This time last year, the Arab television industry was preparing to brave a storm that, in the end, would prove to be more transformative than devastating.
There was no way of knowing, at the time, the reinvigorating impact the pandemic would have on Arabic television in the long run, pushing it to be more agile and to do away with worn-out 30-episode-long formats.
When the pandemic took hold last year and countries began to enforce restrictions on movement that brought productions to a screeching halt, many of the region's top film and TV companies felt an encroaching sense of doom. Ramadan was a mere two months away.
They were still in the middle of filming shows that were scheduled for release during the holy month – the most important time of the year for Arab television. There was a very real risk they wouldn't be able to make delivery dates.
This was most sharply seen in pan-Arab productions filmed in Lebanon, which was one of the first countries in the region to impose stay-at-home measures. Several of the most anticipated releases of Ramadan, including Al Saher and Al Nahat, though they had strong casts and promising plots, ended up seeming rushed. Both shows were initially set to be 30 episodes long, but were released with half as many. Both concluded without a satisfying ending. It was a disappointment, but better things would come.
'We must keep filming'
As productions in Lebanon faltered, many leading figures of the country’s entertainment industry began protesting the measures that were keeping them from resuming work. Lebanese singer Cyrine Abdelnour took to Twitter in April saying that if production teams followed all the necessary safety procedures they should be allowed to return to work, albeit under the supervision of a specialised medical team.
Lebanese actress Maguy Bou Ghosn voiced a similar sentiment, tweeting that the livelihood of “thousands of families depended on this industry”, using an Arabic hashtag that translates to "we must keep filming".
In Egypt, the voice of disapproval came from those who believed the entertainment industry in the country was being reckless with its push to continue production, most notably when Egyptian lawyer Mohammed Ibrahim criticised Ashraf Zaki, head of the country's Actors Syndicate.
The criticism, however, fell on deaf ears and, apart from a short-lived interruption, the Egyptian TV industry continued as it had before the pandemic. A few shows, such as Kheit Harir and Al Qahera-Kabul, pulled out of production, but most continued and managed to release full 30-episode-long series by the time Ramadan began. These included Adel Imam's Valentino, Yusra's Kheyanet Ahd and Mohamed Ramadan's Al Prince.
In the Gulf, the bulk of shows had already completed their production phase by the time movement restrictions came into effect, such as MBC Shahid's Haya wa Banatoha. However, a number were affected, such as Nasser Al Qasabi's Exit 7, which stopped short at 20 episodes.
MBC also chose to usurp the traditional series format with the region's first soap opera, Al Mirath, which managed to keep production going throughout the pandemic and has now has more than 280 episodes broadcast.
A content boost
Throughout the pandemic, more shows that embrace the shorter format, and that have a planned outcome rather than being reactionary, have begun to emerge from across the Arab world. These include Al Amid (12 episodes), El Diva (eight episodes), DNA (10 episodes), Netflix Original series Paranormal (six episodes) and the Abu Dhabi-filmed The Platform (10 episodes).
Some of these cut back as a way of catering to the streaming public, but several did so as a direct response to the limitations brought on by the pandemic.
For better or for worse, as productions continued throughout the region, it marked the rise of a new type of series. More attention was being paid to character development, and the length of a series became dictated by its story. There was no need to stretch a plot line simply to reach the 30-episode mark.
With Ramadan around the corner again, we know what shows to expect in the coming weeks and many have adopted a more succinct format. There is the MBC Shahid production Covid 25, a 15-episode-long Egyptian horror series that imagines a coronavirus worst-case scenario; Bain Al Sama Wl Ard, another 15-episode series based on Naguib Mahfouz's Between Heaven and Earth; and the comedy Ahsan Aab by Ali Rabee, also with 15 episodes.
This by no means signals the end of the 30-episode format as a whole. We still expect to see several strong shows adopting the traditional formula, including Mohamed Ramadan's eagerly awaited Mousa, set in 1950s Egypt. But, the new approach has two main advantages: the story is prioritised over length and we now have more variety on Arabic television.
It's a slim silver lining to the pandemic's effect on the entertainment industry.