People in the Middle East watch a lot of TV. Over 400 million Arabs of all ages spend an average of 19 hours per week watching scripted Arabic-language series. MENA broadcasters traditionally have catered to a single demographic that watches dramas, at the expense of the region’s massive youth population. That disregard is about to change and Arab storytelling is about to explode.
Earlier this year, Netflix announced its first Arabic-language production. While services like Starz Play and iFlix have captured an audience by streaming foreign content to the Middle East, Netflix is the first to make an investment in local storytellers. Production began in Jordan this August on Jinn, a teenage supernatural drama featuring young and upcoming Arab talent, both in front of and behind the camera.
Young people in the region will finally see themselves onscreen, and writers and directors will have the freedom to create content grounded in their authentic experiences.This summer, leading Arab TV writers, producers, and network execs took part in a program at the University of Southern California. They conducted more than 50 interviews with Hollywood writers about the state of Arabic TV in a program designed to train a new generation of Middle East storytellers.
Thanks to the rise of video on demand services, Middle East TV writers now have access to platforms that know how to profit from telling character-driven, complex stories, including those that engage the region’s social issues such as youth alienation, women’s empowerment. Stories that shine a light on important social issues and spark social change are ready to be told.
While YouTube’s popularity in the region is growing at a seemingly unstoppable pace, the launch of a YouTube Space in Dubai is a clear signal that it intends to hold on to its share and grow it even further – in this region and beyond. A new focus on premium content creation is a clear signal that it recognises the fight ahead to retain audience engagement.
In addition to its standard AVOD model, YouTube is developing a subscription revenue streams that it hopes to grow. YouTube Premium (formerly YouTube Red) is a particular focus. The subscription service, which costs $12 USD per month, is currently available in 17 countries. That doesn’t include the Middle East, though Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s global chief business officer, says there are plans to bring it here before the year-end.
Speaking this month at a panel session hosted at the Edinburgh TV Festival, YouTube head of originals EMEA Luke Hyams confirmed that the YouTube Premium service will debut “dozens of original shows” throughout 2019. Hyams is looking for unscripted titles that are celeb driven, “buzzy” and pop-culture driven saying, “We are looking for things that can only exist on YouTube.”
Hyams also said they will be seeking out content that creates social impact and brings focus on world issues. According to Hyams, the Premium content cannot be the same as the free offering, and he will look to try out new formats and see what works best to hook audiences into paying for content.
The content production arms race is going global and the Middle East is a big battleground. Multiple networks are ready to commission a greater number of productions in formats that don’t currently air on TV. It’s now up to the region’s storytellers and creative talent to respond with new stories featuring relatable onscreen Arab characters. The long term impact of outside investment will result in a tranformed regional production market.
Pranav Vadehra is Editor of Digital Studio Middle East