Reality-based entertainment shows such as Arabs Got Talent continue to be the most popular programmes during peak viewing hours, with last year’s final of Arab Idol the biggest single TV moment of last year. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: There is not an evening that passes when the region’s broadcasters do not try to win over the eyes and TV remotes of Arab viewers, an audience that is estimated at a potential 380 million.

The free-to-air Arabic channels led by a dominant MBC have had a stranglehold on this viewership base, and which have made them firm favourites with advertisers.

Now, the region’s pay-TV broadcaster, OSN, is trying to rewrite the script and carve up a sizeable following for itself. Over the last year and more, OSN has been working on a concerted strategy to have first telecast rights to content as well as take the producer’s role in creating dedicated programming for its channel. By the look of it, the move is paying off.

“It’s not cast in stone that since Arabic free-to-air channels have massive viewership, all content will automatically go to them,” said Khulud Abu Humus, senior vice-president of programming and creative services at OSN. “Selling or creating content to a pay-TV broadcaster adds to the revenue generation options for the creator/distributor.

“It also creates advantages for our viewers. For our dedicated Arabic channels, we make sure that we offer distributors an exclusive telecast window ahead of a content’s release to free-to-air platforms. It means our viewers will have first viewership access in the region, which is what we already do with our Hollywood content.

“That all of the content is being delivered to viewers on Full HD is another compelling reason why a pay-TV service provider can expect to make a mark.”

So, what is the Arab viewer watching these days? Reality-based entertainment continues to be the flavour of peak viewing hours and TRPs (television rating points). “The final of Arab Idol was the biggest single TV moment of the year, with nearly one in three Arabs watching at the peak,” said Christopher O’Hearn, general manager at tview, a Dubai Media City-based firm. “After that there’s Arab’s Got Talent, The Voice also does well, and last year the final of the Gulf Cup — where the UAE defeated Iraq — was a massive draw. TV series are still doing well — Fatma was the most popular in 2013 and Harem Al Soltan had very big audiences too.”

While MBC and its many channels command a sizeable share of the attention — as well as ad dollars — the Arab viewer is courted by a veritable multitude of competing broadcasters. But attention spans are such that only a handful of them are able to build up committed viewer numbers.

“In the UAE there is still concentration on a relatively small number of channels — MBC, Abu Dhabi Media, Dubai Media and Rotana capture the lion’s share of viewing, with perhaps some of the Egyptian channels as well,” said O’Hearn. “This is just human nature — studies have shown even where there is a massive amount of channel choice available, viewers tend to default to a small number or regular favourites, usually at the top of a programme guide.

“Having said that, we also see that viewers watch content, not channels. They will hop from channel to channel in search of the programmes they like regardless of what channel it is on — the trick for a channel though is to gain that awareness among the viewers so that they find the programme.”

O’Hearn’s point about content trumping other considerations does strike a note. OSN, on its part, is not just making sure it has first rights on popular programming, but actually producing them.

What this does is give it a growing library of owned content — primarily localised and emotion-packed dramas — that it can use to develop a following among its subscriber base and gain new ones.

“We have been involved with a few Arab dramas developed exclusively for us in the last two years and there’s more in the pipeline,” said Abu Humus. “Most of these have been sourced to TV production companies in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.”