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In the streaming age, the TV stays on after Ramadan

Man watching tv and eating popcorn at home on a couch, back view Dean Robot/Shutterstock
Streaming services are changing the nature of television, especially in Arab countries
  • Producers point to ‘breakout from Ramadan’
  • 70% of Arab TV viewers under 35
  • Industry can target longer seasons

YouTube creators and streaming services are changing the face of television all over the world – but particularly in Arab countries, according to executives who attended the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah this month.

The entertainment industry in the Middle East traditionally focused on the fasting month, when TV shows could find a captive audience. But now there is a “breakout from Ramadan”, said Abdulrahman Khawj, CEO of Saudi financer and distributor Kawkab Pictures. 

“Ramadan is still big, it’s the premium time for advertisers. But with the arrival of the streamers, producers now have a chance to produce off-season, outside of Ramadan,” he said. 

Soap operas produced by state-owned outlets in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria usually dominate viewing, but streaming services, including shows that began as independent projects on YouTube, have risen to the top. 

Khawj pointed to the Egypt-produced The Giza Killer, which began streaming this year on Saudi-owned MBC’s Shahid channel, and the Jordan-produced AlRawabi School for Girls, picked up by Netflix in 2021, as the region’s top dramas. 

Saudi Arabia is the most active Arab audience online and the most lucrative pan-Arab audience for advertisers. The pollster Ipsos found in 2020 that 53 percent of Saudis said they would watch more TV on streaming services than traditional TV channels.

Some streamers, such as Egypt’s Watch It, are focusing on a purely national audience. 

Breaking out of Ramadan means producers are now looking at both short-term dramas of around a dozen episodes and dramas that stretch much longer than a Ramadan season, similar to the Korean, Latin American and Turkish soaps that remain popular.

Young audience

“The audience in the Middle East is 70 percent below 35 years of age. So what has worked over the last 30 years in terms of entertainment is not going to work and all the streamers and channels are figuring out how to cater to this new audience,” Khawj said. 

Industry experts speaking at a panel on December 3 said that globally, streaming was bringing to an end a golden age for TV drama dominated by big-budget US shows. 

Jennifer Chen, head of studios at Channel Zero Studios in Canada, said there was more scope for unscripted shows emerging independently from the world of social media, as well as niche content that appeals to specific audiences. 

“You’re looking at a business that needs to reduce its expenses while keeping their audience. The big premium scripted shows are still going to be there, but fewer of them, and it opens the door to quality unscripted content,” she said. 

Diego Ramirez Schrempp, executive producer of Netflix’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, currently in pre-production, predicted consolidation among many Latin American streaming platforms. 

“I don’t know about North America, but I feel some of the streamers don’t even know what their strategy is in terms of content.”

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