Ali Al Hedeithy: King of the airwaves

MBC Group Director General Ali Al Hedeithy looks back on 16 years of free-to-air satellite broadcasts and gives CEO Middle East a glimpse into the future of regional entertainment.
Ali Al Hedeithy: King of the airwaves
By Edward Poultney
Thu 01 Mar 2007 12:00 AM

MBC Group is the original, and largest, pan-Arab free-to-air satellite television network in the region.

Indeed, at its inception, it was the first alternative for viewers to European and American media giants.

“When we first came up with the idea for MBC, we originally aimed it at Arab expatriates in Europe and America,” explains Al Hedeithy, “that was the idea, because there was no broad satellite penetration in the Middle East at that time.”

The launch in September 1991, during the infancy of international commercial satellite broadcasts, was held in London - then the centre of the burgeoning industry. The original MBC channel offered viewers a mixture of syndicated entertainment programmes and popular sitcoms and its own news bulletins, which quickly grew to hold an integral slot, with the 9 o’clock broadcast becoming must-see viewing amongst Arab viewers.

“MBC1 was a major change from how news had been reported; that’s how it started, and we’ve continued with Al Arabiya, which began in the MBC1 studios and then we created a whole new channel.

“The MBC1 9 o’clock news bulletin was the most highly-rated news programme at that time, Even now the 9 o’clock show attracts the highest ratings some months,” he proudly adds.

The first Gulf War at the beginning of the 1990s opened up the Middle East to satellite feeds.

“When the war started CNN began beaming into the region, and we discovered that we could also broadcast in,” he says, “which offered a great opportunity to penetrate the market.”

“Television at the time was state-run, it was very poor quality and there was a lot of censorship – so we aimed at moving in and offering the first independent, business-run television channel to the Middle East.”

The move precipitated organisational changes as the audience grew and diversified.

“We had to change our programming to appeal to a wider audience, and one that had only had access to state-run channels,” Al Hedeithy explains, “we also had to go through all our contracts and revamp our strategy to encompass the wider audience.”

As the sole providers of free-to-air regional satellite television for five years, MBC used the opportunity to create strong brand recognition, a strategy that has been bringing its own rewards ever since.

Al Hedeithy emphasises this, but also stresses that the company is always looking for new ways to get its message out.

“Although we market on-screen through our channels, and you can’t get that sort of exposure for love nor money elsewhere, we also use print media, online portals and through mobiles,” he says.

The main change in marketing direction for the group has been the diversification of the channels as each now has it’s own strategy aimed at its primary target audience.

“We do cross-advertise programmes, but since last year we have also developed a branding for the group as whole, getting across the value that the group brings,” says Al Hedeithy.

The MBC group’s motto is “We see hope everywhere” – an apt reflection of the expansion that the group has undergone from a single channel offering broad pan-audience entertainment to six market-specific free-to-air channels and two radio stations. The company now employs over 1,200 staff based in Dubai, Lebanon and Egypt and boasts viewing figures of 75 million globally.

The growth of exposure to international television and the massive boom in the industry has helped in attracting on-screen and behind-the-scenes staff.

“The quality of talent has improved a lot; there is much greater organisation, a lot of people are interested in working in this field,” he explains, “five years ago there were 50 or so channels, now there are more than 250.”

“We now have 47 different nationalities working for us across the board, we recruit from everywhere but we also have in-house training and development programmes. There are some really nice stories of people who started at the bottom 15 years ago and are now group directors,” he adds.

MBC’s relocation of its headquarters from London to Dubai Media City in 2002 was prompted by both a desire to be at the heart of the target market and the availability of the necessary facilities.

“There didn’t used to be any licensing, had we decided to move into the region we would have had nowhere to set up. But since 2000 all that has changed; all these media free zones have emerged in Dubai, Cairo, Jordan – we chose Dubai because it’s an international city; we can attract all the talent that we want.

“The market is growing rapidly and there is still a lot of potential. 60% of our programming across our channels is now produced locally rather than being bought in, and we rely on talent from all across the Arab world,” he adds.

The concept behind MBC grew from Group Chairman, Sheikh Waleed Bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim, and Al Hedeithy’s time studying in the US, where they were able to witness first-hand the popular appeal and business potential of private television networks.

“They [the US networks] were the major drive behind our idea of what we wanted to create - in fact we still want to create a “60 Minutes”!” he jokes, “it’s a dream, but it’s really difficult in this part of the world.”

The dream was partially realised when Don Hewitt, the man behind “60 Minutes”, gave a workshop for Al Arabiya journalists at MBC’s Dubai headquarters last month.

The region may not yet be ready for a similar programme but nor have the group had to deal with state censorship in any major way.

“All channels have to ensure their own guidelines and self-regulation, we know the market that our channels are aimed at,” explains Al Hedeithy.

“We are seen as impartial when reporting on potentially sensitive issues, which helps a lot,” he adds.

Nor have recent political events managed to create a gulf with outside partners, as the industry continues to expand.

“There is a lot of cross-over and cooperation between networks, and the situation [in Iraq] has not affected relationships; we broadcast ABC and CBS shows, even their current affairs programmes.”

Since the move to Dubai Media City in 2002, the group’s output has mushroomed, with five new channels, each strategically targeting a different audience, added in the last five years.

The corporation is also embracing new entertainment mediums as internet and mobile telephone use become more widespread. Al Arabiya currently hosts the fourth largest website in the Arab world and the group has relaunched MBC.net as a broad entertainment portal.

The percentage of revenue generated from the interactive internet businesses is also larger than most of MBC’s western international media counterparts.

But it doesn’t stop there according to Al Hedeithy: “We have lots of ideas, new technology – the internet, mobiles – these are the things that will create new challenges and opportunities in the future.

“The key is diversification; if we don’t diversify, our competitors will.”

With expansion this rapid and the embracing of new mediums do not be surprised to see much more of MBC’s brand of commercial entertainment coming soon to a television, computer or mobile near you.

MBC's expanding television empire

MBC1 – The original channel launched in 1991. A pan-audience broad entertainment station.

MBC2 – introduced in 2003. Dedicated movie channel comprising blockbuster Hollywood and international films. It’s the only FTA movie channel in the Arab world. Al Arabiya – 24/7 Arab news, documentaries and exclusive interviews was introduced in March 2003, in the wake of the Iraq war. Covers five continents with correspondents in all the major capitals of the world

MBC3 – Children’s channel launched in 2004, at which point more than 40% of the Arab world population was less than 15 yrs old.

MBC4 – general entertainment and news targeted at the new Arab woman launched in 2005. Unlike the mostly Arabic-language original MBC, it’s characterized by foreign-language entertainment hits such as Oprah, Rachel Ray and Dr Phil.

MBC Action – the latest channel addition to the MBC Group portfolio, will hit Middle East screens at 21:00 KSA/18:00 GMT, on Monday 5 March.

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