism.”

Generally, Kheder says, the format market continues to be dominated by the key FTA players such as MBC. For several years now, these networks have been moving towards producing more local content.

Pay-TV players such as OSN are consistent when it comes to choosing formats and have become “quite the catalyst in sparking the format-licensing business in the region,” Kheder adds. “The Middle East is traditionally a market where broadcasters pick up formats and then decide which producer produces them, so OSN invests in local production companies to produce on their behalf. MBC has its own associated production arm in O3 Productions.”

It has to be noted that the MENA region is not in the rosiest of health as a production environment right now. This has more to do with the macro elements than specific television industry problems. Political instability from a few volatile countries is adversely affecting advertiser confidence and sales. Overall advertising spending in MENA could fall by more than 10 percent this year after a decline in 2015, according to Zenith­Optimedia. The decline in oil prices in the biggest market, Saudi Arabia, is also causing economic uncertainty around the region. “Whenever there are times of uncertainty, most people think twice and hold their budgets,” Kheder says. “I feel that everyone has been bracing themselves for 2016, since we saw early signs of these challenges in 2015.”

It is challenging, however, to generalize about conditions across the Middle East.

“Commercially there is no one Middle East market,” says Fadi Ismail, the general manager of O3 Productions and Dubai-based MBC Group’s director of drama production and distribution. “The biggest in terms of ad revenue is the Gulf, followed by Egypt and then others. There has always been competition among FTA stations and networks, but since last year we have seen more fierce competition—with the pay channels spending so much more than before on content, and with the entry of international and regional OTT players. This is, in principle, good news for local producers, as every player requires local programming more than anything else.”

But the good news has a dark cloud behind it. “The industry is still suffering from lots of irrational and un-commercial behavior and somehow remains commercially immature and not sufficiently well organized,” Ismail adds. “I expect that competition will only make the industry a bit more chaotic and unpredictable in terms of plans and viability.”

Ismail says the two crucial genres for his group are the big talent-spotting entertainment formats and local dramas. “Both are pillars of the programming grid and both are indispensable appointments to view for viewers. When you have the best of both, then you are unbeatable. However, while entertainment relies on international formats, most if not all drama depends on local original stories, with very few exceptions. No matter the quality or sophistication of the script and production values, their local [nature] makes them more relevant and more emotionally engaging than Western dramas.”

Carlos Tibi is founder and CEO of one of the big newer players, Dubai-based streaming service Icflix, which delivers Middle Eastern programming around the world. He acknowledges that formats are important in the Middle East. “Over time, international formats have positively affected TV viewing habits and created local hits such as Arab Idol, Arab’s Got Talent, The Voice and Top Chef,” he says. There have also been successful localized versions of sitcoms, soap operas and other TV series.

“I think there’s room and definitely a lot of appetite for more scripted formats across the market,” says FMI’s Kheder. “There is a pool of strong producers and script writers in the region—scripted formats are a great way to support home-grown talent. It is a wave that we are definitely looking to be part of, and we are highlighting our scripted-format offering at every opportunity. We have had some serious discussions about our very successful drama series Wentworth, and our scripted-format brands Deceptions, Birds of a Feather and Web Therapy are also gaining some serious traction.”

Talal Awamleh, the CEO of Jordan-based production company Arab Telemedia Group, which won an International Emmy in 2008 for its original series The Invasion, notes, “TV channels in the Middle East are focusing on acquiring formats mainly for talent shows and game shows, and these formats are attracting huge audiences. As for the drama formats, it’s still the beginning and not much has been produced yet, especially with all the competitive Turkish series that are being aired on the Arabic TV channels.”

While local content is prevalent on FTA, pay TV and the emerging VOD and SVOD platforms are mainly investing in theatrical content and imported drama from the U.S., Kheder says. “The introduction of the new platforms to the market is very interesting,” she says. “Netflix has launched and Starz Play is now gaining traction.”

Rival OTT service Icflix is currently working on several original drama productions in partnership with Morocco’s Centre Cinématographique Marocain. The most ambitious project is Come Back, which will be the first movie to tackle the Daesh (ISIS) problem and its ramifications for the Arab community living both abroad and in MENA. It is being shot in Belgium, Turkey, France and multiple Middle Eastern countries in English, French and Arabic. Completion is slated for early summer 2016.

Tibi says that one of the big challenges of local production is that film funds for Arabic productions are still limited in scale and scope. “This makes financing of local films difficult.”

Other challenges in the market tick boxes that would probably be expected. “When it comes to talent, Egypt and Lebanon are known for having suitable talent, but the GCC is still below par,” he says. “The diverse landscape and natural beauty of the Middle East and North African countries [mean that they] offer good locations [for filming], but the production infrastructure is not well developed.”

“The real challenge for the production industry in the Middle East is the budgets,” says Arab Telemedia’s Awamleh. “TV networks are not willing to invest in the pre-production phase. They prefer to acquire content that is completely produced and financed by the producers and the production companies.”

Perhaps the most ambitious Arabic-language original series made in the region to date is Justice (Qalb Al Adalah). Image Nation, the production arm of government-funded Abu Dhabi Media in the United Arab Emirates, is behind the legal drama, now in post-production and set to be ready to air in late autumn 2016.

“Nothing like this has ever been produced in the region before,” says Image Nation CEO Michael Garin. “My shorthand description of the show is L.A. Law meets Dallas in Abu Dhabi.”

The 20×1-hour series is produced by UAE company Beelink Productions, based in Abu Dhabi (100 percent of Image Nation’s production is done through private-sector companies). The concept came from Walter Parkes of Parkes/MacDonald Productions, and the scripts were written by Billy Finkelstein of NYPD Blue and L.A. Law fame.

Garin says that while the “significant” budget is not equal to that of a comparable U.S. series, it’s definitely similar to budgets of big shows made in Mexico, Brazil or Turkey.

Image Nation’s strategy is to generate profits from its big-budget international projects (especially movies such as the upcoming sci-fi picture The Circle starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson) to invest in building a local production industry, not just in the UAE but around the region.

According to Garin—a 40-year industry veteran who co-founded Lorimar-Telepictures in the 1980s, headed media investment for ING and was CEO of Central European Media Enterprises before shifting his focus to the Middle East—the lack of broadcaster budgets for production in the Middle East is built into the TV business as it currently operates. “Television is an advertiser-supported medium. The key issue in determining production budgets is ultimately how much of the ad revenue ends up with the broadcasters rather than with the media buyers or other intermediaries. In the U.S., it’s about 90 percent. In Central Europe, it’s about 60 percent. In the Middle East, it’s lower. This is what happens when a handful of companies control the ad market through volume discounts. It was the same in France in the early days of commercial TV. It’s true in any developing television market, including Africa.”

MBC’s Ismail asserts that the big challenge for local production is not financial, at least for drama production.

“There is definitely more supply than demand in the market,” he says. “The total number of 30-episode series produced exceeds 100 per year, while only 15 to 20 broadcasters can afford to buy first-run from among hundreds of TV stations in the region. Lots of production companies plan to, and in many instances actually do, produce without a well-studied and realistic sales-and-distribution strategy. Even if they had one, in many cases there are financial difficulties that make some broadcasters delay their payment or extend it to more than a year, which puts a heavy burden on producers to fund their productions.”

He continues, “The main current problem is not the production budgets or production values, but rather the quality of storytelling, which in many cases is repetitive in theme and does not offer enough innovative ideas. One reason for that is the short time that writers have to write their 30-episode scripts and have them ready for the first-run season in Ramadan every year. There is not much time to be innovative and improve the compelling aspect of your stories when you only have around three or four months at best to write 1,200 minutes’ worth of script.”

Image Nation’s Garin asserts that “our talent in the Middle East is comparable to anywhere else in the world. But this is a new industry. What is lacking for our young people are entry-level opportunities and mentors. That is part of the role of Image Nation. That’s why I’m here and why other Western colleagues are here. We have a small population of about 2 million Emiratis. We have an abundance of financial capital but a shortage of human capital. The passion for the film and TV business among the young people is the same as elsewhere. They won’t lose that passion, and the country wants to be sure that it doesn’t lose these people to Hollywood or London or wherever they might go if they don’t have a local industry.”

One of the achievements of Image Nation has been bringing more financial transparency and discipline to the production business. “We are defining the profit margins as they need to be,” Garin says. “So we have an educational role for local producers, who haven’t always been receptive to change.”

Image Nation has also launched the first non-news, non-sports pan-Arabic regional channel, Quest Arabiya, in association with Discovery Communications.

If producers are finding it hard enough to produce for their own markets, are there prospects for exporting programs?

“Our target for Justice is television audiences around the world who are used to seeing quality programs from HBO or CBS or BBC or ITV,” Garin says. “The key thing is that TV audiences in countries that use dubbed programming don’t care what the original language was. They care about stories and production values.”

MBC’s Ismail says that export possibilities for Middle Eastern productions appear limited at present. “But the doors are open if we are smart in how we design our production projects and how we write our scripts. Perhaps today the production values of many series aren’t good enough to travel globally, but there are still lots of opportunities for our stories to become scripted formats for others. There is nothing in the essence of Arabic drama that makes it incapable of traveling the world. We just need to be sure we get the right expertise so that our stories are selected and developed in a way that makes them compelling not only to over 300 million Arabic speakers and viewers, who have such diverse tastes and cultural backgrounds, but also to a worldwide audience. At O3, we are seeking and planning for that time when we have content that is attractive to international viewers and we have different initiatives and experimentation going on.”

One initiative recently announced is O3’s consultation agreement with Los Angeles–based Anonymous Content to co-develop such dramas.

“The beauty of television over features is that you sell it and then you make it,” Image Nation’s Garin says. “So there’s more flexibility in the projects. We very much have a regional focus. People move around in the Middle East. Stories travel. We see a lot of potential for television co-production, and we’re exploring this.”

Arab Telemedia’s Awamleh has high hopes for his company’s historical series based on Arab historical figures and events. “Our distribution plan is focusing on Asia, Latin America and Europe, and we believe that, with the appropriate approach, we can gain a large segment of the audience in these markets.”

At Icflix, exporting its programming takes on a different meaning. “Because we are a global streaming service, our original productions are also available outside of MENA for the expat Arab diaspora living abroad,” Tibi says.

There are several entities investing in African production, among them pay-TV heavyweight Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN), which operates ten channels in the region. It already produces content for southern Africa, mainly sourced from South Africa and Kenya, and West Africa, coming mainly from Nigeria.

After launching BET Africa in April 2015, VIMN jumped right into local production of a marquee competition show for the channel, Top Actor, made in South Africa with auditions in Kenya and Nigeria as well.

“Producing in Africa can be less expensive than elsewhere, but it can also be more expensive if you are working in a less-developed market and have to bring in the equipment and crews and talent,” says Alex Okosi, the senior VP and managing director at VIMN Africa. “We work both with in-house teams and with external producers. There is scale beyond the three big markets. We activate all over Africa—Ghana, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola. Our music videos are sourced all over Africa. Of course, there is a quality threshold we need to respect.”

VIMN already produces a scripted series, MTV Shuga, about the impact of AIDS. The first two seasons were made in Kenya, and then the show moved to Nigeria for the past two seasons. It is produced in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other organizations as a not-for-profit project.

Now VIMN is looking at scripted as a commercial driver. “We are actually looking at a sitcom for Comedy Central in Africa,” Okosi says. “We are evaluating what we can do. We want to diversify our platform. In Nigeria and South Africa there are tax advantages and subsidies to access. A drama series is part of our ambitions. We have strong reality shows already. We are looking at other formats. We want to go deeper into more reality and more drama.”

In effect, that means going deeper into being more local. Be it in Africa or the Middle East, viewers want to watch programs about their own people and stories rooted in their own cultures. But the challenges of original local production in large and diverse emerging regions remain.

“To develop a production industry, you need an environment where expats and locals can work together,” Garin advises. “Countries that don’t have an established industry need to be able to attract people from outside who can lend a hand.”