While Arab audiences are glued to news coverage of Syria and beyond, the heated competition on The Voice, or the latest YouTube sensation from Egypt, television programmers are busy preparing for Arab television’s most important season: Ramadan.
This ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar is at once a period of religious devotion and a time for the television industry’s best productions, when viewership soars, advertising rates peak and television programs become topics of daily conversation. During Ramadan, programmers mostly provide Musalsalat (serials) that emphasize habitual viewing with the use of character development over multiple episodes, cliffhangers, strong emotions and highly charged plots.
Like every year, Ramadan 2014 will be a do-or-die television season. Perhaps more so this year; the stakes are higher because Ramadan overlaps, for two weeks, with the football World Cup. Given its popularity, the games are a serious challenger for viewership and advertising dollars. At a recent television market in Istanbul, television programmers debated the topic without reaching a verdict. A number of strong Ramadan television program providers confirm that it is “business as usual.” Others believe that the World Cup will split the audiences, with male viewers following the games and female audiences remaining faithful to Ramadan’s fare (my female students beg to differ). Finally, some newcomers to Arab television are thinking of cutting their losses and staying out of the competition (cheap productions, re-runs etc.) These polarizing positions obscure at least two challenges ahead: viewership behavior and industry constraints.
Ramadan, the World Cup and viewership
The World Cup lasts for one month from June 12 to July 13, whereas Ramadan’s month is expected to start on June 28. The two will overlap for two weeks, during which Ramadan programs will start while 16 final games remain to be played. For some, the games will divert audiences for few hours away from Ramadan programs. For others, the games are strong contenders that must be watched live. But can we draw any conclusions about the potential impact on viewer behavior?
Over the last few years, Ramadan programs have become popular with all segments of the society: young and the old, rich and poor, females and males. The same is true of the World Cup games. The lifestyle changes associated with Ramadan and the World Cup are profound and affect viewership patterns.
Let’s face it: the competition will be fierce over eyeballs and advertising dollarsJoe Khalil
Both the World Cup and Ramadan are social events associated with specific social rites and television rituals. The World Cup is a communal event for football fans and others. The games become reasons for social outings that begin prior to the game and last long after it is over. Television coverage is dedicated to each game as well as to pre-game and post-game analysis and audience reactions. During Ramadan, television schedulers stack their programs around the breaking of the fast, the Iftar, when television primetime begins and the Musalsalat stretch late into the night.
During the two-week overlap in 2014, both the World Cup and the Ramadan shows will have to compete head-to-head to attract and retain their viewership. In fact, the competition has already begun, with several Ramadan television producers exiting the race before it begins.
Legal, illegal and grey competition
Let’s face it: the competition will be fierce over eyeballs and advertising dollars.
During Ramadan, entertainment television channels traditionally compete over the rights for the latest in Turkish, Egyptian, Syrian and Gulf dramas. They also compete against national television channels that tend to cover local events.
These national television channels held exclusive rights to broadcast the World Cup until Arab Radio and Television (ART) bought these rights for the 2006 games. Unable to fight against copyright violations, ART sold these rights to Al-Jazeera Sports in 2009, ahead of the 2010 World Cup. For Al-Jazeera’s group of channels dedicated to World Cup programming, the challenge was signal piracy and jamming. Re-branded as beIN Sports, the Al-Jazeera network is promising to address such illegal competition, but will it be able to keep its audience once the Ramadan programs start?
They just might. After all, the games need to be watched live, while audiences can catch up on their favorite Musalsalat through a wide range of options. They can watch re-runs during the day, unless friends or neighbors spoiled it for them, or they can watch online.
In September 2008, MBC Group launched Shahid.net, a system in which TV shows are available for a period of time after the original broadcast. Content on Shahid.net is obtained from eight MBC channels and nine other Arabic TV channels. Since 2012, YouTube offers a Ramadan YouTube channel featuring series and streaming of Ramadan content under the sponsorship of a major, fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) company.
The stakes are extremely high for this year’s overlapping World Cup and Ramadan television seasons. For television programmers, the level of investment necessary to acquire exclusive rights for programming is at their peak. For advertisers, the ability to commit already limited budgets in volatile markets is compounded by a potentially split audience and a viewership that is increasingly online. As an avid viewer of both the World Cup and Musalsalat, I am avoiding any additional distraction by blocking June 28 to July 13 as my well-deserved vacation in front of the TV. What are your plans?
Joe F. Khalil, Ph.D., is an associate professor in residence at Northwestern University and visiting research fellow at the London School of Economics. He has more than fifteen years of professional television experience as director, executive producer and consultant with major Arab satellite channels. He is the author of Arab Satellite Entertainment Television: Opportunities for Public Diplomacy (2009) and co-author of Arab Television Industries (2010).