MTV Arabia launches this week and the 60th MTV channel could be the most influential since the original launched 26 years ago. Time Out spoke to those in charge about beginnings, censorship, and cleaning up hip hop. Words Matt Pomroy
MTV is now older than most of the people who currently watch it. It was born on August 1, 1981 in New York and was launched with the sole purpose of showing music videos. As they flicked the switch, a disembodied voice said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll’ and with that, a cultural totem for a nation’s youth sparked into life. The first song was ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ by the Buggles. Cheeky, irreverent and appropriately prophetic – it was the perfect song to launch with.
However, by song six they were playing Cliff Richard’s ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’. No matter, as MTV would grow and morph into far more than just a video jukebox. Today, MTV is seen in a total of 140 countries and has the power to reach two billion people. More significantly though, are the global franchises, with MTV Latvia, MTV Pakistan and MTV Japan among the 53 MTV channels that have launched outside of America, proving that globalisation needn’t mean homogenisation.
The spread of MTV has actually meant region-specific programming tying in with the channel’s global ethos, rather than just transmitting a feed from the American parent station. Now the Middle East has joined the party and, although MTV Arabia is a relative latecomer, its launch could well be the most culturally significant since the original MTV was broadcast over 26 years ago.
‘MTV Arabia is the region’s first and only youth lifestyle brand, offering a platform for self expression, while truly representing Arab youth.’ This is the statement from the channel’s business plan and, as businesses go, it could be massive. The potential impact is staggering, as this free-toair station has an estimated target audience of 190 million young people in 12 key regions: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Yemen, Palestine and here in the UAE. The launch will be the biggest ever on ‘day one’ of any new MTV channel in its history due to the vast potential reach, and the fact that it’s free to air. Culturally though, the significance may be even greater.
‘We will be illustrating a more positive culture from the region, rather than the typical negative image,’ says Patrrick Samaha, MTV Arabia’s General Manager. ‘The internet has exposed young people in the region to the rest of the world and now they want to be part of that – and this will be a platform for that expression.
‘MTV will be affecting youth at a sensitive time of their lives.’ Perhaps significantly, Abdullatif Al Sayegh, the CEO of Arab Media Group which will broadcast the channel, has stated that with regards to MTV, ‘AMG is committed to making a difference in the region by raising the standards of entertainment and championing pro-social initiatives.’
It’s interesting that MTV Arabia is launching at a time when the MTV network is at a critical juncture, not financially but in terms of content. The M in MTV stands for music, but the channel is moving away from that, to the annoyance of many (increasingly former) viewers. Even Justin Timberlake, while on stage at last month’s MTV awards, made a stand and said ‘I want to challenge MTV to play more videos.’ The listings for MTV UK on November 7 illustrate the direction that the channel has taken in many regions. Of the 24 hours it broadcast that day, only three of them were actually showing music, and they were between the hours of 2-4am and then 6-7am in the morning. The rest of the day is devoted to reality TV and comedy aimed at the youth demographic, including eight episodes of That 70s Show.
MTV Arabia promise they will be committed to music with the ratio of music-to-programmes set roughly to 40/60, so music videos will be well represented and half of those screened will be from Arabic artists. But they insist that there is more to the station. ‘It’s not about the music videos,’ Patrrick says, ‘the word M means more than music these days and the objective is to become a youth station.’
Giving the Arabic youth a credible outlet via MTV Arabia is going to be something of a balancing act. In America the channel is constantly condemned by parental watchdog groups as a corrupting influence, with a spokesperson from the Parents Television Council saying, ‘In an affront to families everywhere, MTV are trying to attract younger audiences with violence, sex and titillating language.’ At the same time the station is being criticised by others for censorship, with many music videos being banned or edited. For example, in Akon’s video for ‘Smack That’, the phrase ‘smack that’ was censored in some parts.
But ironically for MTV Arabia, issues of censorship may work in their favour. ‘Of course there will be censorship,’ Patrrick says smiling. ‘Our aim is quality and respect for culture. Some videos won’t get on there simply because the quality is not good enough, others will be banned for cultural reasons. Although increasingly we are seeing good quality video clips from Arabic performers. But there will be a strict policy of respecting those with very high traditional values. MTV Arabia has to make the point that it’s a global brand, but it’s for Arabs and made by Arabs. Something made by people like them.’
The adherence to local values has in many ways forced their hand: a total reliance on American imports would not be possible, so original programming was essential, as were the four months of field research. ‘The public decided what the station would be like – that was what we needed,’ Patrrick explains. His team targeted people under the age of 24 and travelled around the region to schools and universities canvassing opinions. The aim was to see what it was they wanted, from what would eventually be their new channel. Patrrick is also quick to point out that consultation with figures of authority also took place. ‘We also spoke to the governments, leaders and parents and said “don’t worry, it will be nice” so they know what’s going on.’
Many of the programmes will be made locally, with region-wide talent show Hip HopNa being the flagship series. The search for local hip-hop flair in the Middle East is perhaps the one show that will have the biggest impact, highlighting emerging Arabic artists. Patrrick explains, ‘you can’t be MTV unless you start something new from day one, and Arabic hip-hop music is going to be huge. We’ve found some amazing talent. People said to us, “how can you do hip hop without bad mouthing?” but we’ve done it.’
Patrrick believes that hip hop can be educational and, through music, young Middle Easterners will be telling their own stories. ‘They talk about their problems in a hip-hop way,’ he explains and the themes are pretty much the same ones that affect teenagers the world over. After all, far more teenagers have problems with family and school then they do with drive-by shootings and pretending to be a gangster. It’s certainly far more honest. So what do the heads of MTV in America make of their Arabic cousin? Again Patrrick cracks a grin. ‘We are working closely with the MTV networks – it’s a brand that we are new to, and it’s a culture that they are new to, so we’re both learning. But we may change as we go. Whoever says they don’t want to change is actually saying they don’t want to listen. We’ll always listen – if at any point we say, “fine, this is it” then we’re on the wrong track.’
If MTV is going to become the dominant voice of the youth once again, then this region could well be the place for it to happen. Young people represent 65 per cent of the population in the Middle East. AMG’s Abdullatif Al Sayegh issued a rallying cry to this effect saying that, ‘MTV Arabia will celebrate a new era for our youth – it’s time they were heard.’ When MTV Arabia goes live, the world will have a prime opportunity to better understand and be entertained by not only the most misunderstood and maligned age demographic on the planet, but also the most misunderstood and maligned region.
While MTV in other areas are content with screening sitcom re-runs, and sleazy reality shows with Paris Hilton, so MTV Arabia is giving a real voice to people who are essentially the future of the Middle East. Despite increased censorship it’s, in many ways, far more cutting edge than anything the American parent station is currently doing. Middle Eastern youth will have the centre stage and MTV is letting them show the world their ambitions, opinions and, of course, their music. Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.
From Time Out, November 2007