Spies, serial killers and secret marriages: MBC takes on Netflix

Special Spies, serial killers and secret marriages: MBC takes on Netflix
“The Red Prince” is a Shahid original production, a drama about the lives of the most prominent figures of the Palestinian cause in the Seventies. (Supplied)
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Updated 17 February 2020

Spies, serial killers and secret marriages: MBC takes on Netflix

Spies, serial killers and secret marriages: MBC takes on Netflix
  • Region’s biggest broadcaster fights for stake in one of world’s most youthful and affluent television markets

DUBAI: The controversial subject of secret marriages in Saudi Arabia will be the theme of MBC’s next big original production due to air in spring.

It highlights the shift in program style at the broadcaster as it comes into closer competition with global players such as Netflix and Amazon — both now producing drama with not only regional themes but also in the Arabic language.

At stake for both is the hearts and minds of one of the world’s most youthful and affluent television audiences — an advertising prize and as close as it comes to virgin territory for the rampaging global video-on-demand (VOD) market.

“Dahaya Halal” (Halal victims) is a Saudi series that tells the story of four girls who live together and are forced to marry in secret, said Johannes Larcher, who was hired to run MBC’s Shahid VOD service last year.

“It’s about loopholes to enable behaviors that are in the grey area of permissibility in Saudi Arabia,” said Larcher, who sees productions like this as a big part of MBC’s push to win the loyalty of the region’s youthful audience.  “We look for character-led, edgy, provocative and unique stories that really speak to current Arabs, especially younger audiences. We look for gritty characters that are multi-dimensional,” he said.

Taking on the unrivaled punching power of video-on-demand titan Netflix represents a daunting task — even for the biggest broadcasting outfit in the Arab world.

While Netflix walked away with only two Oscars from 24 nominations last week, its home- grown productions are becoming more prolific and it has started to pick up on the interest of Western audiences in the Middle East.

Last week it bought the rights to stream six short films produced in Saudi Arabia in a deal with a startup studio based in the Kingdom. The topics tackled include social taboos and extremism.

Netflix has also scored with bigger budget dramas that tap into the interest of the global TV audience in espionage and intrigue arising from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Among these is “The Spy,” a drama starring Sacha Baron Cohen of Ali G fame, playing Israel’s most famous spy, Eli Cohen, who after infliltrating the Syrian government in the 1960s was caught and executed.

That production received mixed reviews with some Arab critics dismissing it as Israeli propaganda. In Israel, Haaretz described it as “a one-sided story about a heroic Israeli spy thwarting dastardly Arabs.” 

Yet it succeeded in getting people talking and showed that the big themes of the Middle East have legs as a format for popular drama aimed at a global audience. And MBC has been quietly working on its own drama, “The Red Prince,” which covers prominent figures from the Palestinian cause in the 1970s, including Ali Hassan Salameh who was chief of operations for the “Black September” group responsible for the 1972 Munich massacre. 

“We want to tell the Arab story,” Larcher said. “If you watch “The Spy,” it’s clearly the story told from the Israeli standpoint.”

Larcher sees the broadcaster’s current crop of original content as being in a very different category to what Arab audiences have been offered until now and which he likens to a “factory” producing 30-episode shows targeting the peak viewing month of Ramadan. “There’s such a hunger for better content in this region,” he said. “If you look at some of the shows we have launched, like “Every Week Has A Friday,” I have never seen anything like this in this region in terms of the quality of execution, the directing, the acting and the script.” 

In this original Shahid production, written by Eyad Ibrahim and directed by Mohamad Shaker, the central character Laila lives with a man suffering from a mental disorder in a house where a series of crimes take place on Fridays.

“We are trying to develop distinctive content that has an extremely high-quality bar and really tells stories in a very different way to what you would expect on Arabic television,” Larcher said.

But can an Arab broadcaster with a much more conservative approach to content creation compete for a youthful audience already exposed to the kind of sex and violence shown on blockbuster productions such as “Game of Thrones”?

This may represent the major challenge for MBC and other Arab broadcasters seeking to push the envelope of homegrown Arab television drama. “What we are able to do at MBC, and I believe uniquely so, is tackle topics of controversy and relevance in a way that is suitable for this region,” Larcher said. “The proof will be in the pudding.”