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

  • 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.”


Local newspapers are facing their own coronavirus crisis

A man reads a full-page advertisment on the backpage of a newspaper, in Ripon, England on March 25, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 04 April 2020

Local newspapers are facing their own coronavirus crisis

  • More than 2,100 cities and towns have lost a paper in the past 15 years, mostly weeklies, and newsroom employment has shrunk by half since 2004

NEW YORK: Just when Americans need it most, a US newspaper industry already under stress is facing an unprecedented new challenge.
Readers desperate for information are more reliant than ever on local media as the coronavirus spreads across the US They want to know about cases in their area, where testing centers are, what the economic impact is. Papers say online traffic and subscriptions have risen — the latter even when they’ve lowered paywalls for pandemic-related stories.
But newspapers and other publications are under pressure as advertising craters. They are cutting jobs, staff hours and pay, dropping print editions — and in some cases shutting down entirely.
Circulation and web traffic are up at the Sun Chronicle, a daily in Attleboro, Massachusetts, as it scrambles to cover the coronavirus pandemic. It’s “all we do,” said Craig Borges, executive editor and general manager. But with many local restaurants, gyms, colleges and other businesses closed, the paper has laid off a handful of sales and mailroom employees and a political reporter. It has about a dozen newsroom employees left.
“Hopefully we can work this out and make it through,” Borges said.
Researchers have long worried that the next recession — which economists say is already upon us — “could be an extinction-level event for newspapers,” said Penelope Abernathy, a University of North Carolina professor who studies the news industry.
More than 2,100 cities and towns have lost a paper in the past 15 years, mostly weeklies, and newsroom employment has shrunk by half since 2004. Many publications struggled as consumers turned to the Internet for news, battered by the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and the rise of giants like Google and Facebook that dominated the market for digital ads.
More recently, big national newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal have diversified revenue by adding millions of digital subscribers. Many others, however, remain heavily dependent on advertising.
Twenty global news publishers recently surveyed by the International News Media Association expect a median 23% decline in 2020 ad sales. In the US, newspaper ad revenues have dropped 20% to 30% in the last few weeks compared with a year ago, FTI Consulting’s Ken Harding wrote in another INMA report.
On Monday, the largest US newspaper chain, Gannett, announced 15-day furloughs and pay cuts for many employees. On Tuesday, another major chain, Lee Enterprises, also announced salary reductions and furloughs. The Tampa Bay Times, owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute, cut five days of its print edition and announced furloughs for non-newsroom staff.
Further down the food chain, many smaller publishers — particularly local alt-weeklies with a heavy focus on dining, arts and entertainment — are making even harder decisions.
In rural Nevada, Battle Born Media is scaling back or ceasing publication of six rural weekly newspapers. The Reno News & Review, an alternative weekly, suspended operations and laid off all staffers. C&G Newspapers, which publishes 19 weekly newspapers near Detroit, suspended print publication. Alternative paper Pittsburgh Current went online-only.
Report for America, which subsidizes journalists in local newsrooms and at The Associated Press, says some of its local-media partners report such deteriorating finances that they may not be able to pay their half of these reporters’ salaries.
In suburban St. Louis last week, businesses were calling and canceling ads as fast as editor Don Corrigan and his staff could write articles to fill the empty space left behind. A local hospital wanted to run a full-page ad offering tips to fight the virus in the three community weeklies he runs — but wanted it for free. A softhearted Corrigan agreed.
He announced this week that the Webster-Kirkwood Times, South County Time and West End World will stop publishing, although he’s keeping the website running. “I don’t think people realize how much it costs to put out a newspaper,” he said, noting that some readers are belatedly suggesting a GoFundMe page or a paywall for the web site.
A $2.2 trillion relief act signed Friday by President Donald Trump could provide loans or grants to smaller local publishers who maintain their payrolls. Industry executives are also discussing future government bailout requests that would preserve the independence of news organizations, two newspaper-industry trade groups wrote in a Monday letter to Trump and congressional leaders.
One proposal under discussion would recommend creating a federal fund to pay for government newspaper ads that offer health advice. Another possibility might be to offer people tax credits for subscriptions.
The Shepherd Express newspaper, which took its name from an Allen Ginsberg poem, has for 38 years told residents of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, about up-and-coming musicians, hot restaurants, crooked politicians and where to find hemp-related products. Last week, it suspended publication and laid off staff.
Editor, publisher and owner Louis Fortis is keeping the website operating and promises to resume printing at some point, in some form. Yet he’s feeling the same uncertainty as millions of other Americans. “I’m very disappointed,” he said. “On the other hand, you have to look at the big picture. People are dying.”