October 01, 2006
TV in the Middle East: some notes
As some of you know, I've just started writing for Middle East Broadcasters' Journal, and consequently have spent the last couple weeks learning some of what there is to know about the broadcasting biz. I may come back to some of the stuff I've been working on once my actual paying employer has had a chance to publish it, but in the meantime, here's a sketch of the overall situation in the exciting world of TV. (Anyone wanting pretty charts and mostly-reliable statistics should check out this Booz-Allen-Hamilton report on the Middle Eastern TV market.)
1 - Holy crap, there are a lot of stations
The Arab World has 250-some satellite channels. It has more than 30 music broadcasting channels alone. In fact, nobody really even can keep track of how many channels there are, and there are more opening every month. More than anything else, it resembles the dot-com boom - everyone knows there's far too much out there, everyone knows it's not sustainable, but everyone thinks they're the special ones who will ride the coming bad times out and emerge as survivors, holding a key spot in a 300-million-strong market. Some of the channels are ridiculously specialized: there are at least two real-estate channels I know of, and probably more to come.
I also suspect there's an element of apparent solidity to the TV business that attracts naive oil-rich investors. The proclivity of Gulf investors for real estate - after all, if you've bought a building, you actually own something physical that you can look at and walk around in - is pretty well-known. A TV station has similar appeal - once you've paid for it and it's up and running, you can go home, turn on your TV set, and goddamn if it isn't your TV station out there, broadcasting to the world.
As an aside: the 30+ music stations thing is maybe not quite as irrational as it looks on its face. Music stations get a LOT of money from accepting SMSes, and can fill the same ecological niche as internet chat rooms for families who would never DREAM of letting their teenage kids have access to the corrupting evils of the Internet. Given the lack of solid information on ratings (see below), a strong SMS money stream is nothing to scoff at.
2 - Nobody knows anything
As I mentioned above, nobody really even knows how many stations there are, or what they're all really broadcasting. Ratings are determined, not by an independent ratings service, but by individual stations doing their own research, generally through quarterly phone polls of viewers. Naturally, each station's numbers end up portraying them as leaders in the market, or at least in their niche. Even supposedly neutral services (eg. IPSOS-Stat in Lebanon) have been bitterly disputed. In 2005, Future TV sued IPSOS-Stat, claiming that their Lebanon sample was heavily slanted in a Maronite/Christian direction.
There are attempts underway to get a decent people-metering service going in Saudi, but it's about a year away from producing anything, and doesn't even have a solid plan (at least not a public one) yet for how it's going to work.
Further, since every broadcasting company is privately held, nobody really knows who is making money, what they're making their money from, or even if anyone at all is currently making a profit in the market. It's not usually even clear who exactly owns what.
3 - Everyone wants to broadcast to a pan-Arab audience
And that means that everyone wants to broadcast to Saudi Arabia, which is by far the biggest & richest segment of the market. That, in turn, has a definite knock-on effect on media freedoms. No station that's trying to be a commercial success is going to risk pissing the Saudis off too much. Maybe once there's some decent ratings services in different countries, people will start trying to target different regions, but for now it's just as cheap to broadcast to the whole Middle East, so why not?
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The proclivity of Gulf investors for real estate - after all, if you've bought a building, you actually own something physical that you can look at and walk around in - is pretty well-known.
I was going to ask Lounsbury about the Gulf liquidity boom - why the Emirates don't just use their money to buy into healthy foreign companies instead of building glamourously unnecessary stuff. I suppose that's it. Is it?
Also: Everyone wants to broadcast to a pan-Arab audience. - why the sod not specialise if there are so many channels?
Posted by: Klaus at October 1, 2006 09:19 AM
Klaus - actually, the channels (well, some of them) specialize - there's channels targeted at women, there's a good number of kid's channels, many many business channels (including at least one, and I think more, real-estate channel) ... but until someone comes up with a definitive ratings system, nobody is going to be willing to give up pretensions to competing in the Saudi market, because it's the only one that's both (1) big and (2) affluent.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at October 1, 2006 10:09 AM
yeah, that makes sense. All that's common to everyone.
How about politics channels? I'm thinking, maybe the success of Al-Jazeera could inspire others to some more independent news broadcasting that might get up the nose of the powers that be - plenty of emotions to be tapped there. There are a fair number of Kurdish stations broadcasting from Europe, avoiding the inevitable censorship. Something similar to that.
Posted by: Klaus at October 1, 2006 10:42 AM
why the Emirates don't just use their money to buy into healthy foreign companies instead of building glamourously unnecessary stuff. I suppose that's it. Is it? Large amounts of money does go to buying foreign companies. Perhaps more than the prestige investments. But more money is staying close to home in this boom, fear of siezure, etc. The risk profile has changed.
Also investing in far-away foreign holdings is not easy. Not at all.
As for the politics channels, don't be dim. Politics is almost never, anywhere, a money spinner. Say something wrong, adverts, etc go away. Not easy to monetise. Your suggestion has zero to do with your ostensible question.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at October 1, 2006 11:22 AM
To amplify L's point about politics: Al Jazeera can't make money off of ads. The fifth-most-influential brand in the world.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at October 1, 2006 11:35 AM
What a world, what a world.
No further questions, m'lud.
Posted by: Klaus at October 1, 2006 07:19 PM