BEIRUT: Local television stations have altered their special Ramadan programming and broadcast schedule as a way to mitigate the loss of viewers to the 2014 World Cup, which has proved to be the most-watched sporting event of the year. A slew of prime-time programming will hit local and regional networks when the holy month of Ramadan begins on June 27-28, two weeks before the World Cup’s final match. The conflict poses a potential problem for regional and local Arabic networks planning their lineup of special Ramadan shows.
At MTV, station managers have decided to limit the number of special series this year.
“This year, we are going to air two series only,” said Christian Gemayel, head of channel at MTV. The station will be broadcasting “10 Abid Zghar,” a crime series based on an Agatha Christie novel, and “Law,” a drama about marriage and infidelity.
The station’s choice was directly related to the conflict between Ramadan and the World Cup.
“Everyone watches football,” Gemayel said. “It’s an event that both children and adults like to watch.”
Arab television series are a central part of contemporary Ramadan tradition as families gather after iftar to watch programming that stations bill as the best they offer all year. Though seasonal programming includes game and talks shows, stations pour resources into musalsalat, dramas or comedy series, which are often the product of yearlong work.
Tele Liban, the country’s state television channel, recently obtained the rights to broadcast the World Cup, making the live matches more accessible to home views. That decision provided more motivation for local stations to schedule Ramadan programming around the tournament.
The World Cup “is one of the main reasons why we didn’t venture into acquiring more than two series,” said Joumana Fehmi, division head of programming at Future TV. “This is a huge cost that might be risky against the World Cup.”
“Definitely the World Cup will affect us this year, at least in the first half of Ramadan,” Fehmi added.
Arabic dramas throughout the year usually attract more female than male viewers, but during Ramadan, that ratio evens out as the whole family gathers to watch special series.
“Our primary audience during Ramadan is the whole family, as this is the only month of the year where all the family gathers together,” Fehmi explained. “If during the year, women watch more series than men, this is not the case in Ramadan, when men also stick to TV and watch the series, too.”
This year, however, stations expect a large portion of their male viewership to be occupied with the World Cup. Even after accommodating the tournament schedule, football matches are still likely to draw viewers away from special programming, said Pierre Daher, CEO of LBCI.
“Viewership for the World Cup is far bigger than Ramadan [programs],” Daher said. “The viewership is in the games; everything becomes secondary to them.”
For those more interested in Ramadan dramas, local TV stations plan to fight for viewers by broadcasting their strongest musalsalat in the evenings. Most Lebanese stations also plan to play reruns at night between iftar and sahour, station managers said.
And though locally broadcast series are fewer in number this year, station managers said they were chosen wisely.
“10 Abid Zghar was done specifically for MTV,” Gemayel explained. “We have exclusivity in this series, and that’s a big advantage for us.”
Although he refused to disclose the exact running time of the shows, he said the series would be broadcast between matches.
Al-Manar will show four series this Ramadan, more than any other local station, but is putting special emphasis on a historical social family drama called “Melh al-Tourab,” said Ahmad Meselmani, information department manager at Al-Manar.
“In the first overlapping weeks, we are expecting that the World Cup will attract more viewers,” Meselmani said. “But we can’t do anything. We can’t start our series after the World Cup.”
Future TV is banking on a celebrity star to boost its Ramadan viewership. Haifa Wehbi will have her debut role in a television series as a star in Future’s “Kalam Ala Warak.” Claude Sabbagha, head of marketing and communication at FTV, echoed Future’s competitors, saying they would try their best to broadcast around the tournament schedule.
On LBC, special series “Al-Ikhwa,” which follows the story of five adopted siblings, began airing a full month before the World Cupin hopes of keeping viewers through the tournament and Ramadan.
“Our strategy is to choose musalsalat that attract audiences,” Daher said. “If they can’t watch an [episode], they feel that they’re missing something.”