By Pranav Vadehra
As Fox Networks Group airs its first original series in the Middle East, can traditional platforms find a place in today's disrupted media landscape?
The six-episode debut season of The Open Road – Fox Network’s first original production in the Middle East – premiered on October 13 and is now showing across multiple channels in the Fox network.
It follows two women – Chantal from the UAE and Pamela from Lebanon – as they explore Lebanon, the UAE and Jordan on Harley-Davidsons. The travel series breaks new ground for a regional TV show as the two hosts explore unfamiliar facets of the Middle East, and break social and cultural barriers along the way.
The story of its creation goes back to October 2017, when Gemma Wale and Saadi Moukaddem, the two managing partners of production company Electric Films, pitched the idea to Alex El Chami, head of production and executive producer at Fox Networks Group.
El Chami says that Fox has expanded its content over the last three years and he was looking for innovative ideas for Fox Life lifestyle channel which launched last August, and El Chami wanted it to stand out.
“We didn’t want it to be your typical channel with studio-based talk shows,” he tells Arabian Business sister publication Digital Studio.
“And that’s when we met Electric films and they came to us with the concept for what became ‘The Open Road’. I don’t think I have seen something like that on TV here. It’s daring, it’s challenging. A lot of people are going to love or hate it. That’s fine, because for us bad feedback is also good feedback.”
The day before we filmed in Petra they had to evacuate 8,000 tourists because of bad weather. There were landslides and floods and we just had to deal with it
Fox believe they have a winning concept in this show, evident in the fact that it is airing across their extensive TV network as well as online platforms.
“We are doing what we call in the TV industry a road block. If a network has certain amount of channels, they will block a certain time when all the channels will broadcast the show. Because we are strong in that way. We run more than 10 channels so we are capable of doing a roadblock,” says El Chami.
The show represents a new direction for Fox’s content strategy and is billed as the first Middle East production produced under the title of Fox Originals.
“Fox Originals is a title that’s been adopted by our offices globally – you have Fox Originals in Asia, China etc. So we are launching the concept now in the Middle East and this is pretty much the first foundation stone which we are going to build on in future.”
El Chami says viewers will soon see more productions under the Fox Originals title. “We have a lot of stuff coming up. We are also going to look at Season Two of The Open Road. It’s going to be a really big show for people to follow,” he adds.
He adds that Fox’s content will soon be seen on digital platforms and the service is already in the works: “There is an OTT [the term used to refer to content providers that distribute directly to viewers over the Internet] platform we are launching called Fox Plus that will host all of the content of Fox Networks Group and the content from our National Geographic channels. So it’s going be a really big entity to look out for.”
We thought of the format because traveling by bike, there is nothing else like it. It is just a whole different sensory experience
Fox Networks Group and Electric Films already had a good relationship having worked on projects for National Geographic in the past, which helped a lot while they worked on the show.
“The relationship is more of a partnership,” says Gemma Wale. “Electric Films and Fox were working pretty cohesively already, so that’s really a good thing. We first thought of the format because there is nothing else like travelling by bike. There are so many things that you experience n a motorcycle – it is just a whole different sensory experience.”
Moukaddem adds that they were driven by the desire to produce something not seen before on regional TV and says it was thanks to the guidance from Fox that the idea to have women presenters riding the bikes came about: “There is a really good tolerance for women empowerment at Fox. It’s something that needs to have a light shining on it. You don’t see a lot of TV channels doing anything about bikers and about women going and exploring the Arab world. It’s breaking stereotypes so we thought that would be a really good idea.”
Getting the right female presenters to host the show was critical to make the show work and also to the production of the series. Wale says they didn’t want TV personalities or presenters.
“We wanted women that were relatable; people you just want to hang out with. Pamela and Chantel were friends already so that helped. They are from different countries, Lebanon and the UAE, and that helped.”
El Chami reminds us that the unscripted nature of the show ruled out casting professional actors. “Just keep in mind that this is a non-scripted reality show so it’s very important for the characters to be real. With professional actors you are going to lose out a lot on the feeling and emotions.”
We are very proud of the high entertainment value and quality of this series. It also carries on the timeless tradition of storytelling which is deeply rooted in the region
Moukaddem says that using real bikers also helped them during the filming. “One day before we filmed in Petra they literally evacuated 8,000 tourists due to a storm. There was like landslides and floods and we just had to deal with it. The adaptability of the girls was important because they are real bikers who have passed through different terrains. This allowed us to be able to shoot everything and just go with it.”
As senior producer for Electric Films, Wale was responsible for of all aspects of organising the schedule across three countries.
“We basically spent a week in each country, going from Amman all the way down to Petra in Jordan and then Iran and the UAE. That gave us enough time to do all the filming. We are following the action and it’s not scripted so while we have a few suggestions, we’re literally just sort of following where the bikers were taking us.”
She adds that getting the balance between having a small crew on the road, but enough to manage the production was crucial. “You need to have a small enough crew to feel the action but also enough people to make sure you have the support you need.”
Total crew numbers varied from country to country, but mainly consisted of the director, producer, sound engineers, series producer and cameraman along with a support crew of about six people. “We were hovering around 11 or 12 people. You need to make sure everything is contained and you don’t miss the shot, as you only get one chance.”
This is a non-scripted reality show. With professional actors you are going to lose out on a lot of the feeling and emotions
In terms of equipment used on the shoot, Moukaddem says they were using Sony FS7 cameras and stabilisers for the road shots. “We also invested in a time-coded audio sync system. Because there were also lots of cameras recording at the same time, so it allowed us to match the audio with all the separate images which are recorded on the bikes. That was very important, because that’s what we want the viewer to actually experience – the drive on the road.”
Drones were also employed to capture the footage. Moukaddem says of these shots: “There is some paragliding in episode two and it’s very important to capture the beautiful landscape because in so many of the locations we went to the nature is just stunning.”
El Chami says Fox is proud of the show and is already talking about Season Two, with plans to take it to other regions outside the Middle East. “It’s a very free format so we can take it anywhere, which makes it interesting.”
We are following the action. While we have a few suggestions, we’re literally just sort of following where the bikers are taking us
He adds: “There isn’t enough content to the standard we require. Having said that, we are also looking at building the production platform for such content which doesn’t exist here. You find there are really not enough people who can do this in the region – to build an industry in a sense.”
Of the future plans, he affirms that Fox will continue to invest in original content that pushes the envelope. “But what we want to do is flip the coin of our original content to a place where it starts matching the global scene. If you go to any mature market, you will see very well executed reality shows and non-scripted dramas. As much as were learning we also have a lot to give.”
Television networks will ‘reinvent’ themselves and co-exist with on-demand video streaming platforms, according to FOX MENA head Sanjay Raina
Consumers in MENA will continue to use traditional linear TV despite the rise of streaming services, according to the head of Fox Network Group for the Middle East and North Africa (FNG MENA).
Speaking to Arabian Business following the announcement of streaming service Fox Plus at the end of last month, Sanjay Raina said television networks will ‘reinvent’ themselves and co-exist with on-demand video streaming platforms. “There is no death visible on the landscape and everyone will coexist. There will be millions of people who will have both. No one will die. Everything is delivering values,” he said.
Two weeks ago, FNG MENA announced it will offer Fox Plus on MBC subsidiary Shahid Plus. The three-year agreement will see Shahid add new international content including National Geographic documentaries, Fox Lifestyle shows, Baby TV and global TV series and movies.
Raina said that while the younger generation may prefer online streaming over traditional television, many consumers continue to enjoy the latter. “A lot of young people are gravitating towards online streaming,” he said.