Middle East: Lifting the lid on media

Arab TV is upping its game, but a lack of accountability is forcing advertisers to look elsewhere.

TV viewers in the Middle East have seen a flurry of activity over the past few months.

The region's largest pan-Arab broadcaster, the MBC Group, launched its sixth channel, the testosterone-fuelled MBC Action, in March, while Dubai Media Incorporated's English language channel One TV rebranded as Dubai One at the tail end of last year.

Al Jazeera's English language news channel went live in November and Lebanon's Future TV is planning the launch of its own 24-hour news channel. In the midst of all this, MTV Arabia waits on the horizon.

Following a period of sustained criticism of Arabic broadcasting, there has also been an increased focus on better programming. MBC has launched two new shows on MBC1 - the Pimp My Ride-inspired Dale3 Sayartak, and the primetime musical contest show Album. Meanwhile, Lebanon's LBC is to launch an Arabic version of America's Got Talent, and DMI's Dubai TV has won acclaim for its ER-inspired medical drama Lahazat Harija, which went live in February.

However, this spell of launches masks serious and deep-rooted issues facing the region's TV sector. With anywhere between 200 and 400 free-to-air channels on air at any one time, the market is highly fragmented and dominated by Western formats and low-quality Egyptian drama. Only a handful of channels can claim to have a significant share of regional viewers.

Between them, MBC (which dominates with a 35 per cent share of the pan-Arab audience), LBC, Dubai TV, Rotana and Saudi TV take an estimated 85 per cent of adspend, which stood at $1.3 billion in 2006, according to the Pan-Arab Research Center.

But Tim Riordan, the group channel director of the MBC Group, believes even the big networks aren't getting the level of advertising - or the value - that they should be. "The people in this area are unique in the world, in that they get the best programming for nothing," he says. "The only problem is I don't think the advertising market has developed to support the product that is brought to the viewers. What worries me is how long this can be sustained. The advertising market has to catch up with reality."

Complicating the issue is undercutting, Najla Al Awadhi, the deputy chief executive of DMI, says: "We need to see more co-operation between the major broadcasters to regulate and stabilise the rate cards for TV and avoid deep discounts, which are really undermining the true value of TV."

Not surprisingly, Jan Zijderveld, the chairman of Unilever Middle East and the GCC Advertisers' Association, disagrees. "Prices are going up, there's an increase in clutter and the number of spots per hour is not decreasing, it's increasing," he says. "It doesn't make sense. I think the big media guys need to be careful that the environment they create remains attractive for viewers, because we won't advertise if it's less attractive. Either the value needs to drop, or we find other ways of communicating with consumers."

But at the root of this difference in opinion is a lack of transparency. People meters and independent ratings are non-existent, and Zijderveld is not amused. "It is unacceptable that in this part of the world, there are not people meters or the equivalent. It really is the only place left," he says.

Plans are afoot to have people meters introduced into Saudi Arabia, the region's most lucrative market, by the end of the year. And although similar initiatives have been tried with little success in the past, Zijderveld is confident this time will be different.

Hope is supplied by "Project Illumination", an initiative being financially backed by some of the region's largest media agencies - OMD, Starcom, MindShare, Mediaedge:cia and Universal Media - to the tune of $300,000.

Support has also come from the big broadcasters, who have the least to hide and the most to gain from improved transparency. DMI's Al Awadhi says: "As broadcasters, we need to be proactive in pushing to introduce these tools into our markets."

Riordan agrees. "If we have people meters, we will have a firmer currency as to what the value of the audience is. MBC has nothing to fear from them. It will just confirm our currency," he says.

But not all are so confident. Richard Evans, the commercial vice-president for PepsiCo Middle East and Africa, says: "By the time we get real, relevant and timely TV media data, I fear the audience will already have migrated from broadcast to web-based media."

But broadcast is not the only medium facing transparency issues - print, and to a lesser extent radio, are plagued by it, too. Although some newspapers in Lebanon have been audited for years, notably Beirut's daily An-Nahar, the majority of newspapers and magazines in the Gulf are not.

To drive transparency, the United Arab Emirates' Circulation Audit Steering Organisation, born from the GCCAA, which is made up of 30 of the region's biggest ad spenders, issued a warning in 2005 threatening to pull advertising from unaudited publications if they did not apply for an audit by January this year.

But with more than 200 magazines and newspapers published in the UAE alone, the audit firm BPA Worldwide still only lists 71 members in the Middle East, 25 of which are already audited. Of those, the vast majority are English language titles. Arabic magazines and newspapers remain a huge challenge.

There are obvious reasons why some publications are reluctant to get audited. The process lays bare true circulation figures, which, in many cases, will fall far short of the inflated numbers they have quoted in the past. In the case of Arabic publications, this is complicated by cultural traditions that place an emphasis on relationships rather than best business practice.

But things are moving forward. A handful of titles are now audited in Oman, and BPA has recently received its first audit application from Saudi Arabia for the Arabic language women's magazine Rotana.

Stuart Wilkinson, the EMEA director for BPA Worldwide, is optimistic: "With Dubai booming, there is a realisation that this is an important step forward if the industry wants to be seen to be credible in the long term."

The region's main publishers are Dubai's ITP, which publishes Time Out Dubai and Arabian Business, and its rival Motivate Publishing, home of Emirates Woman and Gulf Business.

Yet, both Emirates Airlines and Unilever admit they have already turned their sights to emerging media.

Steve Wheeler, the vice-president of advertising for Emirates, predicts online will become the dominant ad medium for the airline within the next five years, accounting for 25 per cent of its total global spend, up from around 8 per cent now. Within the Middle East, he says, a lack of auditing could accelerate Emirates' move away from print advertising towards online.

"Internet penetration is increasing. Broadband penetration in Dubai is surprisingly high, and we have to go where our business takes us. We will also not hesitate to accelerate if some of the publications don't audit themselves," he says.

Online, however, remains a fledgling medium in the Middle East, with adspend amounting to less than 1 per cent. Internet penetration in the UAE lies at 35.1 per cent, according to Internetworldstats, and 10.6 per cent in Saudi Arabia, the region's largest consumer market.

TV and print's failings will undoubtedly be to online's advantage in the long term. Unless they act quickly, their fall from grace could be sooner than they imagine.