Talent Shows Keep MBC on Top

MBC’s position as the region’s number one network seems insurmountable thanks in large part to our seemingly insatiable demand for TV talent shows.

By Osama Al Sharif

The MBC network is scoring big with audiences and advertisers thanks to an array of hugely popular TV talent shows like Arab Idol, Arabs Got Talent, The Voice, and Stars of Science. Last year’s Arab Idol final, for example, which was won by 23-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Assaf, was watched by 100 million viewers. No other regional broadcaster comes close to matching these ratings at the moment.

MBC Director General Ali Jaber told Asharq Al Awsat in July 2013, that “we have more experience than others in assessing the changing public desires. The public is like a school of fish; changing its direction for no reason.” More importantly, perhaps, he explained that after the events of the Arab Spring there have been changes in viewers’ choices. “The audience, which had accepted American films and escaped to the cinema, began to prefer public programs that it could effectively participate in.”

The success of live talent programs, costing tens of millions of dollars to produce, comes in the wake of waning public interest in game shows. After a few successful seasons, MBC pulled the plug on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which like Arabs Got Talent, Arab Idol, and The Voice, is a franchise format ported from popular US, British, and Canadian shows. How much MBC pays to produce the Arabic version of these shows isn’t known. But attempts to create purely Arabic shows involving audiences haven’t been very successful. OSN, the Arabic cable giant, is producing and screening Al Musameh Kareem, a talk show where George Kordahi tries to solve real life family dilemmas. Its success with audiences and sponsors is questionable.

There’s doubt that MBC, the Arab world’s first private free-to-air satellite broadcasting company, has cornered the market when it comes to talent shows. In October, the Dubai-based network announced it had bought format rights for The X Factor and Project Runway from Britain’s Freemantle Media for three seasons each.

There’s no doubt that the MBC experiment with international versions of popular reality and talent shows has propelled Arabic broadcasting into the realm of global TV. Until recently this was a virgin territory and without MBC’s enormous success with Arab audiences and sponsors, such a big step would not have happened.

Last year, MBC announced that its MBC1 entertainment channel was the UAE’s most-watched station, while Al Arabiya has been named the country’s top Arabic TV news channel. Earlier this year, Al Arabiya.net said that seven of the UAE’s top 10 television channels of 2013 are broadcast by MBC. It added that MBC’s Arabs Got Talent, The Voice, and Arab Idol were the top three TV shows across all UAE households.

But the group has also managed to create a more educational format for a TV talent show in the form of Stars of Science. Now in its sixth season, the show’s producers say it aims to encourage the Arab world’s next generation of aspiring science and technology innovators. Twelve candidates are challenged to prove their resourcefulness during different stages of the innovation cycle with the support of engineering and design. The jury is comprised of well-known international innovators and scientists.

But all these shows depend heavily on viewer participation. Viewers are asked to call in or send SMS messages to vote for the most talented contestant. In addition to making money from sponsors, the production depends on revenues generated in cooperation with telecommunication companies across the Arab world. It’s safe to say that these programs are extremely profitable.

The Saudi-owned MBC group has no rival in the Arab broadcasting arena. Talent shows set it apart from others, and for now MBC has a complete grip over Arab audiences and sponsors.