Streaming platforms stepping into Arab TV channels’ turf

Using alternative online platforms seems to be an ideal solution for Arab audiences, drama-makers, writers, directors and producers who may otherwise be rejected or censored because of political pressure or social norms.
Tuesday 06/10/2020
Egyptain actress Mena Chalabi is the heroine of the series “Fi kol Osbou’ mara”. (Shahid.net)
Egyptain actress Mena Chalabi is the heroine of the series “Fi kol Osbou’ mara”. (Shahid.net)

LONDON – For years, Arab drama series have been limited by the conditions imposed by television channels and stations that are beholden to advertisers or sponsors, especially during Ramadan, when annual drama seasons are often released.

The strict conditions have frustrated scriptwriters, directors and producers, and pushed viewers to search for alternative platforms where they can watch series they like without ads whenever they want.

Online platforms were a temporary solution, relaying series a few hours after they aired on TV without any commercials, but were frequently blocked in the region.

The Egyptain series “Fi kol Osbou’ mara” aired on the Shahid VIP platform. (Shahid.net)
The Egyptain series “Fi kol Osbou’ mara” aired on the Shahid VIP platform. (Shahid.net)

The problem drove some Arab satellite channels to create their own broadcast platforms that replay their content in a free, digital format before transitioning to paid services.

MBC Group, for example, created streaming platforms Shahid.net, Shahid VIP and Shahid plus. Not only do these platforms showcase content of MBC Group channels, they also direct and produce exclusive works.

MBC was not the first to create such online platforms, as it followed in the footsteps of American company Netflix. But the US streaming network was not available in the Arab world until 2016 and at first had little Arabic language content. In a recent move to bring in more Arab subscribers, Netflix added an Arabic language translation tool and has begun featuring content translated into Arabic and even producing exclusive Arab series.

Using alternative online platforms seems to be an ideal solution for Arab audiences, drama-makers, writers, directors and producers who may otherwise be rejected or censored because of political pressure or social norms.

“Al Manassa” is among Neflix’s most-watched Arab series. (netflix)
“Al Manassa” is among Neflix’s most-watched Arab series. (netflix)

The series “Fi kol Osbou’ mara” (Every Week on, a Friday), which aired at the beginning of the year on the Shahid VIP platform, is an example of a new digital-only series. The ten-episode Egyptian soap opera was written by scriptwriter Iyad Ibrahim along with Samar Abdel Nasser and Mouhammad Hisham Obaya, starring Mena Shalabi, Asir Yaseen and Sawsan Badr.

Ibrahim said they chose to go the online platform route because “such platforms allow a large area of daring compared to traditional satellite channels.”

“This new media evolved day after day,” he added. The platforms are available in all parts of the world. These platforms during the next few years will be the main medium for the public, and with it television channels and the traditional broadcasting system will disappear.”

Scriptwriter Hawzan Akko
Scriptwriter Hawzan Akko

Among Neflix’s most-watched Arab series is “Al Manassa,” written by Syrian scriptwriter Hozan Akko and directed by German Rodrigo Kirchner. Through 12 episodes, Akko tackles topics such as the impact of technology on the control of information. He used the  story of a Syrian family that cooperates with terrorist groups in Syria as a way to address issues that concern many people all over the world.

However, the series faces two major challenges. First, while its content is exciting and attractive to many youth, it alienates other viewers. Second, it is not yet available to many viewers, including in Syria.

“Today we need to change the types of content, by presenting new ideas in terms of the structure of the story, characters and even the way of presentation, and to test the taste of the audience towards it,” Akko said.

Scriptwriter Iyad Ibrahim
Scriptwriter Iyad Ibrahim

“Despite the presence of audiences accustomed to traditional works who do not easily accept new ideas, the reactions that we have received so far about the work have been good,” he added. “As for the limited broadcast through Netflix, the simultaneous display of the series on Abu Dhabi tv channel solved this problem and allowed many to follow it, especially in Syria.”

It is clear that future series will increasingly be written and produced on the digital market. But whether audiences will be pushed to subscribe to these new digital channels or satellite channels will step in and create a solution remains to be seen.