'The hope-making business': how MBC changed Arab television in 30 years

The broadcaster is celebrating its milestone with a spate of special programming on September 18

Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf's victory on 'Arab Idol' in 2013 remains one of MBC's biggest television moments over its 30-year history. Reuters
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Pan-Arab broadcaster MBC will be rewinding the years as part of its 30th anniversary celebrations on Saturday.

Special programming will be shown across its 17 channels on the day of the milestone, featuring its stars and personalities from the past and present.

This includes a one-off episode of former staple Who Wants to Be a Millionaireon MBC 1 featuring the original host, now Lebanon’s Minister of Information George Kordahi.

“It’s going to be amazing and the aim is to make the show a celebration,” he tells The National. “The questions will all be based on MBC’s journey to being the ‘family channel’.”

It was not a platitude, Kordahi continues, but a guiding principle when MBC founder Waleed Al Ibrahim offered him the gig in 2000.

In a pioneering move forming the heart of MBC’s future popularity, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was one of the industry’s first international shows receiving an official Arabic spin-off.

Kordahi recalls how Al Ibrahim was hands on in shepherding the show to air.

“He treated the show as his child,” he says. “He wanted to make sure that this doesn’t just become another competition show, but something more aspirational.

MBC1 & MBC MASR the Voice S3 - Live 1 - Press conference - Mazen Hayek. Courtesy of MBC 1 & MBC MASR *** Local Caption ***  MBC1 & MBC MASR the Voice S3 - Live 1 - Press conference - Mazen Hayek.JPG

“He loved the idea of families gathering together around the show, learning and testing their knowledge in a fun way.”

It is Al Ibrahim's belief in the bigger picture that has powered MBC’s growth from its initial office in London in 1991 to its state-of-the-art facilities across the region, ranging from its headquarters in Dubai Media City to production studios in Beirut and Cairo.

“He would always say that he is not in the entertainment [business] but the hope-making business,” recalls Mazen Hayek, who until last year was MBC’s official spokesman for 15 years.

He now serves privately as an adviser to the company’s chief executive Sam Barnett.

“To really understand how he really believed that, you need to consider that he launched the channel at a time where it was illegal in most countries in the Arab world for residents to own a satellite,” Hayek says.

“While the channel initially focused on the Arab diaspora abroad, Al Ibrahim also had the belief that MBC would eventually come to the Arab world and make an impact.”

Shaking up the industry

It was a well-founded hunch.

At the time, the regional television landscape was largely comprised of state-owned broadcasters.

By being the first privately owned free-to-air Arabic satellite channel, Hayek says MBC disrupted the industry through creative and entrepreneurial decisions.

“We were always about trying new things,” he says. “That was very much the case when it comes to the programming.”

Hayek points to the regional popularity of Arabic-dubbed Turkish dramas which MBC helped to usher in with 2005 hit Noor.

Contrary to industry belief that MBC was fortuitous in riding that trend from the outset, Hayek says the company’s investment in Turkish dramas stemmed from the success of its Arabic content.

“At the time, MBC was airing the Syrian drama series Bab Al-Hara, which was a hit,” he says. “So the idea was to take these select Turkish dramas and dub it specifically in the Syrian dialect.

“It shows that decisions were taken with consideration and I have to also point that they were never done at the expense of Arabic productions.”

Nasser Al Qasabi and Abdullah Al-Sadhan in 'Tash ma Tash'

It was the latter aspect that convinced Saudi Arabian actor Nasser Al Qasabi to continue the hit series Tash ma Tash on MBC in 2006 after a successful 12 seasons on state-owned Saudi 1.

It was the beginning of a long association with MBC, resulting in more hits including the sitcom Selfie and the historical Saudi drama series Al Asouf.

He confirms to The National a third season of the latter will return in Ramadan 2022.

Al Qasabi says it was a mix of Al Ibrahim's idealism and creative freedom that convinced him to work with MBC.

“To be consistent over 30 years is no easy thing,” he says. “A lot of it is down to the company celebrating the various cultures of the Arab world.

“Shows like Tash ma Tash went on to achieve popularity internationally, but it is still a Saudi show filled with local dialect and context. That’s what made the show successful and we were encouraged to keep going.”

Dreaming bigger

That formula of global reach through regionally informed content is best represented in MBC's acquisition of the Arabic rights for the Got Talent, Idol and The Voice franchises.

The broadcaster went on to transform the shows from a national to a regional competition. With auditions open to Arabs at home and the diaspora, these programmes showcased MBC's ambition to appeal to broad pan-Arab audiences.

That meant positioning the programme as something bigger than a talent quest.

“We come from a heavy region where we don’t have the luxury of watching pure entertainment. Instead, we are always watching TV and worried about what is happening in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria,” says Arabs Got Talent host Raya Abirached.

“Through shows like Arabs Got Talent, Arab youth got a chance to really express themselves and we can show them that this is one way to grow up and these are the right ambitions to have and dreams to pursue.

“Arabs Got Talent was one of the first shows to establish that approach with candid enthusiasm. We wanted the audience and candidates to have bigger dreams.”

That view remains personified in Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf’s Arab Idol victory in 2013, a feat that received unprecedented global coverage for an Arab television production.

As MBC’s spokesman at the time, Hayek recalled positioning Assaf’s achievement in a broader perspective.

"We wanted people to understand that being a refugee doesn't make you a bad person and that they are often talented and can be integrated into society,” he says. “Assaf's moment came as there was huge debate in Europe and the US about this topic from a security perspective, and people wrongly linked terrorism with refugees. This was our answer to that.”

Content after Ramadan

Those messages to think and dream bigger have also been directed at MBC’s rivals. The team has always believed there is more to the television landscape than Ramadan and traditional formats.

For more than four decades, the holy month has been the period where channels broadcast their biggest productions, often 30-episode dramas, to capitalise on viewers being mostly at home.

While maintaining a bumper Ramadan line-up that included hits Omar and Al Ikhtiyar, MBC has been producing and releasing a growing number of dramas outside of Ramadan on its fledgling streaming platform Shahid.

The success of the Lebanese soap opera Arous Beirut, with the third season in production, proves there is a post-Ramadan appetite for content.

“We are seeing more of that now in the industry as we are experimenting with airing shows at different times, as well as mini-series,” says Tunisian actor and series lead Dhafer L'Abidine.

“It gives us plenty more options as actors and viewers.”

Egyptian actress Yousra has already benefited from the change by making her movie return on Shahid.

Her latest film, the psychological drama Saheb Al Maqam, was her first film since the 2012 comedy Game Over and she welcomed the fact it immediately reached a larger audience than a regional cinema release.

“As an actor, this is always refreshing because we also need to respond to what’s happening in today’s world. I am always asking myself what the audience is wanting or asking of me and I try to give it to them,” she says.

“These platforms are an amazing opportunity to show the world our stories.”

Left to right: actors Asser Yassin, Amina Khalil, Bassel Khaiat and Yousra stand beside host George Kordahi in 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'. Photo: MBC

Many of these milestones will be celebrated on Saturday night’s episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Yousra will join Qassabi and L'Abidine in the hot seat as they are quizzed on all things MBC.

“It’s a story that has no sign of ending,” as Kordahi will say in the pre-recorded opening monologue. “Here is to another 30 years and more.”

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire will be shown on MBC 1 on Saturday, September 18. Broadcast time will be revealed soon on mbc.net

Updated: September 15, 2021, 11:02 AM