Channeling Success

Ramadan mosalsalat have become a big business, but the financial landscape that surrounds them remains uncertain. By Lamia Hassan

photo credit: Middle East Online

(Business Today Egypt, October 2010)

Renowned TV producer Mohamed Fawzy hedged his bets this Ramadan. He shopped around three mosalsalat (soap operas) — a third season of his show El-Daly, starring Nour El- Sherif, Farah El-Omda (The Mayor’s Wedding) and Ana El-Quds (I Am Jerusalem).

Fawzy rushed to finish the shows in time for the Holy Month, hoping at least one would fetch a hefty return from a network hungry for programming. Unfortunately, other producers had the same idea.

Faced with a glut of new content — 50 mosalsalat aired this year, compared to 38 in 2009 — Fawzy failed to strike a deal and held onto the shows. Such is the uncertain landscape of Ramadan TV. The flowering of satellite stations in the last decade has stoked fierce competition during the Holy Month, upending the business models that have dominated Egyptian broadcasting for decades.

While a full third of annual advertising revenues are generated during the month, industry insiders say profit models remain uncertain. Series are becoming increasingly expensive, production timelines have been sped up and the plethora of shows mean producers aren’t guaranteed a sale.

“I don’t think the next year or the following years will see as [many series],” says producer Gamal Al-Adl of Al-Adl Group, one of the biggest studios in the country.

Talk show host and media commentator Moataz El Demerdash also questions whether viewers have the appetite for that much Ramadan fare.

“Instead of just producing a large number [of mosalsalat], we have to study this market from A-Z as a whole and examine closely the profits coming out of it. [We need] to see what the market can tolerate.”

A Shifting Market

Ramadan mosalsalat have been a staple for more than 20 years, with millions of viewers tuning in after iftar.

photo credit: Ismailia Online

Channels 1 and 2 used to be the mainstays for series. But expanding local and satellite television markets mean more channels are competing for viewers.

The focus now is less on mosalsalat as a cultural tradition and more as revenue stream. Since the recent makeover of the Nile Television Network (NTN), the Nile Drama channel has been dedicated to serials. Increased content prompted executives to launch the Drama 2 channel this Ramadan. And there’s still spillover. Mosalsalat have also begun appearing on NTN’s Nile Comedy and Nile Life.

Other companies have joined the competition over the last two years, including Panorama Drama 1 and 2, Cairo Drama, Melody Drama 1 and 2. Arab Radio and Television has also begun airing the shows on its three channels Hekayat, Hekayat Kaman and Hekayat Zaman.

“The reason behind the rise of all these [shows] is that mosalsalat have become a large part of the ‘advertising revenue cake’,” says Al-Adl. He estimates that advertisers in Egypt and the Gulf spend a combined LE 1.3 billion during Ramadan. According to estimates in the press, the production budget of the 50 Ramadan serials that aired this year was LE 750 million.

The push for content has also driven producers to cut corners, says Hisham El-Awamry, the manager of Hekayat.

“Some producers film during the day and deliver the tape right before air time.” One episode of the series Al- Hara (The Alley) was only 30 minutes long, falling short of the 45 to 50 minute range typical of episodes.

El-Awamry says things like that happen because production companies are churning out several projects at the same time. “They bet on one big project, and produce one or two other series as well, at a lower quality.”

The frantic environment leads to wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. According to El-Awamry, each channel discusses different deals with production companies about when to air series.

“There are different categories that come with the deals between the production companies and the channels,” says El-Awamry.

“Some channels gets exclusive airing of the series, while others get first-run rights, and others have to wait for the second run, after Ramadan.”

Despite the kinks, producers are bullish about the Ramadan market.

“Not only the stars, like Yousra and Nour El-Sherif, attract advertisers, but all those who are involved in the process are considered stars as well,” says Al-Adl.

“Even if the series are not depending on big actors and actresses, a big production company, or the series’ director encourages the advertisers to air their ads during the series.” bt