The Middle East plays host to some of the world’s most envied media facilities, with many state-run broadcasters investing in the latest HD technology. However, the content produced in the Middle East is still way below par — an issue that the Arab Producers Union for TV (APUTV) hopes to address more aggressively in the coming years, writes Vijaya Cherian
Since 1985, a growing number of production companies in the Arab world have been convening annually in Cairo under the banner of the Arab Producers Union for TV (APUTV) to discuss some of the growing issues, opportunities and challenges related to the production market in the Middle East and North African region.
However, little was known about how this Union helped influence laws in favour of producers or the initiatives and projects it had undertaken in the past — until now.
At the last meeting held in Cairo in December, 2008, a whopping 650 members gathered at the APUTV meeting. It was a telling statement of how the Union had slowly but surely begun to appeal to more Arab producers, who wanted to discuss how to produce better content.
Headed by Ibrahim Abo Zekri, the Arab Producers Union has become a formidable organisation that seeks to promote the collective interests of the Arab media, television and cinema productions, while also encouraging greater cooperation between producers at both a regional and international level.
“We have kept a low profile all these years but are now seeking to take a more proactive stance,” explains Mustafa Salamah, who is not just secretary general of the union and a well known TV director in Dubai but also one of the most dynamic players in the organisation.
Salamah, although Jordanian, is well-known in Dubai as the creator of the emirate’s first animated TV programme titled Modhesh - The Master of Surprises. He has launched 12 TV channels in the UAE and has more than 400 commercials and 200 documentaries to his credit. Salamah was instrumental in bringing the Union to the UAE’s doorstep recently.
With the help of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, he secured an office for the Union at Dubai Media City so as to bring more Arab producers into its fold and to seek greater cooperation from the government in helping this industry.
So far, the union’s focus has strictly been on Arab players and regional productions. As part of its efforts to give greater visibility to good quality content produced in the region, APUTV announced the launch of a satellite channel titled Drama Mix at the last forum held in Cairo in December 2008.
As part of this, the organisation hopes to show some of the best Arab productions in the region with serials such as Laialy Al Halmia and Ras Ghalis in the pipeline for broadcast post-Ramadan.
In the meantime, the Union has built a large studio in Cairo with smaller facilities planned in Dubai and Morocco.
“We are presently building a studio in Dubai. It will have HD equipment such as Sony HD cameras plus editing solutions like 3ds Max and Maya,” explains Salamah.
“These studios will be used to create content for the new channel. We are already working on a programme called Drama Morning, where a group of artists convene over breakfast and give the viewers a look at a typical morning in their lives,” he confides.
Salamah adds that the Union hopes to generate revenues from traditional means such as advertising for this channel.
“The key is to have lots of interesting programmes on television that viewers will enjoy. We have a few programmes in the pipeline that we can’t discuss now but if the viewers are there and the content is good, we believe advertising will also follow suit.”
Interestingly, the Union itself charges only a nominal annual subscription fee from members to ensure that fees do not dissuade players from joining it.
The annual forum held in Cairo has created several benefits for the production community at large. For instance, the forum has helped producers network and plan co-productions; it has advised members on copyright and legal matters; represented them in international forums; organised training courses and workshops and also hosted annual competitions for TV production.
“One of our biggest achievements has been getting a large number of TV production companies under one umbrella and being able to put forward proposals that would help address some of the challenges they face in this environment,” explains Salamah.
“As a Union, we are in touch with many key government entities and have helped introduce laws that protect the rights of producers while helping to promote TV production in this region. Furthermore, Arab co-productions have become possible with several producers joining hands to work on the same project. This is a dream come true as many producers bring different skills and unique experiences to a project. This will enable us to produce high-quality programmes and when more companies see this, more will be encouraged to join the Union,” he says.
With the launch of its office in Dubai earlier this year, the Union plans to spread its wings even further.
Given that APUTV works closely with other international TV production unions and exchanges information on the latest developments in TV productions, many Arab producers have gained substantially from being associated with it. At the same time, the Union has also increasingly urged the use of common broadcast standards and systems within the region rather than media organisations adopting different formats.
One issue, however, that the Union is particularly frustrated by is the “entry of non-specialised production companies in the process of TV production, who reduce the price of drama in these markets and, therefore, destroy the artistic levels involved in the process of TV production”, says Salamah.
“This is a serious problem. We find players reducing prices dramatically and as people keep cutting costs, the level of quality is seriously compromised. We are also seeking to address other issues such as the lack of any serious production from the Gulf countries in areas such as dramas and the lack of any good quality content. We want to produce content that is on par with international standards,” explains Salamah, who plans to address these issues more aggressively in the coming months.
One way of tackling this issue is by up-skilling and re-skilling existing professionals while also providing training opportunities to graduates, explains Salamah.
For this purpose, the Union has signed agreements with entities in Jordan and Lebanon to launch training academies that will cater to both graduates as well as professionals.
“We have an agreement with the BBC to coordinate on this front. We also have a roster of regional and international experts who will help with these programmes. ,” Salamah explains.
On a parallel note, the Union is also working towards creating a ‘we feeling’ between broadcasters. For this, Salamah has in the recent past produced a couple of topical programmes such as One Media, One Country and Jerusalem - The Capital of Culture, which have been broadcast simultaneously by 30 different channels in the Arab world.
Salamah admits that the scope of the Union is limited to Arabic presently but hopes to bring expatriate producers operating in the region as well into the fold in the future.
“Presently, the idea is to give production from regional producers a boost. We are working towards producing programmes in HD. As a director, I am well versed with all formats and many producers in the Union have international expertise. Together, we hope to create high-quality Arabic content that will not just be viewed by regional viewers but by international audiences as well.”
Key stakeholders in the arab producers union
Arabian Media Production
Al Alamia advertising and publishing
Attalb commercial establishment
Tohama company – Saudi Arabia
Al Ain Art production company, Abu Dhabi
Waves studio TV production
Abu Dhabi TV production establishment
Alalamia TV production, Sharjah
Safeer Film, Abu Dhabi
Al Dhafrah TV Production, Sharjah
Alshrouq Establishment, Dubai
Alqwasmi TV production, Dubai
Ajman studios, Ajman
Najm Al Mashreq company
Fonoun Al Sharq
Saiko Arts, Muscat
Rotana production company