Top of their game

Digital Broadcast recently caught up with Endemol Middle East's Ziad Kebbi and Dany Karam to discuss the television giant's first foray into locally produced programming and its wider ambitions in the region.
Interviews, Delivery & Transmission
Interviews, Delivery & Transmission

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Digital Broadcast recently caught up with Endemol Middle East's Ziad Kebbi and Dany Karam to discuss the television giant's first foray into locally produced programming and its wider ambitions in the region.

Endemol is best known internationally for producing reality series including Big Brother, 1 versus 100 and Fear Factor. Regardless of whether these shows represent must-see-TV for you personally, it is impossible to argue with the gains they've made both commercially and with audiences.

Many of these formats have appeared in the Middle East as licensed formats produced by local companies, largely based in Lebanon. This month, however, the company's regional arm, based in Dubai and Beirut, will see its first production air on Abu Dhabi TV.

 

"Those operating the delivery networks, whether they be traditional broadcasters or telcos, if they don't have content, they have nothing to sell. - Ziad Kebbi, Managing director, Endemol Middle East."

"It was the first time Ton of Cash had been produced anywhere in the world. That places an immense pressure on us to do it right," says Ziad Kebbi, managing director of Endemol Middle East. "This format was initially created by Endemol UK, it underwent a little development from Endemol USA, however the full development of the show, the mechanics if you like, was the responsibility of Endemol Middle East.

"It was a huge challenge because there was no reference point whatsoever. It was new territory for us and it was very challenging. The scale of the production is very big for the region and it was also shot in two countries, Lebanon and UAE, with every episode taking place in a different location respectively. That meant whenever we finished shooting one episode, we had to move hundreds of people, all their equipment and props, so it was really tough."
 

Kebbi and creative director Dany Karam previously worked together at Elements TV where they produced several licensed Endemol formats for the Middle East including Star Academy and Deal or No Deal.

"Endemol has been selling formats into the region for a number of years and it is one of the most active format owners in the region. Star Academy in particular has been a successful format in the region for a number of years. These have been major hits across the region with different channels," says Kebbi. "The broadcasting sector has been growing in the region and there is more demand for localised programming. The creation of Endemol Middle East comes at a point when the television production industry is in a state of transition. So far it has proven a good move."

The Middle East division of the production giant has around 20 permanent staff based in its Dubai and Beirut offices. This number typically swells "anywhere up to 150" during periods of filming, according to Karam.

"Our fulltime staff are employed in production, administration and financial services roles. We also employ five main producers and some support staff. The bulk are brought in when we are filming but recently we have been involved in so many productions that our freelancers seem more like permanent employees," he says.

"The growth that we have witnessed in the industry as a whole is also reflected by the rapid changes within our own organisation. We launched our regional operations from our office in Dubai and then almost immediately we opened an office in Beirut and we are now in the process of opening another in Cairo. Sooner or later I suspect we will have to open an office in Casablanca."

The pair claims that Ton of Cash marks one of the largest television productions ever attempted in the Middle East, both in terms of budget and production crew.

"We recruited staff from countries including The Netherlands, France and of course Lebanon," says Karam.
 

Karam claims Endemol's presence in the Middle East could result in an increasing number of similarly ambitious projects undertaken in the region.

"The major benefit of operating as part of a larger group, such as Endemol, is that it gives us immediate access to a huge pool of resources," says Kebbi. "If our production team is facing a technical issue we can consult our colleagues based in the US or France for example, to find a solution. We benefit from the collective experience of Endemol's employees based in 25 countries worldwide. This is the real benefit of being part of Endemol."

Karam senses that local production houses may have struggled to produce a production on the same scale of Ton of Cash due to the way that production payments are structured in this region.

 

"A few years ago, every channel that was being broadcast on satellite, wanted to capture the highest ratings possible. Now we are going back to segmented broadcasting. Instead of having one signal for the whole region, broadcasters are keen to offer unique channels catering to certain population bases across the region. - Dany Karam, Creative director, Endemol Middle East."

"I'm not sure they could have achieved this," he claims. "When you do a deal with a local network you typically have to guarantee 20 percent of the total cost of the production.

"So if a project has a budget of US$5 million, you have to guarantee $1 million. Put simply, that means you have to have that much money ready to invest. This is a big handicap for many companies. We also used a lot of sophisticated equipment that many of the local companies simply can't afford."

Kebbi adds that this limits many of their local rivals to producing one show at a time whereas by harnessing Endemol's collective financial resources they can progress with multiple projects simultaneously, pointing out they are currently working on around seven separate programmes.

As production budgets increase, so too will consumer expectations, says Karam. Despite this, he warns local producers should beware being unduly influenced by international trends.

"The last big trend to make an impact across the region was reality TV," he says. However, the situation is more complicated here because some countries are more conservative than others.

"There are also certain markets, such as Egypt, which are relatively self-sufficient in terms of their television production output and consumption."

Karam also feels that these variations in tastes could lead to a change in the way that satellite channels are broadcast across the Middle East.

"A few years ago, every channel that was being broadcast on satellite, wanted to capture the highest ratings possible. Now we are going back to segmented broadcasting. Instead of having one signal for the whole region, broadcasters are keen to offer unique channels catering to certain population bases across the region."

As an example, Karam points out that not only do people in North Africa have different viewing habits than those in the Gulf nations, they are also in a time zone three hours behind. Therefore primetime viewing in Abu Dhabi would be screened during rush hour in Casablanca.

"Some of the main broadcasters have begun time shifting to accommodate the North African market," says Kebbi.

"Arabsat and Nilesat plan to launch additional satellites in the near future and I think we may one day see them offer a feed for the Levant, another for North Africa and one for the Gulf. I am not sure how that would impact their channel roster but it may well give them more freedom to target various population centres."
 

As well as providing more focused content to audiences, segregated beams would also facilitate an increase in advertising revenues for FTA channels. A 30 second spot sold to a bank with branches only in Saudi Arabia, could be resold in the Levant and North African regions to companies keen to target those markets specifically.

If producers were asked to tailor content for each of these markets however, then they would be faced with increased costs, although Kebbi says that it would also afford them greater creative freedom.

"If we were producing a game show that was to be broadcast across all three feeds, we could source contestants from each market respectively, although this would impact on the production budget. But it could be viable," points out Kebbi.

 

"While Middle East viewers on the whole have demonstrated that they are willing to embrace these types of [interactive television] services, it still largely depends on their country of origin and the type of programming in question. - Dany Karam, Creative director, Endemol Middle East."

Despite the pan-regional broadcast services operating at present, there are existing examples of networks from different areas that have already begun discussing tailored programming for their respective core audience.

"There is an Endemol format game show, a big budget one that we are working on now. We are talking to broadcasters from two countries which are keen to develop it as a co-production, but the challenge relates to the fact each wants the presenter to be from their own country," explains Karam. "We have come to a solution whereby we will shoot each episode twice with the same contestants, but with a different presenter each time. This way both of the broadcasters feels like they are targeting their own audience."

Kebbi believes it is still too early to tell whether production budgets will rise to meet these scenarios, with no schedule even in place for any potential transmission split.

Addressing censorship concerns also remains a major issue for television producers operating in the Middle East.

"The rules aren't dependent on the country of origin or a specific change in culture, it depends on the broadcaster. MBC is a Saudi network but I wouldn't say it shares the same approach to censorship as the nation," says Karam.

"The major broadcasters in Lebanon are rarely censored and what challenges they do face in this respect relate more to politics than social habits. LBC and Al-Manar are both based in Lebanon but they have their own distinct policies in this regard."

As a television producer, Kebbi explains that this situation requires careful negotiations with each broadcaster to ensure that they work within the limits set.

"We have a lot of experience of knowing what content should be included, in terms of cultural tolerances, and in creating 'clean' programming that will crossover for as many different audiences. That process is required year after year," says Kebbi.

One recurring feature of Endemol formats is the integration of audience participation in programming. SMS and telephone voting has become a regular feature of many primetime entertainment programmes.

The most recent series of American Idol generated 78 million SMS messages in the United States.

"While Middle East television viewers on the whole have demonstrated that they are willing to embrace these types of services, it still largely depends on their country of origin and the type of programming in question," says Karam.
 

Other applications of SMS messaging in TV programmes have suffered a dip in fortunes recently with several high profile programmes in the UK found guilty of abusing regulations regarding phone-in competitions and SMS-based votes and quizzes.

Endemol's Star Academy has been the most successful example of these applications in the Middle East with viewers voting to keep their favourite contestants in the talent competition.

"There is a lot of regulation in places like the UK monitoring these services and many programmes have recently dropped the interactive components of their programmes," says Kebbi. "The Middle East is not restricted by these types of regulations. Despite this, it is very important to create shows that are engaging to the viewers. They are the best judges of whether an interactive component is solely designed to make money or whether it is an integral part of a programme format.

"When the first interactive services were launched in the Arab world the primary reason was to make as much money from the viewers as possible. There were lots of corny competitions offering big prizes, but I don't think consumers really react to those kind of competitions anymore.

What we see more of now, is the text message or the call influencing the outcome of the show and I think viewers will willingly embrace services that directly impact the outcome of a particular programme," claims Kebbi.

While the company sees mobile phones being employed primarily as tools for generating revenue rather than for receiving content, Kebbi says Endemol is not averse to exploring opportunities in the digital domain, particularly online.

"Our digital media department will be responsible for exploring cross-platform opportunities," he says.

"Ton of Cash will be supported by its own dedicated website, which will be designed to offer an extension to the programme. It will be totally different than a website that simply offers information about the show itself. What we have constructed is a distinct online experience which we believe is unique for the region," claims Kebbi.

While Kebbi acknowledges that this type of complementary platform is not something that is expected in the Middle East, Karam believes it will one day be the standard.

"I think the trend has gone that way internationally and eventually it will be the same here. Not for every show, but when you have a reality element, or you are creating tension; basically when the viewer feels like they need to see more than what has just been broadcast. For us, the website enhances the programme itself and ensures maximum impact from the brand," says Karam.

Although Abu Dhabi TV has the exclusive broadcast license for Ton of Cash in the Middle East, the online property will remain the control of Endemol.

"We were collating specific footage for distribution online while we were filming. For example, if two contestants on the show were getting along fine and then they fell out, we might not show the full reasons for this on the TV programme, but instead direct people to the website where they can watch the argument unfold. It is important though not to damage the inherent value of the TV content," stresses Karam.

Endemol also has a dedicated YouTube channel and revenue sharing agreement. An added benefit of this partnership is control over all Endemol property uploaded on the video sharing website.

"We can remove pirated clips of our shows," says Kebbi. "We can release them when we want them to be released. We will control the rights of Ton of Cash online as well as on YouTube."

With content now being chased by new players - especially telcos - and viewers able to choose where and when they watch content, could all this choice dilute the pool of potential viewers for Endemol programming?

"We are content creators, it doesn't matter how this content is being distributed," says Kebbi.

"We have all learned that the media landscape has changed and that new technologies are now available, but for us the delivery platform remains largely irrelevant. At the end of the day the people operating the delivery networks - whether they be traditional broadcasters or telcos - if they don't have content, they have nothing to sell."

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