Campaign Report on Worldwide Advertising (IAA Special): The battle for the Arab satellite market - The Arab world got its first taste of satellite TV in 1991 and, since then, competition for both viewers and advertisers has hotted up. Kathryn Westcott loo

The Arab world has witnessed phenomenal growth in the satellite television industry in the past two years - and 1998 is also shaping as a year of fierce competition, especially between the three free-to-air stations, MBC, Future TV and LBC Sat, which are running rings around most terrestrial stations in terms of viewing figures and advertising.

The Arab world has witnessed phenomenal growth in the satellite

television industry in the past two years - and 1998 is also shaping as

a year of fierce competition, especially between the three free-to-air

stations, MBC, Future TV and LBC Sat, which are running rings around

most terrestrial stations in terms of viewing figures and


The latest figures from the Pan-Arab Research centre in Dubai estimate

that pan-Arab satellite television has a 66 per cent share of the total

regional and local TV spend and that free-to-air satellite stations

almost doubled their income in 1997. Monitored figures published in the

Beirut-based magazine, ArabAd, show that an estimated dollars 380

million was spent on advertising on free-to-air and cable satellite

stations in the Middle East last year, dollars 110 million of which went

on a handful of stations - MBC, Lebanon’s LBC Sat and Future Sat, Saudi

1, Egypt and ART.

Jihad Fakhreddine, acting research manager at the Pan Arab Research

Company, dismisses talk about a satellite boom, saying only three or

four satellite stations are doing well.

Fakhreddine points out that MBC, LBC Sat, Future Sat and the Egypt Space

Channel take more than two-thirds of the audience in the Middle East. He

also claims there is a limited viewership for non-Arabic satellite


CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War in 1991 gave Arabs their first taste of

satellite programming and MBC, quick to spot the size of the potential

market and a gap for a station which could be identified as pan-Arab and

independent, started broadcasting in September 1991. Fakhreddine

comments: ’MBC was broadcast from Bahrain to terrestrial stations and

could be received in remote parts of Saudi Arabia which created a

demand. Along with ART and Egypt Space Channel, it helped create the

demand for satellite television.’

The entertainment-oriented Lebanese stations came into the market two

years ago when close to three million satellite dishes had been

installed in the Middle East. Both had been terrestrial stations but

were looking for fresh ways to generate advertising revenue, given the

unimpressive growth of the TV advertising market in the country. Pierre

Daher, the chief executive of LBC, says he had no choice but to open up

to new markets.

Saudi Arabia is currently the biggest market for satellite TV and, given

the high spending power of most of its population, it could hardly be

seen as much of a gamble. Fakhreddine estimates that Saudi Arabia has

more than 70 per cent of the population of the Gulf Cooperation Council

countries - Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Oman - and

just over 60 per cent of the gross domestic product of the region.

’There is a point at which ’pan-Arab’ becomes synonymous with Saudi

Arabia,’ Fakhreddine says.

Incidents in the past have demonstrated that offending the sensibilities

of the conservative kingdom can cost dear.

The BBC World Service’s former Arabic television service found its

relationship with Orbit - which is backed by Saudi money - brought to an

end two years ago after it aired a controversial interview with a

leading Saudi dissident.

And, more recently, in July 1997, a Saturday night surprise for Saudi

viewers resulted in the state-financed French television company, Canal

France, having its lucrative partnership with ArabSat cancelled. As

people sat down to watch a scheduled children’s programme, they were

treated to a hardcore porn show. Apparently France Telecom had

accidentally switched channels.


Describing your news output as ’independent’ and ’unbiased’ is a bold

claim in the Arab world. Most terrestrial news stations are

government-owned and hundreds of newspapers, if not owned by the

government, are simply mouthpieces for politicians, religious groups or

businessmen with pretensions to politics.

But MBC has earned a reputation for the strength of its news and

political programming. It is owned by an independent Saudi Arabian

company, the ARA Group, and broadcasts from London to the Middle East,

Europe and North Africa. Being based in London, the station must abide

by Independent Television Commission regulations.

Edwin Hart, the director of news and international operations, rejects

the idea that broadcasting to the Arab world is different to any other

areas. ’Does this mean we are going to be totally outspoken? No. I have

to be realistic. But also you have to recognise that sensitivity does

not equate to censorship,’ he says. ’For example, there are problems on

reporting border disputes, such as those between Egypt and Sudan. But

because of these sensitivities, we are more prone to have people on both

sides to ensure balance.’

The ebullient Hart has an unswerving vision of how to operate in the

Arab world. He says that although economically parts of the region could

be described as third world, there is also a sophisticated and

well-educated audience with a thirst for information. ’We obviously have

to put some perspective on stories. My job is to tell people why they

should care.’

Hart insists that there should be no difference in the quality of MBC’s

service than, for example, that of ABC in the US.

As well as the major Arab capitals, MBC has correspondents and bureaux

scattered throughout the world from the Horn of Africa to Algeria and

from Mauritania to Moscow.

Hart says: ’The idea was to transcend culture but people said it

couldn’t be done because of the mix of cultures.’ He says that in the

Arab world people shouldn’t assume homogenity on the basis of

similarities in language or religion.

Some of MBC’s programmes are selected and retransmitted to North America

through the ANN Television Network.

Around 40 per cent of the network’s output is entertainment, including

feature films, drama serials, light entertainment and sports. MBC

produces around one third of its output at its London studios and the

remainder through a variety of Arab and Western production


ANN is another station that recognises the potentially huge market for

news in the Arab countries. Given there are an estimated 300 million

people in the Arab world, there should be room for more than one

pan-Arab news service. ANN, which broadcasts from London to Europe, the

Middle East and North Africa, says it is backed by independent

businessmen. One of its founders is Sawmar Al Assad, the nephew of

Syria’s president, Hafez al Assad.

The network says it is expecting an emergence in the Middle East of news

coverage based on democracy and liberalism. It started programming in

September last year and has just launched 24-hour broadcasts.

Its reach is an estimated 15 million viewers, with the biggest audiences

in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. The Gulf and Saudi

Arabia are being targeted as the biggest area for advertising revenue

but the station says it will not ignore Europe and North Africa. Like

MBC, ANN covers sports and some entertainment. It also buys fashion

footage from Fashion Television and likes to think it is relatively

liberal with its programming schedule.

The Al Jazeera Satellite Channel, which broadcasts from Doha, is a

news-based station which is, according to Fakhreddine, perceived as a

quality operation. It is supported by Qatari interests.

Lebanon’s entertainment channels

Lebanon’s LBC Sat and Future TV’s entertainment-oriented programming is

drawing in viewers and advertisers alike. Both satellite stations grew

out of two of the country’s terrestrial stations and much of their

programming is retransmitted via satellite. The leader of the two in

terms of advertising revenue, LBC Sat’s mixture of Mexican soaps,

locally produced drama, variety and games shows and, until recently,

news and political pr gramming also ensured that last year saw 14 of its

programmes hit the top 20 in research by PARC. It has an unashamedly

populist approach and one of its shows, Play Your Cards Right, became

popular in Saudi Arabia with the post-1am audience. One of the quirks of

the kingdom is that twice as many people watch television at 1am than


Attractive female presenters in Western dress on both stations are

taking the Gulf by storm. One presenter, Future TV’s Yumma Sherri, is

inundated with marriage proposals from across the Gulf.

It appears that the Arab world is hungry for the degree of freedom of

speech and expression that Lebanon has traditionally enjoyed - or, at

least, most people are. The problem is that the Lebanese government is

having a hard time deciding how far freedom should be allowed to


At the start of the year, it banned political and news programming on

satellite channels in the wake of an item broadcast on LBC Sat from a

Beirut MP criticising the government. The prime minister, Rafik Hariri,

said airing Lebanon’s dirty linen in front of the eyes of the

conservative Arab countries was putting off potential investors. But

critics suggested this was just a retaliation from the prime minister,

who owns Future TV. LBC’s news and current affairs programming showed

how aggressively it was chasing its nearest rival, MBC. Last year, LBC

Sat took dollars 23 million in advertising revenue, compared with

Future’s dollars 12 million.

The terrestrial station, Tele-Liban, which is under the government’s

thumb, is waiting in the wings for a licence to air news and political

programmes via satellite. The other two satellite stations will have the

choice of taking the programming.

Recently, the Lebanese station bosses came to a gentleman’s agreement, a

kind of ’self-censorship’, in order to stave off proposed regulation,

after criticisms from leaders of the country’s large Muslim population

that there was too much ’immorality’ on television, including satellite

programming. A few months ago, LBC’s popular terrestrial aerobics

programming, Ma Ilak Illa Haifa, was taken off satellite after

complaints from viewers in the conservative Gulf about the daring nature

of Haifa’s sportswear and the so-called provocative camera shots.

Similarly, a programme about incest was recently withdrawn.

Future has built relationships with companies such as Disney, which

reflects the station’s desire to avoid offending viewers. The prime

minister’s station wants to send a political message to the Arab world.

’Lebanon needs a powerful marketing tool to erase the images of the past

18 years.

We want to say to the viewing public, Lebanon is coming back,’ Ali

Jaber, chief executive of the station, recently said. But is the degree

of freedom that has long been the country’s hallmark at stake?