Media master

Afghanistan’s booming media industry is defying the odds, says Moby Group’s CEO, Zaid Mohseni
Moby Group CEO Zaid Mohseni has built his media empire in some of the Middle Easts most unstable countries
By Claire Ferris-Lay
Sun 21 Aug 2011 04:27 PM

Spend an hour in the company of Zaid Mohseni, and, as you would probably imagine, he is exactly like most media moguls: sharp suited, sophisticated and, most importantly, full of corporate talk. 

“We initially wanted to invest in some companies — be the middle man — and help facilitate foreign investment but the first investment we had was a radio station and we’ve been in the media ever since,” he explains.

There is one small difference though: the empire Mohseni helped create happens to be based in war-torn Kabul, while his latest venture is a new television channel in Iran. Crazy? Not according to the numbers.

The Moby Group, which launched in Afghanistan in 2002, is today the country’s biggest media operator. The company employs over 400 Afghans and expatriates across eleven businesses. Moby Group’s broadcast media brands, TOLO TV, LEMAR (TV) and ARMAN FM are some of the most recognised in Afghanistan, and command an estimated 80 percent of in-country audience.  Three years ago, the final of “Afghan Star” on TOLO TV brought in an audience of 11 million — a staggering 90 percent of the viewing population.

So how did this all happen?

Afghan-born Mohseni along with his three brothers and sister moved to Australia in the 1980s. The family wasn’t sure if they would ever return home to Afghanistan. But a series of events including 9/11 and the subsequent overthrow of the Taliban saw lawyer Zaid and his brother, Saad, return to Kabul to look for investment opportunities. Armed with a US government grant together with their own savings they set up a local radio station, which later became part of the Kabul-based Moby Group.

Just nine years later the two brothers along with their sister, Wajma, and another brother, Jahid, are sitting pretty at the top of a media empire that few people thought could exist, let alone succeed.

“It’s all grown organically. For example, we run a technology company because power was a real problem and no one had generators so we had to create our own company to deliver this to us. Similarly, our advertising agency was born because there weren’t
any advertising agencies in the country,” explains Mohseni. 

Mohseni’s latest venture is a second Farsi-language channel for Broadcast Middle East (BME), the 50/50 joint venture between the Moby Group and Hong Kong-based Star TV, a News Corp subsidiary. The channel, named Zemzemeh — which means whisper — follows just two years after it launched the hugely successful Farsi1, the first free-to-air Persian language entertainment channel.

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While Saad maintains his position as CEO of the Moby Group and sits on the board of directors for BME, Zaid leads BME and sits on the board of directors for the Moby Group. Rupert Murdoch’s role in the second firm came courtesey of Tom Freston, a co-founder of MTV and a Moby board member.

Mohseni is reticent to discuss the partnership between the two firms (despite the interview taking place prior to the Murdoch backlash in the UK ) but does say the media mogul was impressed with the Mohsenis’ success with the Afghan satellite channel Tolo TV, which is estimated to draw in 41 percent of the country’s television audience.

“[News Corp] were surprised that you could have an active, viable business in Afghanistan. I think they want to do something with us and see how it works,” he says.

Given that Farsi1 regularly draws in an estimated 30 million people a night, the majority of which are based in Iran and neighbouring Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and many Gulf states, it’s probably fair to assume that Murdoch is more than happy with his Iranian venture.

Technically satellite dishes are illegal in Iran but that hasn’t stopped viewers deserting the channels operated by Iranian state television to tune in to the likes of Prison Break, How I Met Your Mother and Malcolm in the Middle. Much of the success comes from the decision to dub all of its programmes into Farsi rather than simply use subtitles, making the soaps and entertainment shows it screens from across the world widely accessible.

Zemzemeh, which aired for the first time on 9 July, sticks to this similarly successful formula but this time targets more female oriented audiences. Typical shows include the US show Project Runway, Queen of the South and Gypsies.

“Based on our research the number of TVs per household is less than two, which means that the majority of people still watch television as a family event. As a result of that we need to make sure that our focus is still the family but at the same time we believe that because of lack of real competition in the market that for us it’s a unique opportunity to launch a second mass channel,” explains Mohseni.

The idea behind Zemzemeh is that it will maintain BME’s viewership amid increasing competition in the Iran satellite space, says Mohseni.

“What we want to do is try and maintain that viewership between multiple channels because obviously it’s not sustainable that you can continue to maintain your audience for a long period of time when there is such a big discrepancy between the number one channel and other channels.

“We know that the competition will come up so… this new channel is in anticipation of that. Even if we can maintain this viewership in the face of competition it’s a huge bonus for us because 30 million viewers a night out of a potential 75 million viewers overall is a huge market,” he adds.

Alongside a growing audience is inevitably a growing advertiser base. Although Iran’s advertising market is still very much in its infancy — Mohseni estimates it currently to be around $0.5bn — he doesn’t think it will be long before that figure doubles. “We, and potentially our competitors, can be this catalyst for growth in the advertising market because right now we think that the size of the market could be $1bn, all things being equal,” he explains.

“It’s restricted because of a number of factors, one of them being that a lot of the advertisers are not aware of the potential viewership of these channels and it takes time for the advertisers to change their spending.

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“We think that there is a huge opportunity in this market; I’m talking about the 100 million plus viewers not just in Iran and Afghanistan but also…Uzbekistan, pretty much the whole of Tajikistan, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq,” he says. He adds that Iranian companies that have never even bought a single advert in a newspaper let alone a television slot regularly contact BME.

But it’s not just Farsi1’s choice of language that has made it so successful both in terms of viewership and advertising. Having the US authorities on BME’s side has also made things easier. The channel is the only Farsi-speaking satellite channel to have OFAC (the US Office of Foreign Assets Control) approval, enabling international companies such as Samsung to advertise without breaking the strict sanctions on Iran.

Unsurprisingly, given the backing of US authorities and Iran’s strict regime, BME, its management and its choice of entertainment shows have come under fire. Iranian authorities have accused Farsi1 of being part of the West’s cultural invasion on the strict state and have even claimed it seeks to corrupt the country’s morals and destroy families. 

In November 2010, the Farsi1 website was hacked by a group calling itself the Iranian Cyber Army. The group posted a message on the site: “Happy Eid Ghorban” and added, “Rupert Murdoch, the Moby company, the Mohseni family, and the Zionists partners should know that they will take the wish to destroy the structure of Iranian families with them to the grave.”

The sheer scale of the channel’s audience together with Iran’s vast young population welcomes the shows that have pushed the boundaries. The same month the website was attacked Zarrin, a 36-year old woman, told the UK’s Financial Times that part of the reason her more traditional mother had accepted her divorce was in partly because of Victoria — the title character of a Colombian soap who found true love after experiencing a similar betrayal.

“My mum regrets that cultural and legal obstacles are making my divorce process so different from Victoria’s,” she told the newspaper.

BME takes a very serious approach to its censoring, something its audience actively request, explains Mohseni.

“61 percent [of our audience] says censorship is required…. I do believe if the majority of people want that you should give it to them or at least try and give it to them and they might reject it and then we change it. We have seen changes in people’s views about certain things and we take that into consideration,” he says.

It is not BME’s intention, he adds, to push the boundaries.

“Our aim is to entertain and if we can get away without censorship of course we would do it because it means less cost for us — it’s really expensive censoring. I would rather not do it if I could avoid it from a cost perspective but certainly from a viewership perspective it’s made a big difference to us because families are watching it."

For the time being that means all lip-to-lip kissing scenes are removed. “[Is it] more strict than maybe the strictest Middle Eastern channel like MBC who do show kissing…. but we still prefer to err on the side of caution and censor too much rather than not enough,” says Mohseni.

Like his partnership with Murdoch, Mohseni is equally evasive about BME’s financial success but does indicate it broke even several years ahead of schedule.

“We exceeded our expectation so now we have become more aggressive in our approach. Within the first twelve months we managed to achieve a lot of the objectives we had over a three-year period.”

However, he is less reticent to discuss the launch of future Farsi-speaking channels such as dubbed Nat Geo. “We are looking at other channels; we are looking to cover different segments of the market. Zemzemeh was the first one [as] we thought the female side of the family needed to be covered,” he says.

“We’re also maybe looking at more the male side. We’re looking at Nat Geo Farsi, which is also a News Corp channel, but we don’t know the timing for that yet. That model would work well for that because then we have females covered by Zemzemeh, we have Farsi1, which is family, and then we have Nat Geo, which is more males so then we have all three areas covered.”

Given his track record, it is likely that whichever direction Mosheni heads in, he will succeed.

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