BEIRUT: Ali Jaber is neither prince nor politician nor pop star, but wields arguably more power as director of MBC, the Arab world’s largest satellite broadcaster.
Jaber decides what tens of millions of people across the region watch every day on any one of MBC’s 10 channels, from news to Turkish soap operas, American action movies to competitive reality shows like Arabs Got Talent, where he also serves as a judge.
Recently he sat down with The Daily Star to discuss the future of satellite programming, the decline of Lebanese media and why there will never be an Arabic version of “The Wire.”
Jaber, who hails from Nabatieh, got his start as a journalist in the late ’80s covering Lebanon’s Civil War. After the war ended, Jaber was asked by then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to help set up Future TV.
In 2003 he left for Dubai, where he is credited with restructuring the government-owned television holdings, and in 2011 he became group TV director for MBC, where he oversaw the launch of the group’s new Egyptian channel, MBC Masr.
Jaber currently juggles his role as the director of MBC with his duties as judge on Arabs Got Talent and his position as dean of the Mohammad Bin Rashid School of Communications at the American University of Dubai. He is also wrapping up his PhD thesis on the evolution of Arab satellite television at Cambridge University.
Jaber said the launch of MBC Masr was part of MBC’s strategy to meet the spike in demand for local programming in the wake of the Arab revolutions, adding that he is planning on starting channels catering to North Africa and the Middle East as well.
“In the Arab world before the Arab Spring, you had a lot of coverage of the Palestinian story because it was the only story was that allowed,” he said.
“In the absence of the local programming, general, generic pan-Arab programming ruled, but it’s human nature that when you have the choice you want to see what’s happening around you.
He added: “With the Arab Spring and because of the heavy hand of the government lifting bit by bit, territory by territory, we can sense that big parts of our audience are becoming interested in consuming local television and local stories.”
As a result, he said, audiences are now seeking out shows that empower viewers, whether local current affairs programs that discuss issues that affect them directly, or competitive reality shows like The Voice where they can influence the outcome by texting to vote for their favorite contestant.
Localizing content means not only commissioning original programs, but tweaking imported formats to suit local and regional tastes. MBC has seen huge success in recent years with The Voice, Arab Idol and Arabs Got Talent, formats that were developed in the West and bought by the company.
Jaber dismissed criticism that Arab satellite channels were not supporting local production by buying successful formats from abroad.
“I think this is stupid,” Jaber said, adding that when the channel buys a format and the rights to produce it in Arabic, they also buy the time and expertise of the original producers, who fly in to oversee its development.
“So you are training your staff to produce in Lebanon, in the Arabic language, international-level television so that this know-how and accumulated experience, this staff you have they will apply it in other programming that they produce outside the big formats.”
Jaber blamed the dearth of quality local programming in Lebanon on a lack of funding, a decline in human resources and the “inability of the Lebanese to produce content that can travel” and appeal to audiences outside the country.
“The Lebanese used to be pioneers in content and in broadcasting. They used to really rule the airwaves of the Arab world, but since 2003 they have taken several steps back,” he lamented. “They remain, especially in the drama, very Lebanese-centric.”
“If the Koreans can connect to the Arab world much more than the Lebanese, there is a major problem with Lebanese content,” he said, referring to the Korean soap operas which have gained a passionate underground following among Arab youth, particularly in the Gulf. MBC recently premiered its first dubbed Korean show, Dream High, to good ratings.
“All the [channels] in Lebanon and in most of the Arab world are only interested in one pair of eyes: [those of] the stakeholder. Why? Because this stakeholder secures the financing, and thus securing the livelihood of the people working there,” he said.
“They don’t benchmark their choice of programming or choice of coverage or integrity of content [according to] audience analysis and audience viewership. [It’s based on] what the boss says, what the boss likes, maybe [what] his wife [likes].”
As a private commercial enterprise, MBC, a Saudi company with headquarters in Dubai, is driven by ratings and advertising, he said, not politics.
When it comes to his own television choices, Jaber prefers critically acclaimed American series such as “The Newsroom,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire,” although he admitted commissioning original shows in Arabic in the same style would be all but impossible.
“[HBO] decided to produce a genre of shows that cannot be played on free-to-air network television ... sexual material, edgy language, and edgy plots,” he said.
“In the Arab world, this cannot be done because cable television is controlled by either governments or financial elites which are affiliated with the government and these two are appeasing the religious establishment.”
Subscription channels such as OSN, he said, have been unable to produce exclusive programming that pushes boundaries and attracts audiences.
As to the future of satellite television in the region, Jaber predicted many channels would be forced to make serious adjustments once the political turmoil engulfing the region settled.
“When the crisis simmers down the money pouring into media for political reasons will dwindle and those channels will have to consolidate and shrink,” he said, adding this would have a positive effect on the quality of content. “When you have political money you don’t care about the viewer, you care about securing the money.”
“The money is secured when the one giving you the money is happy with your content, and he or she is happy with your content because you cater to their views only – not the views of the rest of the Arab world.”