In America they have ‘sweeps week’: a time when the most prestigious TV channels wheel out guaranteed audience winners to boost their numbers before the seasonal Nielsen ratings are released. As autumn rolls around in Europe, eager TV stations showcase their most prestigious productions in order to hook new audiences before winter. But in the Arab world, something truly unique has emerged in television scheduling: Ramadan TV.
With the rise of terrestrial television in the ’70s, Ramadan TV grew to fill a social purpose. It was traditionally tailored to fit the spiritual needs of a fasting population, explains Muhammad Ayish, dean of the College Of Communications at the University Of Sharjah. Workers would rush home to see their families and break their fasts. The result was heavy doses of religious and historical programming that set about shaping and moulding its audience with tales of sacrifice, devotion and patience.
In recent years, Ayish explains, with the advent of commercial television and satellite channels in the early ’90s, we have seen the battle to reach the hearts and minds of the people evolve into big business. Perhaps the closest comparison is the Christmas TV scheduling in the West. Planning among the TV stations is rumoured to begin a year in advance. Productions start as early as January. No sooner has it ended then it begins again. It is a phenomenon.
The stakes are also getting higher for local stations, as Kim Sarkis, executive director of broadcasting at Abu Dhabi Television, explains: ‘The need to differentiate offerings in Ramadan has driven channels to experiment with story lines, new media platforms and acting talent. It has also driven a greater involvement by channels in the production of series.’
Last year saw the UAE’s staple diet of imported soap operas and dramas from Egypt and Syria being supplemented by big-budget, homegrown offerings. In 2008, Dubai TV spent a Middle-East-record-breaking US$6million on Siraa Ala Al (Struggle In The Sands), an 18th-century epic based around the poems of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid and filmed across Syria, Morocco and the UAE with a supporting cast of 1,000 extras. Abu Dhabi riposted by launching a brand new channel during Ramadan – Abu Dhabi TV Plus One – helping viewers to avoid gulping down their evening meals by broadcasting its programmes one hour later and eliminating time differences with other Arab countries. The belief of Sarkis that ‘the fierce competition’ between Middle East broadcasters ‘has lead to a continuous improvement in the content and quality of drama series’ is widely accepted. The ambition of the broadcasters is a testament to this, but, some argue, it comes at the cost of its soul.
‘Unfortunately, the moral value of Ramadan as a month of spiritual fulfillment has taken a hard beating,’ Ayish argues. ‘The flow of pure entertainment shows seep through to strip the month of its solemn character.’ Ramadan is supposed to be a time when Muslims can focus on their religion without distraction. For example, live music (except for traditional music) and the usual entertain- ment in bars are banned during Ramadan, while TVs are usually muted.
It’s become an exception to the rule for economical reasons, Ayish explains. Major stations have been known to cover their annual costs and more during this period. Indeed, advertising revenues sky rocket and businesses are known to spend up to 50 per cent of their yearly budget in this one month alone, prompting programming with more commercial appeal to hook viewers and justify revenues. It also opens up a wider issue: the question of the commercialisation of Ramadan as a whole. At a time when restaurants offer lavish Iftar banquets and the shops stay open later to tempt consumers, TV advertising has become the driving force in encouraging the public to spend more and more.
But to blame the universal decline of morality on television is a contentious argument. Sarkis points out that Abu Dhabi TV shows various religious and family programming in line with the spirit of the month. The audience response is also confusing. On one side, fasters argue that they need to be exposed to the finest religious programmes to facilitate their interaction with the holy month, but they also demand entertainment to offer some relief. The TV stations are rather stuck in the middle.
Perhaps most surprisingly, a recent internet survey by the Arab Advisors Group in the UAE suggests that, contrary to previous assumptions, 20 per cent of viewers during Ramadan spend more time in front of the television, while a whopping 34.2 per cent tend to watch it less. Nevertheless, trends in TV expansion over recent years have seen UAE channels begin to challenge the traditional Middle East strongholds of Egypt and Syria. Like it or not, Ramadan TV is here to stay and, while it may have changed in content over the years, it is surely fuelling the beginnings of a media revolution in the UAE.