By Shane McGinley
Turner Broadcasting is launching the Cartoon Network in the Middle East. Will the kids get animated?
Turner Broadcasting System, a division of global media giant Time Warner, is launching the Cartoon Network into the crowded Middle East television market. Alan Musa is the man tasked with making it a success and he is hoping Arabic kids will get as animated about it as he is.
Working with kids requires having a good sense of humour, even if you are business executive. Alan Musa certainly seems to have that in abundance. He has just flown into Dubai on the red eye flight from Europe and he is standing in the 44th floor of a Dubai tower with people frantically unpacking furniture and tables, putting up lights and painting walls around him.
In the midst of all that, photographers are ordering him to high five cardboard cut outs, hug cartoon characters and grab a microphone and leap about like a rock star in front of the Dubai skyline.
He laughs, he is accommodating and he is in full on promotional mode. And rightly so, as his company is about invest what he admits is “a lot” of money and resources in launching a TV channel into the crowded Middle East market and he has lofty aims: for it to rise into the top ten percent of channels as quickly as possible. After he finishes his antics for the cameras, the vice president and general manager of Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) in the Middle East and Africa sits down and catches his breath. “The things you have to do in this business,” he laughs, slightly cringing.
However, the former advertising executive, who has been with TBS since 1997 and has quickly risen up the ranks, has good reasons to be in good spirits. On the eve of his company’s big launch of the Cartoon Network Arabic, the signs are as positive as they can be.
Time Warner, TBS’ massive parent company, reported second quarter earnings up seven percent to $562m, which was helped by the fourteen percent rise in advertising revenue achieved by TBS. On top of that, TV ratings for the Cartoon Network in the US showed that its figures were up twelve percent in the third quarter.
Once the celebrations are over, the new Arabic version of the channel will be rolled out and kids in the Middle East and North Africa will be able to enjoy the network’s classics such as Ben 10, Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack and Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends.
“It is about the Cartoon Network being as broad as possible and getting to as many kids. The figures I have seen are that there are 55 million homes and 300 million people [in the Middle East], so it is an enormous part of the world. Within the pay TV world we are looking to extend our portfolio,” he says.
The Cartoon Network was formed in 1991 when TV icon Ted Turner bought the classic animation studio Hanna-Barbera Productions and the back catalogue to the Ruby-Spears library. These acquisitions brought together a whole host of kids classics, such as Tom and Jerry, Popeye, Scooby Doo, the Flintstones and Alvin and Chipmunks, and the network was born.
The channel has been streamed from the US to the region for a number of years, but eighteen months ago Musa said they began to think seriously about launching a dedicated Arabic version.
While he won’t give the exact number, he says the Middle East makes up a “reasonable size” of TBS’ business, but he adds that the fact they are launching a new dedicated channel in the region is testimony to the fact that they “could be doing more here.”
“Honestly, maybe it could have been five years ago but we had been looking at the market and what we could do for quite a while. The first conversation we had about this was eighteen months ago, but obviously we had to do research. We wanted to make sure the model we created was the right model, so we thought about what blend of content we wanted on the channel, a mix of Cartoon Network original shows from the US and a mixture of content that was made in the region.”
He admits that they first thought about launching the site by managing it from London, but Musa says he decided that if they were going to do it they wanted to have a dedicated team on the ground and chose to set up in Dubai, where CNN - TBS’ global 24-hour news network — already had a successful base.
“We opened an office in Dubai Media City and we are going to be recruiting four people initially, very smart commercially driven people with marketing experience, which will be our marketing hub for the entertainment division, because CNN has been here already for a while.
“We also debated making content for the region and I think we thought long and hard about the investment, rather than try and launch it from London and then bring in people and do it the wrong way around. Timing wise, we have done it as soon as we can, maybe five years ago we should have tried it. [But] we are doing it, which is the important thing.”
As well as the regional hub and the launch party, Musa has put in place a number of initiatives and deals to make sure the channel is truly Arabic and not just an imported copy. The first change is that the cartoons will be dubbed, so Tom and Jerry will continue their traditional battles across Middle East TV screens, but now they will come fully equipped with distinctive Arabic accent.
“It will be dubbed. That is a very important decision we made. The first big content will be the big hits from the US, but my ambition is to shift that balance over the years and get more and more content over the year from the Middle East.”
In order to generate this content Musa has done a number of deals with local animation houses. The first was with the Dubai-based Lammtara, the award-winning studio and creator of the popular 3D animation series Freej. The licensing and development deal will see Freej episodes and merchandise appear across the Cartoon Network and open up the brand to a global market of nearly 300 million Cartoon Network viewers.
TBS has also struck a production agreement with Amman-based Rubicon, creators a number of Arabic specific animation series. The deal also includes opportunities for Rubicon and TBS to develop productions based on the Cartoon Networks’ back catalogue of brands. The Jordanian animation house previously produced Pink Panther and Pals, which was shown on the Cartoon Network in the US.
The shows Rubicon will dedicate to the new Arabic channel include will be Ben and Izzy, a 3D animated comedy and adventure series in English and Arabic, which follows the adventures of two adolescent boys, an American called Ben and a Jordanian called Isam or Izzy, who travel around the globe to various countries and time periods with a desert genie named Yasmine.
It will also produce Tareq Wa Shireen, the first 2D animated series in Arabic, which focuses on Arabic heritage, history, culture and music and intended for children aged three to eight years old.
The production deals follow in the footsteps of TBS’ announcement in Cannes that it plans to set up the Cartoon Network Animation Academy in partnership with Abu Dhabi-based content provider Twofour54. Since the announcement of the Rubicon and Freej agreements and the setting up of the training academy, Musa says he has been inundated with offers from production companies.
“I have been saying publically that we are very interested in meeting production companies. We acquire content on one or two year deals and that has always been a part of our ambition. We have been approached by quite a few companies, but we are going to engage with these guys as soon as possible. At the end of the day, if it is good content and a great idea and we feel it would work with Cartoon Network Arabic then we will work together,” he says.
One of the live productions he is planning, and which still start production soon, is a show called Skatoony, a mix of live and animated characters. Similar to the Celebrity Squares TV show, the quiz will have teams of real kids and cartoon characters from the Freej series playing against each other for prizes.
“We will film that here and production starts fairly soon and we are working with a local production company and all the kids will be recruited from here, auditions will be here, we will film here and the animation will be superimposed,” says Musa excitedly.
Recently in the UK, the regulator upheld a complaint about an episode of Tom and Jerry where Tom smokes a cigar. Although the cartoon was made 50 years ago, it was decided that a smoking cat was no longer a good role model for kids and the episode has now been scrapped from the Cartoon Network schedules. So how does Musa think it will cope in more conservative markets in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia?
“We have taken advice from some consultants and programming experts. Like most TV channels, there may be some mistakes from time to time but we are very sensitive to the fact that we can’t just take a typical model from the US or UK and just ship it over here. We have got to make sure we get it right from day one.
“Recognising cultural requirements is very important. We want kids to enjoy this channel, not be offended by it, as they won’t,” he says confidently.
The new channel does come with some advantages and good track records. TBS’ 24-hour news channel CNN has been operating successfully in the region and last year launched a second base in Abu Dhabi. Earlier this month, TBS’ Turner Classic Movie channel celebrated ten years in operation in the region, where it broadcasts a back catalogue of classic movies with Arabic subtitles.
On top of that, a study by the Pan Arab Research Centre (PARC) found that advertising expenditure in the GCC surged 20 percent to over $5bn in the first half of this year, with TV one of the sectors to see the biggest increase.
TBS already attracts a number of high profile regional advertisers to its shows and has a number of regional sponsorship deals such as the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority sponsorship of CNN’s monthly feature show Icon. It also promotes its brands with some commercial tie ups of its own in the region and Turner Classic Movies was the main media sponsor of the first annual Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF) last year.
As part of its current global strategy, TBS is looking to generate revenue by attracting big name signings and invest in more regional content. CNN recently announced that Piers Morgan — the British newspaper journalist, reality TV judge and former Arabian Business columnist — is to take over from Larry King as the main chat show host on CNN. Comedian Conan O’Brien has also been signed to TBS’ main cable channel in the US and the media conglomerate has been on the acquisition hunt, with recent deals in Chile, Scandinavia and Italy.
Musa says that, if Cartoon Network Arabic follows the successes it has had with CNN and Turner Classic Movies, then TBS may look to expand into more cities around the region and launch more Arabic versions of its other channels. “Places like Cairo are real production hubs. Places like Abu Dhabi or Jordan there, is a lot of creativity coming out so, hypothetically, we could [open more regional offices]. CNN has been here for quite a while, in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I suppose if there is a creative hub where we can make content then there are opportunities.”
Musa is a busy man. After Dubai, he flies to Germany to launch another channel. However, he admits that at the end of the day he just loves TV. “I am a TV junkie. I work in TV and then I go home and watch TV!”
Before he rushes off to fine tune the venue for the launch, I have to ask him: what does a TV executive watch on TV? Retro advertising hit Mad Men, medical drama House and geeky comedy The Big Bang Theory are what gets him excited.
Another Western junk! Cartoon channels will reduce the creativity of children. Not good for their eyes also.