Market Insight

Arabic TV drama production in MENA a brief outline

May 06, 2013

Constantinos Papavassilopoulos Constantinos Papavassilopoulos Associate Director, Service Providers & Platforms

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A new televised drama series of Syrian origin is about to be filmed in the UAE. The drama series will be shot at the Abu Dhabi studios of twofour54, the Emirate's Media production hub. The series will be titled Hammam Shami and as the title indicates the main plot will revolve around a down-town Damascus hammam (public baths) in the 1950s. The TV series is planned to be aired across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) during the holy month of Ramadan in the summer of 2013. A Syrian production team with the director Momen Al Mulla has already moved to Abu Dhabi. The filming will take place in the state-of-the-art studio and production facilities of the twofour54 Media campus. Two studios covering more than 500 sq.m have been re-fitted so as to recreate the atmosphere and the living conditions inside the Syrian capital more than 60 years ago. While in recent years a significant number of Syrian TV drama series have been filmed in the UAE, Hammam Shami is the first large scale Syrian drama to be shot in Abu Dhabi.   

In the last five years, the Gulf States, and especially the UAE, are becoming an important hub for the production of local (Arabic) content in the field of audiovisual Media as well as for online publication. While the "historical" centres of Middle East television and film production like Cairo, Beirut and Damascus still retain at least part of their old clout (and continue to proliferate despite the economic, political and social hardships their host-countries are facing at the aftermath of the "Arab Spring"), it is becoming increasingly evident that the Media production centres in the Gulf States possess some "assets" un-matched anywhere else in the region. For instance Twofour54 (the name derives from the geographical co-ordinates of the city of Abu Dhabi) is in practice the Abu Dhabi Media Free Zone. Areas like the Media Cities (or Media Zones as it is called in some countries) provide a favourably low (or in some cases totally free) tax regime so as to entice local and, primarily, international Media production firms to establish a foothold in the MENA region. Apart from the tax-redemptions schemes, Twofour54 (as in effect all other Media productions hub in the Gulf States like the Dubai Media City or the Doha Media City) is striving to provide an integrated advanced Media business ecosystem comprising state-of-the-arts production facilities, a modern digital telecoms and broadband infrastructure, training facilities (as well as a well-trained technical personnel) and finally serving as a new business incubator. Twofour54 has more than 2,200 full-time employees and the work-force is expected to reach 9,000 around 2018. A policy that facilitates investment and the prospects of creating content addressable to around 340 million Arab-speaking individuals across the whole MENA region had played a major part in attracting international media powerhouses and content production companies (in the likes of Sony Pictures International, CNN, News Corporation, BBC, Financial Times, Viacom) to "come onboard" Twofour54 and help establish the Media Zone as a centre of excellence. At the end of 2012 Twofour54 hosted more than 178 companies. Particularly important for the TV series production firms is the incentive scheme, which was introduced by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission and exists only in Twofour54. That incentive scheme is providing a cash rebate going as high as 30 per cent of money spent that qualifies certain criteria. The scheme has been so far very successful to lure filmmakers and TV production houses.

Syria is a traditional centre of Arab drama production. The Syrians specialize particularly in historical, Islamic and epic drama genre and lately they co-operate with television stations located in the Gulf States (primarily UAE and Qatar) which are funding the productions. The scheme of Gulf-funded Syrian-originating Arabic drama is lately becoming the norm especially after the recent civil war in Syria had a devastating impact on the country's production capabilities. Today most of Syrian drama is produced in the Gulf, not only in Twofour54 but also in Dubai (two Syrian drama series were produced in Dubai Media City in the first half of 2012) and Doha. Arabic drama forms the most sought-after content for both free and pay TV operators as it is the content genre which attracts the highest viewership figures. Furthermore, Arabic drama TV series production in 2012 was flourishing as it was revealed in the recent MIPTV event in Cannes. The number of productions doubled between 2010 and 2012, from 80 to roughly 160. Egypt is the country which still occupies the number one spot in terms of total TV series production output with 79, followed by the Gulf States with 29 and Iraq and Syria with 20 series for both countries. Almost half of the Syrian series were filmed outside Syria, mainly in the Gulf. Syria benefit also from the fact that Turkish drama TV series are extremely popular in the Arab world, as the Arab country is the centre of dubbing Turkish drama into the Syrian Arabic dialect. A part of the dubbing of Turkish series is also happening in Lebanon, mostly using the voices of Syrian actors and actresses. As it was revealed in Cannes, the MENA countries have spent in 2012 an amount equalling 350 million $ for local TV series production. Egyptian channels have spent the largest amount, 260 million $, followed by the TV stations in the Gulf States, 78 million $.

The new Syrian drama TV serial is slated to run during the month of Ramadan. Ramadan is, for years, the most important "window" for all major free-to-air broadcasters (and even some pay TV operators) in the MENA region. All new drama series each year are scheduled so as to be launched during the Ramadan month. The norm is to produce 30 episodes of 52 minutes duration each for the 30 days of the largest Islamic religious celebration. TV consumption is very high and tview, the TV rating system that was implemented successfully in the UAE in 2012, has provided some convincing figures. According to the TV rating system, the average UAE viewer had spent in 2012 an average of six hours and nine minutes watching TV during the first 10 days of the Ramadan. Heavier viewing figures is the right kind of bait for advertising money a fact that allows broadcasters to raise the advertising rates expecting higher revenues. In general, advertising rates during Ramadan increase between 50 and 120 per cent (although increases as high as 170 per cent have also been reported in Arab Media). It comes very logical that the month of Ramadan provides the best revenue figures compared to any other month, indeed something between 25 and 40 per cent of the advertising revenues of broadcasters is stemming from Ramadan. For Al Nahar, one of the most popular commercial FTA channels in Egypt, Ramadan brings about 25 per cent of the annual advertising budget or around 70 million $. For MBC1, the main general entertainment channel of the MBC Group and the flagship of the broadcaster in terms of popularity and revenues, 25 per cent of its annual advertising revenues are generated during Ramadan a fact that, on the other side, forces MBC1 to invest around 25 to 30 per cent of its annual production budget for shows that will be aired during this month. Last year, MBC1 launched eight (8) drama TV series produced exclusively for Ramadan, a figure matched by one of its main competitors, OSN Yahala. OSN Yahala is satellite pay TV operator OSN's main Arabic-language general entertainment channel featuring primarily Arabic drama, films and reality shows. From the eight TV series that OSN Yahala broadcasted during Ramadan 2012, half were produced internally by OSN and the other four were purchased from independent producers. 


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