Interview with Darine El Khatib

Darine El Khatib, Senior Director -Creative Strategy & Brand Development - MENA & Turkey at Turner Broadcasting System discusses trends in children's programming, localisation of content and using immersive technology in media.
Darine El Khatib Senior Director -Creative Strategy & Brand Development - MENA & Turkey at Turner Broadcasting System
Darine El Khatib Senior Director -Creative Strategy & Brand Development - MENA & Turkey at Turner Broadcasting System

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Digital Studio: What are the biggest trends in children’s entertainment? Which areas do you see the biggest growth happening in the Middle East?

The trend for online and mobile viewing looks set to continue across the Middle East and this too is a great opportunity to be more flexible in our approach to content. We have some great examples of content that has launched first as an app or a game, before we introduce the series on our linear channel.

Another key trend that Turner is embracing is user generated content. We actively encourage children to be experimental and explore their creative sides to develop their own content, and we’re giving them the tools to learn how to do that. We will be devising a number of ways to enable them to actively participate in Cartoon Network programming across all our platforms.

DS: Which formats do you see having the most potential in the ME?

We believe that there remains fantastic potential in rejuvenating older entertainment mediums, if tackled in the right way. One example of this is live action programming, which has experienced a revival in recent years. Last November we launched Ben 10 Challenge.  This high-octane, live-action game show, provided children of the Middle East with a once-in- a-lifetime opportunity to become their favorite boy hero, Ben 10, whilst enabling audiences at home to immerse themselves in the world of the iconic cartoon character. With new production techniques being pioneered all of the time, this genre, which has existed for decades, is being tackled in a way that has never been seen before with augmented reality and thrilling special effects being utilized to immerse and engage with youngsters in exciting new ways.

DS: What is your approach to keeping up with children’s changing viewing habits?

We are constantly exploring new ways to engage with our fans and provide them with innovative content that will enable them to immerse themselves with their favorite characters on deeper levels than ever before. We pride ourselves on knowing our kid audiences really well – from their favorite shows and characters, to their preferred platforms. These insights help us to ensure that we continue to tailor our content to suit the ever-evolving needs of the industry, but most of all - our fans. Having said that, I believe that people are still a little too hasty to dismiss traditional television.  Watching television together as a family is still a cornerstone of children’s entertainment viewing and one of the most important mediums for discovery, despite there being a growing array of platforms to choose from. Thus, it is important for us at Turner to continue to produce great TV shows for our leading channels in the region!

DS: How does Turner approach localization of content?

It is extremely important for us to localize our content so that it resonates with the children of the region in terms of language and culture. We are always looking for ways to tailor our existing programming to add further relevance and meaning to children in the Arab World. A recent example of this was the five-part special “The Powerpuff Girls: The Power of Four” that was launched on Cartoon Network Arabic in November 2017.

The Powerpuff Girls, originally launched in the U.S. in 1998, has long been one of the Cartoon Network’s most popular animated brands. However, with the launch of the five-part special, we wanted to add a new, local dimensions to bring local children closer to the characters – and so we enlisted Lebanese superstar Nancy Ajram to voice the new Powerpuff girl, Bliss. Nancy’s popularity, reach and brand perfectly complemented the character and ensured that new audiences were introduced to the show and the channel.

We also create content locally that is relevant and reflective of our local audience – our hugely popular series, Mansour – about an Emirati boy with big hopes and dreams – is a great example of this.

DS: How important is original content vs. licensed content. What are your plans for introducing more original Arabic content in the next few years?

One of our key objectives is to develop and produce content that speaks directly to our audiences here in the region and we are committed to continuing to invest in the Middle East, support local talent and create world-class content that can eventually be exported to other regions. We are not just considering traditional platforms but are also looking at new ways to engage and interact with our fans. We are constantly exploring new ways to diversify the conversations around our brand and expand our focus beyond children’s television and animation to create quality original content that resonates with local audiences and showcases the great acting, storytelling and production capabilities that we have in this region.

This year we will be bringing Shakir the King to the MENA region. The popular program which is locally produced in Turkey will be adapted and voiced into regional dialects so that the characters resonate with children across the Middle East. This also further highlights our commitment to localizing international content to make it more meaningful to children across MENA, in addition to producing local content.

 
DS: Will immersive technologies like AR/VR create a new market or complement the current content?
 
We believe that augmented and virtual reality, if used correctly, can add new dimensions and layers to how children engage and interact with our brands. We are always exploring new ways to integrate innovative technology into our offering, to enable our young fans to experience their favorite cartoon characters in ways that were not possible a decade ago. At Turner, we are focused on ensuring that such technologies can greatly enhance the experience of our fans. We have been at the forefront of testing these technologies and recently featured several augmented reality experiences at our booth at the Kids in Motion Expo in Saudi Arabia. We were delighted at the positive reactions and feedback from the children who tried out the technology.

DS: Do media houses need to invest in more physical/offline entertainment experiences to increase engagement? What is the best way to maximize ROI on these investments?

We believe in adopting a holistic approach to children’s entertainment experiences and finding important synergies between all online and offline functions to ensure that each platform and product is utilized to best serve the needs of our audiences and increase engagement. In our industry integration is key and we believe that the most effective way to bring CN’s much loved characters to life is by breaking down silos and looking at how we can best leverage the strengths of creative, programming and marketing as one team. Ultimately our key objective is to add depth and meaning to our viewers’ interactions with Cartoon Network’s characters and enable them to experience the characters in innovative ways and wherever they are – whether watching TV, playing a game, or visiting a theme park. This is how we put our fans in the center.


DS: What can Arabic production houses and content creators do to create hit shows? What are the main ingredients needed for developing Arabic children’s entertainment that succeeds?

We have a number of fantastic talent in this region, from creative writers to exceptional producers and everything in between. We believe that the key to success is to create compelling content that children can relate to with characters that have depth, humor and substance. The beauty of animation is that the same ingredients that make for excellent programming in one country are generally the same that ensure success in another. Loveable characters, fun comedy and exciting storylines are universal for kids. That said, it is extremely important to look at ways to localize content to celebrate the rich culture and language of the region and to create programs that resonate directly with local children. Turner is a firm supporter in the belief that it’s important to empower Arabic content creators and we are always looking for ways to curate and tailor content specifically for Arabic children whilst celebrating local talent.
      

DS: We have seen the rise of Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and other OTT video services that don't require a cable TV subscription. Does children's growing interest in these services influence the demand for pay-TV?

We believe that competition in the industry is what drives us all to continue to innovate with new products and services - and this can only be a good thing for our viewers and for the advancement of our industry in the region. These new platforms are competition but they are also opportunities to grow the awareness of our brands, and we are always looking for new ways to utilize new platforms and seek meaningful collaborations to further enhance our offering on paid and free platforms

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