When Saeed Hareb's cartoon Freej was first broadcast on local television some five years ago, the event was widely celebrated as the UAE's premier full-fledged 3D animated production. However, for a nation struggling to put itself on a changing global map, Freej is certainly more than just a visual or technical innovation. It is an example of how the best and the brightest local talent can be harnessed to generate television content that resonates with the nation's identity and reaches global professional standards.
With Freej in mind, I find Inspiring Local Content, the theme of this year's Arab Media Outlook (2009-2013), recently released by Dubai Press Club and Value Partners, extremely revealing. In this part of the world, local content has often come under fire for what some see as its failure to synthesise indigenous moral traditions and state-of-the-art production practices. In many ways, the Arab Media Outlook, with its thorough statistical accounts, is a precious addition to our scarce knowledge about an evolving Arab communications landscape. But beyond the lessons that numbers reveal, another facet of local content deserves to be considered: quality. This won't be achieved through total content indigenisation, but rather through the institution of a Freej-style ethos in our production culture: act local and think global. Local content must be more than "filler" for multiplying media slots. It should be a subtle articulation of the nation's identity through a global medium.
It is true that the proliferation of satellite television, the internet, and mobile telephony has enhanced our communications capacities across space and time. But as noted by one of the panelists at the Arab Media Outlook launch, we have realised that our ability to generate appropriate content is outpaced by the way technology advances. With over 600 operational satellite channels in the region, content producers find it extremely difficult to meet round-the-clock demands for high-quality programming. The most convenient remedy to this situation has been to fill in television time, even with total rubbish, just to keep transmissions running.
It is here that I see an opportunity for what the report describes as a "virtuous circle". By pulling together the key elements of content generation: monetisation, talent and funding, we can introduce quantum leaps in our local offerings. In the shadow of the current economic downturn, the report's optimistic tone is heartening. While aware of how the global financial crunch is impacting communications industries in the region, the report forecasts a greater resurgence ahead in local content production, especially in the television sector.
From a consumption point of view, the crisis appears to have had less of an impact on media than on other entertainment sectors. Consumers are spending more time at home watching TV and cutting their expenses on other forms of entertainment. The web too has benefited, turning into a powerful magnet for advertisement. The proportion of advertising spending on the internet has already grown substantially to make up 12 per cent of total global spending in 2009, and is forecast to reach 18 per cent by 2013.
An interesting facet of the report relates to the increase of user-generated content in the region. The Arab demographic is youthful and this will be a major driver of online media consumption. In the four Arab markets studied in the report, 70 per cent of consumers use social networking in some capacity and about 15 per cent use social networking sites at least once a day. For this young audience, beefing up Arabic content and expanding the reach of regional media is of paramount strategic importance. The more Arabic content we produce, the greater opportunities we generate for safeguarding and sustaining our linguistic and cultural traditions.
In an age marked by a diminishing number of barriers, local content must also have global relevance. Arabic-dubbed soap operas from Hollywood, Mexico and Turkey are enjoying incredible popularity in the region. By learning from what they have done and from our own innovative programmes like Freej, Arabic content should prove to be no less competitive. Muhammad Ayish is professor of communications at the University of Sharjah