More content like Freej, please

Local content must be made the priority in the coming years.
Comment, Content production
Comment, Content production

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CABSAT MENA is a great time for us to marvel at the advances in technology but I always come away from these events with the same question; who will finally find a way to harness it to create a sustainable local content industry?

There’s been a lot written recently about technology platform providers leading the way into the developing new world of digital media but the truth is without entertaining content – and more specifically in my view, local content – it’s the bakery delivery guys without the bread.

The latest Arab Media Outlook report reaffirms this view. Investment will recover faster here than anywhere else on the globe, it is claimed, but it depends on there being a better balance between international and local content.

I have long been of the view that you cannot import Hollywood. There is nowhere in the world where it has worked successfully. The only way to create a sustainable media industry is to build from within; to develop a definable voice that is attractive to both the society it mirrors and the outside world looking in.

You can spend billions of dollars on studios and sound stages. You can spend billions on communications networks but it’s what you do with them that matters. One of Etisalat’s top bosses in the UAE recently said as much about the internet; executive vice president Ali Al Ahmed is quoted as saying ‘Etisalat has invested US $6billion in optical fibre but the Arabic content does not exceed one percent.’

That has to change. The current trend of importing content from the US, Europe and certain countries in the Middle East has to be turned around. There are good examples of local TV content. In the UAE, everyone talks about Freej. The Dubai cartoon has many fans and it’s a terrific example of what’s possible but the truth is once you’ve mentioned Freej most people can’t think of anything else. The industry here needs a dozen different programmes like Freej if it is to grow. There has to be a dramatic shift from a buying industry to a producing one and the sooner the better.

Not that I’m saying the technology doesn’t have its place because obviously it does. Without the infrastructure, the industry could falter.

And, the beauty of the market here in the Middle East is that new technology can be installed far easier than elsewhere where people prefer to upgrade rather than replace.

But we don’t want to end up with the region looking like they have all the latest gear but fewer ideas on what to do with it. That’s why the developments in technology have to be matched by advances in the creation of Arabic content.

It’s a bit like that movie Field of Dreams when Kevin Costner’s character builds a professional baseball ground in his wheat field. In a dream he hears the command, ‘build it and they will come’ and sure enough the ghosts of some of the best, but disgraced players from history turn up to play.

There’s no doubt an ‘industry of dreams’ could be created here – there’s plenty of cash – but who will come out to play when the glistening media palaces are built? To return to an earlier allusion, when the delivery drivers are ready to roll, who will be making the bread?

Eric Macinnes is a TV pro with more than two decades experience in the field. He is the faculty head for the Thomson Foundation at twofour54 tadreeb, Abu Dhabi.

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