By any estimation Turner’s growth in the Middle East has been impressive. Few people would have predicted that the company, which launched its Middle East operation in Dubai in 2010 with just one employee, would develop into a regional powerhouse with an animation studio and a theme park in addition to its top brands tailored for the region including Cartoon Network, Boomerang, Turner Classic Movies and CNN.
But then most people didn’t understand that first regional employee’s flair for bringing an entrepreneurial spirit to the larger corporate environment of an international operation like Turner.
Tarek Mounir, VP and general manager MENA, Turkey and Greece at Turner, has brought the local operation a long way in just seven years and the unit now has a team of more than 100 people working across commercial, editorial and production in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Much of Turner’s regional success appears to stem from the team’s focus on putting a research-led strategy ahead of perceived wisdom – a policy that is not always common in the region – along with an entrepreneurial flair that has seen the operation take some bold and decisive steps. A number of Turner initiatives spring to mind, such as launching an animation studio, Cartoon Network Studios Arabia, at twofour54 in 2011; switching its main Pay-TV platform to beIN at the start of 2016, and opening a Cartoon Network-branded theme park at IMG Worlds of Adventure in Dubai in August 2016.
Turner focuses heavily on utilising and developing the brands it has in the region to maximum effect, and also on creating new brands from scratch, such as the popular children’s animated series Mansour, the fourth season of which is now in production in Abu Dhabi.
“We have managed to build a diversified business in the Middle East,” Mounir says. “We don’t have a single streamline of revenues; we have got licensing, merchandising advertising, subscription, and content sales, so it’s very wide. Although 2016 wasn’t necessarily a vintage year for the media industry overall, we had a great year and we way over-delivered on our expectations,” he adds.
Turner’s ability to continue on a growth path in a year that saw many companies across multiple industries wilt amid declining oil prices is partly attributed to its broad spread of revenues. “When you balance your portfolio and you have a good amount of businesses running simultaneously, even if some of the businesses are slightly challenged, your overall position is maintained in a positive way,” Mounir says.
“The Middle East as a region is performing very well. We entered the region quite late compared to Turner in other markets. In the US and UK Turner has a much wider range of channels, services and products offered to the audience. Given that our commercial offices were launched in 2010 and that we started physically hiring people and growing the operations over here since then, we have done quite well in the region.”
It is easy to suspect that Mounir is being modest. The MENA unit of Turner has commanded respect from industry insiders and analysts alike. For example, Nick Grande, MD of Dubai-based broadcast consultancy Channel Sculptor, says that Turner in the MENA region has consistently proven its ability to “read the market” accurately and adapt to regional tastes and trends by executing a clear strategy based on solid research.
Two of Turner’s key strengths in the MENA region are kids’ entertainment with its flagship Cartoon Network and Boomerang channels, and news with CNN. Turner pushed the boundaries in maximising the value of Cartoon Network in the region by launching an Arabic version of the channel in late 2010, and a Hindi version in 2016. Boomerang and CNN are both also available in English and Arabic.
Cartoon Network Arabic is a free-to-air brand while its English and Hindi equivalents are available as Pay-TV channels on beIN. On the subject of FTA and kids’ TV, Mounir says that the “universe of kids’ advertising” in the region remains too small compared to other regions. “I think the challenge isn’t just audience measurement, the pie is very small and needs to grow.” While the MENA region has its challenges in terms of the value of advertising, Mounir is far from defeatist and sees plenty of potential to address the situation. “There needs to be an initial step where you talk to the advertisers and bring value. We did quite an extensive research showing how talking to the audiences from a young age builds brand loyalty and eventually helps you in your commercial case. It is quite significant the amount of progress that the kids’ advertising business could go through in this region,” he says.
Turner also takes an analytical approach to its kids’ entertainment, whether it’s FTA or pay-TV. “We tend to dissect kids’ entertainment and don’t just consider that there is just one age group. Between the four to 14 age group, entertainment is divided into three categories -- for four to seven, seven to 11, and 11 to 14. We tend to look at those segments but across most of the segments comedy is a prevailing trend and action adventure tends to work with boys of seven to 14 age group,” Mounir says.
One of Turner’s major success stories in kids’ TV has been its own production, Mansour, which is produced by its animation studio in Abu Dhabi, Cartoon Network Studios Arabia. Season 3 is now being aired and Season 4 is in production.
The second series of the show (which was the first series of the cartoon actually produced by Cartoon Network Studios Arabia), ranked number-one in TV ratings for its timeslot on Cartoon Network Arabic and drove its channel’s ratings by 38%. The show also proved a hit on Majid TV, the children’s channel launched by Abu Dhabi Media Group in 2015.
“Season 4 is on the go now, so that’s been a long-running production. Animation production is quite lengthy and time consuming, so being in the production of one original is already quite substantial,” Mounir says. “This is certainly something we intend to keep doing and keep feeding. We have got more projects in the pipeline for the animation studio. We will be announcing those when their maturity time comes.”
Turner’s other main focus in the MENA region is news. CNN is one of the world’s top news networks and has gained a new legion of followers amid the current political climate around the world and especially in the US, with the surprise election of Donald Trump as US president last year.
“News is highly consumed in the region and with the current dynamics of US politics I think there’s a lot happening on that end. CNN is enjoying quite a surge in audience viewing,” Mounir says. “CNN has always been a leader in that segment and it continues to be a destination for global and US news.”
Looking ahead, Mounir and his team are optimistic about building on the current momentum for the year ahead. “We’re optimistic about growth and even widening the amount of channels that we have. I think 2017 is going to carry on with the hope of bringing additional services and potential channels.
“We also launched the theme park in 2016 and that was a major milestone for us. On the back of that we are also going to ensure that the relationship with Galadari Brothers, IMG Worlds of Adventure develops within and beyond. We are very optimistic about our business here and hopefully 2017 is going to continue the successes of 2016,” he says.
Turner is optimistic that it can continue to grow its business in the MENA region in 2017, and as a global media company, Tarek Mounir said that “launching new channels is always on the agenda”. “We are always creating business plans and considering new services. We are constantly in discussions about new channels,” he added.
In the MENA region Turner has also led the way in terms of animation production, with work ongoing for a fourth season of its hugely popular Mansour cartoon.
The success of Mansour has also spurred Mounir and his team to explore more ideas for potential animated shows. Turner has worked on an interesting pilot for an international animation production that will, if funding comes through, be produced in the UAE and aired on all Cartoon Network channels, Mounir said.