Can IPTV save Middle East television?

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For those of us who spend every day thinking and reading about the Middle East media industry, the highlight of the "Davos of media" that happened in Abu Dhabi last month was not Rupert Murdoch's appearance (as we weren't allowed in the room) or even Eric Schmidt's rousing speech (though our techie little brother is jealous). No, it was Karim Sarkis, the executive director of broadcast at ADMC (disclosure: our employer), telling the world's assembled media bigwigs in pure, unvarnished language that "there is no business model for television" in the Middle East.

That's because one giant satellite beam over an entire region form Morocco to Saudi Arabia makes it impossible for advertisers to target their audience, not to mention hard for them to measure it. It's an old problem, and the solution put forth at the summit was, basically, split the satellite beam.

But at an ICT conference with a delegation from Norway in Dubai yesterday, another solution was put forward: IPTV.

"From the perspective of media, in a new media sense, this presents a massive massive opportunity," said Nick Grande, the managing director of ChannelSculptor, the Dubai-based television consultancy. "What this says is the public are basically being underserved...The MENA industry badly needs what ICT has to offer."

By ICT, of course, he means information and communications technologies industry -- ie, the pipes that the telecoms control and the many vendors who love them. And in the world of television, that means IPTV.

Internet protocol television (IPTV) is the ponderous name for television that comes over broadband lines into a set-top box that acts just like a satellite receiver, except it's part of a closed system and can actually communicate information back to the broadcaster.

Grande was suggesting that IPTV could create the market segmentation that Middle East television needs, sending Moroccan soaps to Morocco, along with the French-inflected jokey ads that might confuse Saudis but are really hilarious to Casaouis.

This future is a long way off, since only the UAE has two competing IPTV systems at the moment, and even those have only a few hundred thousand users between them.

But with so much of the Middle East media market controlled by governments, the region has real choices about where it wants to take its television landscape. (No one should mistake the chaotic nature of the pan-Arab satellite TV market for a free marketplace.) This is one that would give governments more control, while bringing more money into the system and, hopefully, fewer embarrassingly bad soaps.