ADAPTING WESTERN TV TO THE ARAB AND MUSLIM WORLD

Article  by  Paloma HASCHKE  •  Published 01.02.2012  •  Updated 01.02.2012
Al Shamshoon, Umutsuz Ev Kadınları, and Al Academya hardly sound familiar, but they refer to western TV shows adapted to the Arab/Muslim market. This process of importation and adaptation could lead to a diversification of television, representing a threat for local creativity and the regional industry.

Summary

THE ADAPTATION OF WESTERN TV SHOWS TO THE ARAB AND MUSLIM WORLD

It was announced in August 2011 that the British TV show The Office was to be adapted for Afghan television under the name The Ministry. While the English satirical comedy produced by the BBC is about the mediocrity and failure of a small paper company in a town in Southern England, The Ministry takes place in the Ministry of Garbage of a war-torn country, Hechland (“nothing land” in Dari). This institution’s function is vain, and most of its members are illiterate and corrupt, the minister’s sole professional qualification being his status as the president’s cousin.
 

Trailer for « The Ministry »,
Afghan adaptation of the British series « The Office » via YouTube
 
Filmed as a mockumentary in exactly the same way as the original version, this political satire alternates scenes where the characters address the camera directly with moments supposedly taken from their daily working life. While the show is directed and written in a comic way, The Ministry openly denounces the Kabul government’s incompetency and tackles some serious political issues affecting Afghan society on a daily basis such as corruption, violence, nepotism, and drug trafficking.
The first episode was broadcast in late 2011 on Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s largest commercial station. This kind of TV show is quite new for the Afghan audience and the producers are eager to see the public’s reaction. “We’ll see how open Afghans are to this style of comedy,” said Abazar Khayami, one of the producers.  “If you look at the United States and Europe, they are always poking fun at the government, but to do that here, we really don’t know what to expect”.

Such an adaptation of a Western show for television in the Muslim world is of course not the first of its kind. This is actually just one example of an industry that has been developing since the early 2000s with the explosion of the satellite channel market in the Middle East. It goes beyond a simple redistribution that would only involve the addition of subtitles and some content editing for censorship purposes. Adapting Western products for the entertainment industry in the Muslim world requires from local production houses to adjust original screenplays for different cultural contexts.

Last September, Walt Disney Company Turkey announced that it was preparing the local production of Desperate Housewives, to be entitled Umutsuz Ev Kadınları. This show, produced by Mediyapim and entirely filmed in Istanbul, where the production team found a local version of Wisteria Lane, is broadcast on Kanal D, Turkey’s number one commercial channel. The actresses of the show are already quite famous in the country. Songül Öden, who plays Susan Mayer, previously played the main female character in Gümüs, a Turkish TV show very popular across the Middle East (under the title Noor).

According to Fatih Aksoy, CEO of Medyiapim, “When adapting [Desperate Housewives] to Turkish, we will ensure that we keep up with the level of the original values of the script and will pursue as excellent a production as it has been in the US.” For their part, Walt Disney representatives have also declared that the Turkish version of the show would closely follow the story line of the original show, adding a “uniquely Turkish flavor”. The first season has just started and already promises to be a hit success.


 

Poster of Umutsuz Ev Kadınları, the Turkish version of Desperate Housewives

 
But every attempt to adapt a Western show to other markets doesn’t always end up as a success story. In 2005, the Saudi group MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Corporation) decided to Arabize the famous American cartoon The Simpsons, renaming it Al Shamshoon. In this version, Homer is Omar, Marge is Mona, and Bart becomes Badr. Unlike the two examples discussed previously, which are both local productions, this time the adaptation process relied only on dubbing and editing the original content.
 
Badih Fattouh, in charge of the project as head of acquisitions for MBC, insisted that the project nevertheless implied cultural adaptation. “You must understand that we did not simply dub, but we Arabized the concept, and we toned it down a bit. We toned down the language, we Arabized it in the cultural sense.” But for Amr Hosny, in charge of screenwriting adaptation for MBC, work on Al Shamshoon was far from easy. “When we started, I had to go back and study [the show], and I understood that this was a very American piece of pop culture — and I felt that it would never be done this way. I had to make some idea that would be an objective correlative for the Arabic people. […] This guy Homer drinks beer all the time, but this is a sin to the Arabs. So I told [the channels’ CEO] that he will drink sheer, which is a non-alcoholic malt drink, and close to beer in sound, so good for dubbing. But they refused this. They said we must make it juice.” Amr also had to get rid of Moe’s tavern, hotdogs, and bacon sandwiches, and to make every church look like a mosque.

The diffusion on Saudi screens was set for prime time broadcast on the first night of Ramadan. A lot of money was at stake since the holy month is the most lucrative period of the year for entertainment industry in the Middle East. The public generally has very high expectations. But in a region where cartoons are considered to be for kids, the audience didn’t fall for it and went to see what was on other channels. At the end of Ramadan the idea was abandoned.

Some Western TV shows, such as adult cartoons like The Simpsons, can’t be easily exported to the Arab world and adapted for local audiences without losing their satirical edge. The Kuwaiti producers of Block 13, a local Arabic production of South Park, have tried to prevent such failure. Even if they kept some similarities with the American original – Kenny’s equivalent wears a keffiyeh, Cartman’s a taquiya – everything from the characters to their humor has been recreated to attract an Arab audience.


 

 Opening credits of Block 13, the Kuwaiti version of South Park

However, the branch of the entertainment industry that benefits the most from the adaptation of Western products for Middle Eastern TV is the reality show sector.
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THE ARABIZATION OF WESTERN REALITY SHOWS

 
Reality TV came late to the Arab world. The satellite TV revolution in the late 1990s and the explosion of the number of channels in the early 2000s allowed this new entertainment phenomenon to enter the regional market. First broadcast in their original language and format, these programs have since been adapted for local audiences.

The forerunner of this industry in the Arab world was Man Sayarbah Al Mallion? (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?). Launched by MBC in 2000 and broadcast twice a week, the Arab version of the original British show immediately met resounding success, becoming the most watched program across the region in 2000 and 2001. With participants coming from every corner of the Arab world, Man Sayarbah Al Mallion? was the first Arab show to reflect the diversity of the Middle East and to address a transnational public with questions related to Arab history, Islamic culture, and pan-Arab issues such as the Palestinian conflict. The host, George Qerdahi, declared in a 2002 interview, “I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that this program brings the whole Arab world together. […] A statistic a few months ago said that 80% of Arab viewers watch this program, which is a viewing figure that no program in the world has reached”[+] NoteAndrew HAMMOND, Pop Culture Arab World!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle, Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication, 2005.X [1].   Although the program is more of a game show, Man Sayarbah Al Mallion? marked a major turning point in the development of the reality TV industry on pan-Arab satellite channels.

 
 

George Qerdahi, host of Man Sayarbah Al Mallion? the Arab version of
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

 
Inspired by MBC’s success, the Lebanese channel Future TV tried to take advantage of the increasing craze in the region for the importation of Western game shows on Arab television. In late 2001, the channel launched Al Halka Al Ad’af as a local version of the BBC show The Weakest Link. Based on the same concept, the female host, Rita Khoury modeled herself closely on Anne Robinson, the original British host, by adopting not only her acerbic and bossy persona, but also the same appearance, with short hair, small, severe glasses and black clothes. Mimicked without any cultural adaptation, the concept of a woman acting in a deliberately manly and rude way in publicly humiliating participants caused considerable outrage. The show was not renewed.

The Arab reality TV industry truly arrived on Middle Eastern screens with the show Al Hawa Sawa, which was the first fully Arab-produced program launched in 2003 by MBC. Inspired by Western concepts such as The Bachelorette, but adapted to the regional cultural environment, this show offered an arranged marriage to one of the female contestants. In a shared flat located in Beirut equipped with video cameras, eight single women had to survey a variety of suitors and chose their future husband with the help of their family and audience votes. The potential grooms could for their part observe the contestants 24 hours a day and contact them at any time to make an appointment and propose. The women complied with a strict dress code and rules governing personal conduct to avoid offending conservative sensibilities. But these rules drained the show of the main elements at the heart of the success of Western TV shows (nudity, arguments, flirtation, etc.). The show was a failure and was not renewed, especially after the winning bride refused to marry the selected groom just a few hours before the final episode.

But the biggest misfire for MBC was its show Al Ra’is, launched in 2004 and based on the concept of Big Brother. In a house in Bahrain, six young men and six young women were placed under the constant scrutiny of video cameras. Like Al Hawa Sawa, the show imposed very strict rules on its participants and had no nudity and no filming in bathrooms or bedrooms; additionally, male and female contestants could only meet in common living spaces. But even with all of these precautions, the show was met with great criticism. During the first episode, a Saudi man placed a welcoming kiss on a Tunisian woman’s cheek. This event was enough to rally critics of the show in Bahrain, denouncing the fact that men and women were living under the same roof without being married. They even wrote to Parliament asking for the show to be taken off the air. Al Ra’is was aborted only two weeks after it began broadcasting.

After few bruising experiences, MBC finally opted for the diffusion of Western reality shows in their original formats. The rational behind this choice was that it would be easier for viewers to tolerate outrageous behavior if it were that of foreigners acting in foreign settings, rather than Arab or Muslim individuals. “It’s acceptable in the US version because you’re looking at someone else’s culture. You’re not bringing [that behavior] to your own culture.” MBC Group TV director Tim Riordan said[+] NoteNaomi SAKR, Arab Television Today, I.B. Tauris, 2007.X [2].

Arab reality TV finally found the winning formula when producers decided to mix this kind of programs with another phenomenon extremely popular in the region: Arab female singers’ sexy video clips.


 
Egyptian singer Ruby in her music video “Enta ‘aref leh”

In late 2002, Future TV announced the purchase of the Pop Idol concept, a British TV show whose finale few months prior had attracted an audience of 13 million and a record of 9 million votes. Under the name Super Star, this new reality TV program was presented in 2003 as the biggest Arab reality show ever produced in the regional entertainment industry. Super Star was all about Arabic music and culture, sung and judged by Arabs. And as predicted, it was a huge success. During the last week of competition of the first season in 2003, the show attracted 4.8 million votes, with more than 10 million cast for the same week in the second season, and 15 million in 2005 also for the same period[+] NoteAndrew HAMMOND, Pop Culture Arab World!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle, Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication, 2005.X [3].

Not to be outdone in the success story, in 2003, the Lebanese group LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation) decided to purchase another format of music reality show: Star Academy. In its Arabic version, the show became Star Academy, Al Acadimiya and was an immediate hit. The ninth season has already been announced for 2012 and is currently in preparation. The popularity of this kind of program is on the rise and channels have concluded deals with national mobile and telecoms companies in countries where the shows are broadcast (such as Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain) in order to have a share in the huge amount of money generated by the audience’s vote.


 
Trailer of Star Academy, Al Acadimiya season 8

Unlike the Saudi-owned MBC, the Lebanese LBC and Future TV have no problem with women showing their skin and figure. In 2005, LBC found the perfect synergy between reality show and music video with the launch of Al Wadi inspired by the French show The Farm (La Ferme des Célébrités). Fourteen famous people were put together on a farm in northern Beirut where they had to complete the daily chores of farmers. In itself, the concept was not very different from other reality programs. But what made it special was the choice of its permanent host: the hugely popular Lebanese singer and video clip sensation Haifa Wehbe. Every season she returns to the farm with new participants. With Haifa on board, Al Wadi became the ultimate symbiosis between two extremely popular trends in the Arab entertainment industry: reality TV and sexy video clips.
 

Haifa Wehbe, host of Al Wadi, the Arab version of The Farm
 
Music reality shows or programs involving Arab singers have appeared to be the key to success for the regional industry. Up to 80% of Lebanese between 18 and 35[+] NoteMarc LYNCH, « Reality is Not Enough. The Politics of Arab Reality TV » in Transnational Broadcasting Studies: The Real (Arab) world. Is Reality TV Democratizing the Middle East? Vol. 1, n°2, AUC Press, 2006.X [4] watched the first seasons of Star Academy, Al Acadimiya. Super Star’s and Al Wadi’s slots became region-wide events dominating popular conversation. According to the Arab Advisors Group, advertising rates on Arab satellite channels skyrocket during reality TV programs, up to 130% of regular prime time rates[+] NoteMarc LYNCH, « Reality is Not Enough. The Politics of Arab Reality TV » in Transnational Broadcasting Studies: The Real (Arab) world. Is Reality TV Democratizing the Middle East? Vol. 1, n°2, AUC Press, 2006.X [5].  And whenever the news channel Al Arabiya reports on Al Wadi on its website, it is usually the story most viewed and shared of the day.

Arab reality TV is nowadays much more than just a pale copy of Western programs; through these shows, the region’s entertainment industry has been able to develop a strong Arab identity for itself.
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THE IMPORTATION OF WESTERN TV SHOWS AND MOVIES ON ARAB SCREENS

The third trend in the adaptation of Western programs to the Arab world is the importation of movies and TV shows in their original language and format, subtitled in Arabic and partially re-edited for censorship. The channels carrying those movies mainly target a modern and transnational audience between the ages of 18 and 35, fond of Western style programming. However, as simple as it may seem, this importation process has had an impact on local creativity and regional industry development.

In late 2008, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox International Channels and Saudi Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal’s Rotana Media Services launched Fox Series channel in the Middle East. This is the region’s first channel dedicated exclusively to Hollywood series in their original format. Fox Series is the second of two English-language satellite channels introduced by a deal between Fox and Rotana. The first one, Fox Movies, was launched a few months beforehand and is based on the same content concept: English language movies in their original version with Arabic subtitles. Both channels’ programming is filtered to comply with the region’s cultural sensitivities.

Willing to attract new audience segments, Fox Series decided in April 2011 to dub its shows in Arabic in order to offer its viewers the choice between two languages to watch their programs. Instead of dubbing the shows in classic Arabic, which usually creates a distance with the audience, driving away a sizeable portion, Fox Series opted for different dialects. For example Glee was dubbed in Lebanese, Desperate Housewives in Syrian, and Modern Family in Egyptian. The channel thus removed the Arabic subtitles from the original versions.

Reactions are far from unanimous. Mazen, a CSI fan since the launch of the channel, disapproves of such change and posted on his blog: “I can’t stand the new wave of dubbed TV series. It’s really hard to understand all the technical stuff that goes on in the show without the subtitles and I couldn’t stand the pretentious voices of Arab actors that ruined the whole show for me.” However, graphic designer Michael thinks that the goal of the channel is to attract a completely new kind of viewer. “They are trying to change their targeted audience as a whole. Many people will stop watching this TV channel, but more housewives are going to start. This means more targeted advertising to this group of people, resulting in more money for the TV channel.”


 

Fox Series is exclusively dedicated to Hollywood series
in their original format and subtitled in Arabic
 
A May 2009 WikiLeaks cable revealed that US shows like Desperate Housewives and Friends are doing more to convince Saudi youth to reject violence and terrorism than millions of dollars of US government propaganda. In this cable, two Saudi media executive directors said that channels from the Fox-Rotana partnership and the MBC group (especially MBC4 and MBC5) have become very popular in the Saudi Arabia. Even in remote corners of the country, people “are fascinated by US culture in a way they never were before. […] You no longer see Bedouins, but kids in western dress who are now interested in the outside world.”

One of the biggest motivations for importing these Western series to the Arab market is to reduce the risk of financial loss. Each program chosen for broadcast has already proven successful in other countries, and the channels expect similar results in their region. So this strategy not only reduces the risk, but also helps cut production costs, which is an appreciable advantage on the Arab entertainment TV market compared to the cost of locally produced shows (today one episode produced for Ramadan TV shows can cost up to 2 million dollars). The region’s industry and creativity have been deeply affected by this importation process on the rise since the early 2000s. Even the “Musalsalat” or Ramadan TV shows, a crucial production sector in the Arab entertainment industry, have been hit.

The Middle East represents a market of more than 300 millions viewers for satellite channels, whose numbers have been increasing since the early 2000s. This context has allowed channels to reduce the risks and expenses inherent to any new entertainment production and could have incited regional media groups to support local creativity and independent initiatives. However, the rapid growth in Western program importation has led to a progressive loss of artistic diversity within the Arab entertainment landscape. Media consultant Adel Bibi explains, “The new generation is importing content like it’s importing cars. They should train creative people and give the production house here more of a chance to come up with formats that really matter in the region”[+] NoteNaomi SAKR, Arab Television Today, I.B. Tauris, 2007.X [6].

 
 
MBC2 and MBC Max are both 24-hour channels broadcasting only Hollywood blockbusters
 
 
It was actually in 2003, with the evolution of MBC into a channel consortium, that Western movies and series with Arabic subtitles were introduced in the region, when MBC2 began airing Hollywood movies and MBC4 American TV series and talk shows. In December 2004, Emirati channel One-TV arrived on the market, promising to air 27 blockbusters a week, along with US sitcoms and game shows. This channel was launched as a joint venture between DMI (Dubai Media Incorporated) and Warner Bros International Television Distribution. Warner described this deal, whose duration has yet to be determined, as the largest distribution deal ever signed by the company with a Middle Eastern channel.

In normal circumstances, television rights to recent movie titles are expensive. These restrictive prices usually prevent channels from importing and showing too many foreign movies, thus leaving free room within program schedules for local productions and shows related to national or regional topics. But channels like those belonging to MBC, Fox, or DMI groups depend on private money, funding from global companies, and long-term partnerships with Hollywood studios. In the end, such formulas help these media groups escape the market mechanisms that could constrain them to invest in local industry.



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Photo Credits :
- Trailer for The Ministry available on YouTube
- Screen shot from the Facebook page of the series Umutsuz Ev Kadınları
- Movie credits for Block 13 available on YouTube
- Screen shot from a video of Man Sayarbah Al Mallion available on YouTube
- Screen shot of the video clip « Enta ‘aref leh » of Ruby available on YouTube
- Promotional clip of Star Academy, Al Acadimiya, season 8 available on YouTube
- Screen shot from the Facebook page of Haifa Wehbe
- Screen shot from the Fox Series site
- Promotional video from channels MBC2 and MBC Max available on YouTube
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References

Andrew HAMMOND, Pop Culture Arab World!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle, Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication, 2005

Naomi SAKR, Arab Television Today, I.B. Tauris, 2007

Marc LYNCH, « Reality is Not Enough. The Politics of Arab Reality TV » in Transnational Broadcasting Studies: The Real (Arab) world. Is Reality TV Democratizing the Middle East?, Vol. 1, n°2, AUC Press, 2006
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  • 1. Andrew HAMMOND, Pop Culture Arab World!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle, Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication, 2005.
  • 2. Naomi SAKR, Arab Television Today, I.B. Tauris, 2007.
  • 3. Andrew HAMMOND, Pop Culture Arab World!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle, Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication, 2005.
  • 4. Marc LYNCH, « Reality is Not Enough. The Politics of Arab Reality TV » in Transnational Broadcasting Studies: The Real (Arab) world. Is Reality TV Democratizing the Middle East? Vol. 1, n°2, AUC Press, 2006.
  • 5. Marc LYNCH, « Reality is Not Enough. The Politics of Arab Reality TV » in Transnational Broadcasting Studies: The Real (Arab) world. Is Reality TV Democratizing the Middle East? Vol. 1, n°2, AUC Press, 2006.
  • 6. Naomi SAKR, Arab Television Today, I.B. Tauris, 2007.
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