Nebil Karoui has a big grin on his face. And it’s hardly surprising. The CEO of the self-titled media giant Karoui & Karoui has managed to snatch some of the rights to Star Academy from the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC). Yet if that seemed “improbable” just months ago, then persuading Zinedine Zidane to appear in one of his company’s television commercials, holding an Algerian flag, was surely beyond the realms of possibility? Karoui, clearly, is a man who loves battling the odds.
His latest venture is to launch Nessma TV, dubbed the ‘first Maghrebian channel for Maghrebian people’.
“We are the only ones thinking of the Maghreb as one region and not the sum of four countries,” says Karoui, explaining that television viewers in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya are happy watching LBC, Rotana or the French television channel. He is convinced that the time has come to bring together talent from all over the Maghreb region and create specific content targeting its specific audience.
Nessma TV, which is currently carrying out on-air testing, will start broadcasting at the beginning of 2007 and will target the four countries spanning Libya to Morocco, as well as Europe, which is home to almost 10 million Maghrebians.
According to Karoui, the US$40m light entertainment channel’s budget is equivalent to that of LBC’s (without its news budget of US$20m) and will kick off with global music audition sensation Star Academy. However, the channel will deliberately not include news coverage, says the CEO.
“In terms of news it is impossible for us to do in our region. It is political but it is very complicated. I think Al Jazeera is doing news better than we can do,” he says.
Karoui believes that starting off with an internationally-renowned reality show will earn the channel a considerable amount of publicity. So far, he says, it has seen a lot of interest. “Three months after we announced Star Academy we had over 20,000 alerts on Google around our group. It is everywhere because Star Academy is very popular and people are very curious to know how we will do it differently. We are now in the last stages,” he says.
The channel will focus mainly on entertainment, social and cultural programmes specifically aimed at the
Maghrebian audience. This is very much in demand, explains Karoui, because despite Arabic music being popular in the Maghreb, there are many differences in terms of language, culture and style. He adds that although the region is famous for Rai, there are many other styles that have not had the same exposure.
Tactically, before launching the TV channel, Karoui & Karoui World decided to create a music label signing up 60 singers from the region.
“We have stopped hiring now because we have to produce artists after which we are going to arrange tours for those artists. It is good for us because this way we have the music, the shows, the concerts and the musicians,” he says.
Although the channel will air Star Academy on its launch day, Karoui explains that the plan is to show movies and Maghrebian soaps at a later stage.
Star Academy, a global show aired in over 50 countries, is a pop music talent competition involving elements of reality TV and votes from the audience and the public deciding who stays and who leaves each week. Star Academy Maghreb will be based on the same concept with slight alterations because as Karoui explains, LBC’s version of the show proved to be inappropriate for the region in general.
“Last year we had some trouble in the Maghreb with LBC’s version of Star Academy because conservatives were slightly worried about how young people were behaving and we decided to do it with the same concept but a little bit differently.
“People’s main concern was that young people [both male and female] were put together in the same house. We took the house of the boys and put it a few kilometres away.
“This way they can stay in the academy until midnight then take the bus and go. It’s like in schools when you have two different places and it’s safer, people like it, politicians like it and the government wants it that way,” adds Karoui. However, obtaining the rights to the show from Endemol, a Netherlands-based global leader in television and audiovisual entertainment, wasn’t easy. After three years of constant negotiations and uphill struggle, Karoui & Karoui World finally sealed the deal, persuading Endemol to sell 100% of its catalogue over five years, to exclusively air its shows in the North African region. The catalogue boasts Endemol’s most successful shows including Big Brother, Deal or no Deal and Split Decision as well as Star Academy. “The offer was very interesting for them and they wanted to start the show in another region,” says Karoui.
Obtaining the rights for Star Academy resulted in a battle with LBC, which until then held the licence for the whole of the Arab World. “They were used to having the whole region so it’s a little bit complicated for them and I think it’s normal for the first year to have some problems, but after that it will be a normal situation,” Karoui says.
Madian Al Jazerah, spokesman for Karoui & Karoui World, goes on to add that Star Academy Maghreb is an entirely different ‘ball game’ to LBC’s version. He explains that when Maghrebians participate in the LBC show they are forced to change their dialect into a Middle Eastern version and that it also applies to their singing performances.
“They completely throw themselves into that culture totally missing themselves as individuals of the Maghreb, whereas Star Academy Maghreb offers a different package. This is why a Lebanese, Syrian or Palestinian in the Maghreb will never survive [the competition] anyway because they would have to know the language.
“We are just being more specific and directed and focused on the people of the Maghreb to give them a better chance,” he adds.
The Academy or ‘Dar’, as Karoui & Karoui World labels it, has not yet revealed where the show will take place. The location is currently under construction in Tunis and will consume a space of 3000 sq m. A studio dedicated to prime time is also underway in Tunis. Musicians from Europe and the Maghreb region will be invited to the show, in addition to celebrities from the rest of the Arab world.
Karoui believes in highlighting the difference between the Maghreb region and the rest of the Arab world. After all, he explains, the Maghreb constitutes more than half the population of the Arab world with 85 million people who have “different habits, cultures, foods and music and therefore anticipate specifically segmented media content”.
Going a step further, Karoui & Karoui World also has a music channel in the pipeline with a provisional launch date of mid-2007. The channel will be interactive and also serve as a platform for all the promising artists registered under the company’s music label.
The group, which started life in a small office and is made up of 14 companies under different names, was recently re-branded and joined under the Karoui & Karoui World banner with a bright red dot for a logo.
Now, with the group’s six main divisions that includes advertising, entertainment, interactive, music, outdoor and production, Karoui is very optimistic about the future. Only four years ago, the company’s total turnover was US$5m while all figures for this year point to the US$60m mark. Karoui & Karoui World’s number of employees has also increased from 40 to 350 in addition to hiring a staggering 500 for the TV channel. “I think within one year there will be around 1000 employees in the company,” says the CEO.
Currently, Karoui & Karoui World has four buildings in Tunis, a building in Morocco and, as you read this, is setting up Nessma TV. The company is also investing in large facility studios in the next few years.
Seeing a lot of interest from Dubai in the Maghreb region from companies like Emaar, DAMAC, Qatar Airways and Emirates Airline, has prompted Karoui & Karoui World to target Dubai specifically as its next operational venue. “Our plan is to come here in 2007, open an office here and try to get some business,” says Karoui.
The company has already started with Kuwait’s mobile phone operator Wataniya Telecom, creating the telco’s advertising campaign for the Arab marketplace.
Incorporating a number of different divisions that handle more than one aspect of the client’s project from ideas to interactive and production, is one of the company’s biggest advantages, believes Karoui. Creating its own content puts the company a step ahead of the competition as it facilitates the implementation of ideas that would otherwise have required the involvement of multiple sets of people. “Being one single entity has helped the group enormously," says Karoui.
“It’s very integrated and easy for clients, and very few big companies like Universal do that regionally. The vision is for us to become a content library,” says Karoui.
“For example, if a client is looking for interactive content we have SMS-to-television downloading and voting in addition to radio. In terms of press we have magazines and outdoor advertising. We always create our own content so we don’t have to pay for it. It’s good for the clients and good for the business.”
Whether the company’s next direction is east or west, is yet to be determined by the clients, according to Karoui. “We follow our clients like we did before,” he says.
When Procter & Gamble (P&G) asked the group to come to Morocco, however, it did. And when P&G requested that Karoui provide its services in Algeria, the firm responded and so far it has every intention of following that pledge. “We’ll follow clients and we will open to serve the client and the public specific content,” Karoui says assuredly.
With preparations underway to open offices in France next year and Dubai and its widely anticipated channel in the Maghreb already on the map, the Karoui brothers are confident they are changing the face of the entertainment industry in the region.
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