Saudi Arabia launches new TV channel targeting youth market

The new channel, SBC, is intended to be the entertainment flagship for the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation.
Thursday 24/05/2018
Fahad Shlayel, Director General of the Production and Programms (R) talks to an employee at the studio of the new channel Saudi Broadcasting Corporation "SBC" in Riyadh, on April 24. (AFP)
Fahad Shlayel, Director General of the Production and Programms (R) talks to an employee at the studio of the new channel Saudi Broadcasting Corporation "SBC" in Riyadh, on April 24. (AFP)

LONDON - Saudi Arabia has launched a new public TV channel targeting the kingdom’s large youth demographic in line with its drive for modernisation efforts.

The new channel, SBC, is intended to be the entertainment flagship for the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation, the government body that operates most of the kingdom’s broadcasting channels. It will broadcast exclusive content, including films, talk shows and cooking programmes, featuring top Saudi and Arab stars.

“This is a general channel that’s seeking to attract the new generation of Saudis,” the station’s director, Dawood Al-Shirian, told Agence France-Presse.

“Most of the content, about 75 percent, is geared toward the youth between 15 and 35 years old,” and would “complement the changes seen in the kingdom in the artistic, cultural and entertainment spheres,” he added.

Shirian, 63, is a former talk show host whose programme focused on social issues in the kingdom. Known for his bold interview tactics and live criticism of officials, Shirian is not just a respected broadcaster but a household name in Saudi Arabia.

Shirian was recruited last year from the MBC Corporation to head the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation, with the SBC channel one of his first projects.

SBC said in a statement that its programming aimed to “keep pace with the spirit of development and renewal launched by the kingdom’s Vision 2030… to promote the spirit of openness… and reject extremist thought.”

“Our goal is to have a very strong launch,” said production and programming director Fahad Shalil, adding that the venture “will compete with the top channels.”

Saudi Arabia is undertaking a major reform drive, spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s Vision 2030 programme, designed to wean the kingdom off its economic dependency on the energy sector and diversify the economy.

A significant component of the kingdom’s reform drive has been the creation of a domestic entertainment industry that gives Saudis, and youth in particular, more recreational options and jobs.

Less than a year since the reform drive’s launch, the kingdom began scheduling live concerts, lifted a 35-year ban on movie theatres and allowed women to join male counterparts at sporting events. There have also been two popular comic-con events.

Many Saudi consumers still spend money on entertainment overseas, however, and part of SBC’s mission is bringing that market back home.

“As it stands, 90 percent of these budgets are going outside Saudi Arabia, and this channel’s mission is to repatriate that money, along with (skilled) young Saudis,” Shirian told Agence France-Presse.

SBC, which is entering the market during the competitive and congested Ramadan TV season, has its work cut out for it. Shirian will compete with established market players such as Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s Rotana channel and Shirian’s former employer MBC.

“We aim to be at the front of the pack from the first day,” said Shirian. “We are not afraid of the weight of competitors and we will overtake them quickly.”

The channel’s schedule for the Ramadan season includes mostly Saudi and Arab series, with one featuring Egyptian comedic legend Adel Imam.

According to the Jeddah-based Saudi Gazette, SBC will also present several exclusive Arabic soap serials, including “Ladayna aqwaal ukhra” starring the actress Yusra, the serial “Bihajm al-aili” featuring Yahya Al-Fakhrani and “Ikhtifaa” serial with actress Nelly Kareem.

The focus on Arabic programming is no accident, as the kingdom recently banned the broadcasting of popular Turkish soap operas, which were a staple on the MBC network, over regional political rifts.

“We will try to replace Turkish soaps with premium-quality Arabic dramas that embody the values and traditions of the region,” MBC spokesman Mazen Hayek said at the time.