MTV brings a laugh to Abu Dhabi

MTV Networks International (MTVI), a division of Viacom, and twofour54, Abu Dhabi's media zone, have teamed up to launch Comedy Central Studios Arabia.

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MTV Networks International (MTVI) has formed a strategic partnership with the Abu Dhabi media zone twofour54 to launch Comedy Central Studios Arabia to deliver content for the Arabic television market. The venture is one of the few content production deals that the US broadcasting company Viacom, the owner of MTVI, has made in emerging markets. It will be based in Abu Dhabi and will be devoted to creating stand-up, sketch comedy, sitcoms and comedic dramas. "We clearly feel that there is a gap in the market and there is a clear need to showcase the popular Arabic comedy genre, which doesn't really get showcased," said Bhavneet Singh, the managing director and executive vice president for emerging markets of MTVI. MTVI was encouraged to invest in comedy production in part by viewership studies indicating the popularity of shows such as the satiric comedy Tash Ma Tash, as well as the airing of nearly 500 comedy programmes across the MENA region every month and the doubling of this rate during Ramadan, Mr Singh said. The agreement was announced yesterday and the hiring of about 20 staff from both the region and from the Comedy Central international operations has begun, said Tony Orsten, the chief executive of twofour54 who formerly worked as the managing director of the Comedy Central British incarnation, Paramount Comedy. The next step will be to carry out a roadshow around the region to gauge just what Arabs find funny, he said. "We're not doing American comedy, we're doing Arabic comedy," he said. "We are most interested in finding out what makes people laugh. I have done this before and it is a wonderfully rewarding thing to do." While the Comedy Central brand will allow the new venture to import formats from abroad, Mr Singh suggested that any possibility of an Arabic-language equivalent of news-satire programmes such as The Daily Show were still far off. "I really want to focus more on the original, long-form stand-ups from the region and over time, once we are established and people accept us as a credible entity, then I want to roll in some formats, not the other way around," he said. One of the biggest challenges the venture faces is maintaining Comedy Central production values while making programmes for a regional broadcasting market accustomed to cheaper content. "What we have to do is produce the content to the right budget, because if we don't produce the content that's at the right level for producers to buy, they won't buy it," he said. However, exerting upward pressure on the price of content - and thereby on the salaries that local comics, actors and writers receive - will be necessary to make media an attractive career for regional talent. Mr Orsten said the media zone, which is funding the venture through its ibtikar incubator arm and offering it space through its production studios, also hoped to support it through comedy writing classes and other training through its tadreeb vocational academy. "Joining the media industry isn't easy, so what we want to create is an industry that's respectable, where people can shine and do something for their community," he said. The deal, which Mr Singh described as a "strategic partnership with both parties being equally committed", though not necessarily financially, marks the third Viacom foray in the region. The first, a minority stake in the broadcaster Showtime, ended this year with the merger of Showtime and Orbit. The second, an agreement with TECOM to broadcast MTV Arabia and Nickelodeon in the region, is doing respectably well for a two-year-old venture, Mr Singh said. He added that at some point in the future MTVI hoped to roll out a Comedy Central channel in the region as part of a broader MTV Networks presence. Abdullatif al Sayegh, the chief executive of TECOM's Arab Media Group who engineered the MTV and Nickelodeon deals, welcomed the news that more Arabic content would be produced in the UAE. "It's excellent news for all of us," he said. "This part of the world needs a lot more content."