Ramadan comedy is serious stuff

Arabs watch 6-7 hours of TV per day during Ramadan. As a result, broadcasters spend millions of dollars creating drama series - which some say could be better spent during other times of year.

The comedy Tash Ma Tash show on MBC1 is considered the pinnacle of the Arab world's television industry and is eagerly watched during Ramadan.
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Soon after iftar tonight as many as 15 million people in Saudi Arabia will sit down to watch the Ramadan comedy Tash Ma Tash.

The satire series, which has attracted considerable ire from Islamic conservatives, represents what is arguably the pinnacle of the Arab world's multibillion-dollar television industry.

It is the season's main show on MBC1, the region's biggest channel, and is broadcast every evening during Ramadan, the most lucrative month for the media industry in the Middle East.

Moments after the fast-breaking intake of dates and Vimto, millions will sit down to watch the programme, which is now in its 18th season. More than half of the households in Saudi Arabia typically tune into the series, and there are high viewing figures in the other GCC countries.

Mazen Hayek, the group director of PR and commercial at the MBC Group, admits the show has become "a social tradition". "There is a generation that grew up watching Tash," he says.

Part of the purpose of the series is to tackle serious issues in society through comedy.

The characters "talk about polygamy, corruption, red tape, bureaucracy, terrorism - you name it," says Mr Hayek. "It's progressive with respect of the norms and traditions of the month. But it's daring - that's why people like it."

Well, not everyone, however. Certain plots have attracted criticism from religious leaders and viewers, and last year one scholar urged the public not to watch it.

Despite the criticism, Tash has earned its place in the great television-viewing tradition of Ramadan, during which Arabs spend an average of six and seven hours a day glued to "the box". That is up from the usual four-and-a-half hours.

"It's a pure correlation of the lifestyle of people, who stay at home and gather more around the family … and who bond more and engage more with TV," says Mr Hayek.

Ramadan brings in peak audiences for other Arab broadcasters. The fact that it falls during August this year will not change that, said Karim Sarkis, the executive director of broadcast at Abu Dhabi Media (ADM), which owns and publishes The National.

This year, popular shows broadcast by ADM include the action-packed Syrian series Wilada min Al Khasira and the third season of the Gulf drama Leila.

And, of course, where there are eyeballs, there is advertising.

Shows such as Tash and Leilahelp to pull in a healthy chunk of revenues for television networks such as the MBC Group and ADM.

"Ramadan represents about 25 per cent of our yearly revenues on MBC1," says Mr Hayek. "It is the peak TV-viewing season par excellence."

According to the Pan Arab Research Center (Parc), TV-advertising spending on Arab TV channels amounted to US$1.8 billion (Dh6.61bn) during Ramadan last year, although the figures do not take into account the vast amount of free and discounted advertising. Total advertising revenue during the month runs at about $2.2bn.

MBC is expected to pull in the lion's share of advertising revenue in the region although it does not disclose its actual figures.

Mr Sarkis, however, is confident that ADM's broadcasting division will improve on its Ramadan revenues this year.

"Although 2011 has been a challenging year, we are confident that we will beat our 2010 numbers," he says. But attracting audiences, and therefore a major slice of the advertising revenue, comes at a price.

MBC1 spends between 25 and 30 per cent of its annual production budgets during the holy month, according to Mr Hayek.

For some of the network's rivals, that simply does not make sense.

Kholoud abu Homos, a senior vice-president of programming for the pay-TV operator Orbit Showtime Network, believes that some broadcasters invest too much on Ramadan shows. "You start and end every single drama within 30 days, which is not really the most economic and logical way of doing things. And I think it has to change - it cannot continue this way in the long run," says Ms Homos.

She points out that some free-to-air broadcasters do not schedule enough original content outside of Ramadan. "For at least six to seven months post-Ramadan, it's just re-airing and re-digesting the same content," she adds.

Major advertisers agree that Ramadan has started to dominate broadcasters' budgets.

"A huge proportion of stations' production budgets get spent on Ramadan programming," says David Porter, the media director for the Middle East and North Africa at Unilever. "It's quite a high-risk approach if you don't have a great Ramadan. If we saw all the production budgets spread through the year, it wouldn't be such a big thing."

But with millions of dollars up for grabs during the period, media companies seem unlikely to take the lead in scaling down investments.

So, while popular shows such as Tash Ma Tash may be comedies, they look set to continue attracting serious advertising revenue in the future.