Arab television industry growing steadily
By Kate Bulkley
For The Guardian October 16, 2013
UAE's young demographic means the demand for locally-made television is strong and the government-backed media zone Twofour54 is growing
Egypt has long had an impressive film industry, and Lebanon and Syria have reputations for popular local TV series and entertainment shows, but if you wondered if the extent of creativity and innovation stopped there, then let me present Mohamed Parham al Awadhi and his younger brother Peyman.
These two 30-somethings from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have created a local hit TV series that began as a social media dare, morphed into a YouTube series and has garnered 250,000 followers from around the world on Google+. The series, called Peeta Planet, became the third most viewed, locally-made production on broadcaster Dubai One this spring and has already been commissioned for a second series. The next step is selling the show internationally.
The brothers' journey is a story that includes both a very creative use of social media and important financial and production help from Twofour54, a media campus created five years ago in Abu Dhabi to attract international media companies and to nurture the development of local media skills and talent.
Peeta Planet uses a social media following originally built up by the brothers to design a better shawarma shop, another of their ventures, Wild Peetha. A social media influenced holiday morphed into an online travel show with the brothers taking advice from their audience about what to do and where to go, and along the way they have broken down some of the stereotypes about what a traditionally dressed Arab man is like.
The next step for the brothers was turning the online show into a full-blown TV series, which happened this year. "TwoFour54 gave us the money to make our first TV pilot and they have also have given us a lot of support and advice," says Mohamed Parham al Awadhi. "They have taken an active role in helping us become a production company."
The Middle East is not known for creating international-standard TV productions, but the region's attractive young demographics, high mobile penetration and some savvy government investments are starting to have a positive impact. "Broadcasters here are used to buying content internationally because the quality of local production was not on a par, but that is starting to change," explains Parham al Awadhi.
Five years since opening its doors, TwoFour54 now has 240 companies employing about 3,000 people. "We had the state broadcaster and several other entities but as an independent industry, media didn't really exist here five years ago," says Wayne Borg, chief commercial officer of TwoFour54. "It's been a real proof of concept that we have been able to attract both big international players as well as smaller startups."
One reason that Abu Dhabi is growing as a hub is because of the disruptions in countries like Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. "It's a safe haven in an uncertain region where people can come and make programmes and focus on that and not be worrying about political instability," says Jonney Steven, head of Middle East and North Africa for Twofour Arabia, a wholly-owned subsidiary of UK indie Twofour Group and the first UK independent producer to set up a permanent office in the UAE. "They want to work with people who understand the region and have a local presence. To win business here now you have to have a local presence.
The oil-rich UAE has been keen to develop other business areas and media seemed like a good bet given the fact that 60% of the population in Arabic speaking countries is under the age of 25 years old – an attractive demographic for advertisers and media companies. Mobile phone and tablet penetration in the Arab world is also well over 200% for target age groups.
It's one of the reasons why French games maker Ubisoft, the creator of global franchises like Assassin's Creed, opened a production office at Twofour54 a year ago to work both on the Arab versions of its franchises as well as to create new games. Now with 30 people on staff, about 10 of whom are Arab, Ubisoft has ambitions to nearly double its head count in the next 12 months. "I had to start by importing people from outside this region because the level of expertise we need is not here yet," says Yannick Theler, the head of the local office of Ubisoft.
The idea behind the Twofour54 campus is to provide a place where Emeratis and other Arabs can come and learn about media creation through courses and internships, all with the prospect of a local job at the end. Theler is taking advantage of a game design course created by Twofour54, last month offering internships to 10 graduates of the most recent course. "We know we need to have different expertise to be successful in this region and so by being part of the Twofour54 media hub we are close to other media companies and a media culture that we can take advantage of to grow," he said.
At a TV industry lunch earlier this month, the CEO of Twofour54 Noura al Kaabi underlined how serious the UAE is about developing a local media hub, outlining a new 30% rebate on any media service performed in the UAE, including post production. "We don't have Bollywood or Hollywood but we have superstars on YouTube and the local dynamic is driven by young people as well as from the regulations and financial structures we have put in place," she said.
As to freedom of expression, al Kaabi had this to say: "There are certain cultural rules, for example we don't allow R-rated films and in terms of religion we don't want any conflict. We think it is better to keep politics and religion away from media so we can have a creative environment where you can express your ideas with respect."
The next five years promises more growth, with Twofour54 already planning four new studios to be opening by second quarter of 2014. "As the demand dictates, we'll look to expand accordingly," said Twofour54's Borg.