Tag Archives: MBC

Ahead of the game: Dubai’s MBC on breaking new ground

Dubai-based broadcaster MBC is breaking new ground with dramas such as mystery thriller Witch of the South. Fadi Ismail, general manager of the network’s production arm O3 Productions, explains why ‘nothing is taboo anymore.’

From its offices in Dubai, Cairo and Istanbul, O3 Productions is at the forefront of television drama in the Middle East.

The company started out in documentaries before introducing hugely popular Turkish dramas into the region. Since 2010, O3 has turned its attention to producing Arabic drama series.

Fadi Ismail
O3 Productions’ Fadi Ismail

Arguably its biggest show so far has been Omar, which aired on MBC1 in 2012 and told the story of Omar ibn Al-Khattab, the second Caliph of Islam, and depicts his life from 18 years old until the moments of his death. The series ran for 31 episodes during Ramadan before a four-and-a-half-hour TV movie followed in 2014.

Filmed in Morocco and directed by Hatem Ali, the coproduction with Qatar TV cost 200 million Saudi riyals (US$53.33m).

Now O3 is pushing further into new genres with shows like Witch of the South (aka Saherat al-Ganoob), which aired last autumn. Written by Samah al-Hariri and directed by Akram Farid, the story follows Rouh (Horia Farghaly), a girl who gets possessed by an evil spirit, exploring how this affects her relationships.

It also covers real-world topics such as antiques smugglers and social issues when Rouh’s father, disappointed his wife has given birth to a girl, marries another woman – only to have two more daughters.

“It’s our new baby,” says Fadi Ismail, general manager of O3. “It’s a mystery thriller that has an element of the paranormal, which is something we introduced for the first time. And because it’s a new genre, we weren’t sure how the audience would cope with the storylines, but the initial indications were extremely positive.”

It’s not the first time O3 has broken new ground, with its website boasting of milestones such as producing the first Arab telenovela (Ruby) and the first 120-part Egyptian telenovela (Al Montankem).

“We have a record of introducing things for the first time,” Ismail explains. “We have introduced the long-running telenovela-style series, we were the first to introduce Turkish soaps in MENA, we were the first to do big-budget epics. So we have a track record of being the first and we don’t want to disappoint anyone by not doing the first of something new every year or two.

“We’ve also been pioneering series for during Ramadan and outside Ramadan. Usually it is the usual suspects, meaning if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – series about romance and social issues are what drive ratings and eyeballs so we emphasise that and we try to improve on that but within the same genre. But from time to time we do introduce something new.”

Witch of the South
Witch of the South is about a girl who becomes possessed by an evil spirit

Another first was Selfie (pictured top), a black comedy set in Saudi Arabia that Ismail calls a “mega hit” – a hard-hitting comedy that served as a critique of culture and politics in the region.

“The editorial freedom we had to criticise the situation was a first in Saudi comedy so that was new,” he adds. “It was big and very positive. We try to be up to date with what people want, and what viewers want is always anybody’s guess. We try to anticipate, we give them the usual suspects, but we also try to push boundaries in storytelling. We did it two years ago with Omar, the historical series, and we did it last summer with Selfie.”

Ramadan remains the focal point in the year for broadcasters, which traditionally air their biggest new series (which mostly consist of 30 episodes) during the Islamic holy month.

MBC is starting to introduce longer-running series outside of Ramadan, with Witch of the South a recent example.

“Ramadan is still the main focal point of the year, although MBC as a group has managed to make new content all year round, but Ramadan still has a special and unique position in the eyes of viewers,” Ismail says. “There’s more consumption of TV at that point and it’s a habit. We’re all creatures of habit. There is an expectation that during Ramadan, you have the best content for 30 days, day after day, non-stop. That kind of habit is a die-hard habit. It has been around for decades, so it has managed to formulate very high expectations that no one dares to disappoint.”

However, the explosion of social media means that while viewing habits continue to follow old traditions, storylines and subjects for new dramas are changing – and that means more responsibility is placed on producers, both in terms of content and production quality.

“Nothing is taboo anymore,” Ismail declares. “But still, social media is uncontrolled – that’s the nature of it – while drama is pre-planned and you have to think hard and be responsible about how you tackle issues.

“Drama is not social media on TV, it’s much more subtle, much more effective. There’s nothing more effective for viewers wanting the good, the bad and the ugly than drama. Producers carry responsibilities when they devise drama concepts but we all suffer to come up with good storytelling. Everybody talks about how difficult it is, everybody is trying to improve on it and raise that level of sophistication in storytelling. It’s easier said than done.”

On the subject of production quality, Ismail says Middle Eastern dramas are improving but highlights the budget gap compared with Western productions. “One of the problems is that while the pilot for an American series costs up to US$7m, in Turkey a 120-minute episode costs US$300,000,” he says. “For us in the MENA region, a whole 30-episode series will cost much less than a US show’s pilot. So there is this kind of perspective one has to keep in mind.

“We are starting from a very low place so it will take us more time to be able to be courageous in investment because there has to be an economic rationale to invest more. When you talk about higher costs, you have to see where higher revenue is coming from.

“You have to work within the boundaries of reality, and that reality is limited by so many constraints – one of which is that in our region there are many wars and, as such, the oil prices that drive the economy – which drives advertising – are getting lower and lower. So all of this has a negative impact on the ability to monetise production.”

As has been seen in Europe, borders are coming down in terms of the number of TV dramas now being coproduced by creatives in more than one country. Could this happen across the Middle East?

“I always think smart people should come together and find ways to work together to make content that’s local and global,” Ismail says. “Of course, it has to work in its country of origin but it has to be devised and designed from day one to work internationally. This is the way forward. We’re working on a few projects in that direction but it takes time. The process is different, the mentality is different. Ways of thinking have to come together to reach a happy ending but we believe in that. It’s a must, not a luxury.”

Meryem Urzeli
Meryem Urzeli stars in Queen of the Night

Other series on air or coming up include Arabic show Al oustoura (The Legend), starring Mohammad Ramadan in a suspense drama that questions how a person will behave when he is forced to give up his beliefs; and Al weed (The Promise), a romantic drama starring Mai Ezzedine.

Turkish series include KYG (Kaderimin Yaxildigi Gun/The Day My Faith Was Written), starring Özcan Deniz and Hatice Şendil; and Queen of the Night, starring Meryem Urzeli. The latter tells the story of Selin (Urzeli), who meets and falls in love with Kartal, knowing they would only have one night together.

“Here there are two kinds of drama. – Arab, such as Egyptian and Lebanese, and Turkish. We’re deeply involved in both. We have partners in Turkey – O3 Turkey – and we have O3 Egypt and O3 Dubai. These three entities are coming together for content that works both nationally and internationally. We also have partners in the US and Latin America and we are thinking of stories with nuances that will make them very appealing in Europe and the US. That’s the way to go.”

Of course, O3 was instrumental in kick-starting the global appeal of Turkish drama by importing it into the Middle East in 2007. Ismail also hopes to see his own dramas on air around the world, but admits that, for now, his ambition is still a work in progress.

“Turkish drama is a breath of fresh air in parts of Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, and now in Latin America,” he says. “We’re all aiming to have success in Western Europe and the US but it’s a work in progress. I don’t think even the Turks have had a big success in Western Europe. It’s something that we and our Turkish partners, along with some international partners, want to explore seriously because it makes sense creatively.”

tagged in: , , , , ,

TV’s zombie obsession

BBC3's In the Flesh ran for two seasons
BBC3’s In the Flesh ran for two seasons

AMC’s cult zombie drama The Walking Dead (TWD) continues to generate massive ratings. Three episodes into season six, its audience is holding up well compared with season five figures.

The first episode attracted more than 20 million viewers once the time-shifted audience was included in the total. Episode three, which may or may not have seen the death of a popular central character, is likely to hit a similar mark once all the data is in.

The fate of the character in question (Glenn) also had a big impact on The Talking Dead, a recap show that is aired immediately after each episode. Around six million viewers tuned in to that, underlining the nature of the TWD phenomenon.

Of course, the success of TWD also encouraged AMC to launch a companion series entitled Fear The Walking Dead. While it’s fair to say that FTWD hasn’t yet hit the same creative heights as TWD, its initial run of six episodes (which ended on October 4) still managed to attract a massive 11.2 million viewers (Live+3 day ratings, averaged across the run).

This makes it the highest-rated first season in cable TV history. An added bonus for fans suffering zombie withdrawal is the 16-part web series FTWD: Flight 462, currently available on AMC.com.

The remarkable thing about the success of AMC’s franchise is the way it has spawned so many series about the undead. While they don’t all approach the subject matter in the same way, there’s no question that they have been legitimised by the success of TWD.

The Walking Dead has paved the way for a multitude of undead-focused series
The Walking Dead has paved the way for a multitude of undead-focused series

In the US, for example, we have seen ABC’s Resurrection, which lasted for two seasons, and The CW’s iZombie, which is currently partway through its second season and rating reasonably well (around 1.3-1.5 million viewers).

Less well known around the world is Syfy’s Z Nation, which is also in its second season. The show’s ratings of around 850,000-900,000 are nowhere near as impressive as those of TWD but it does have its fans. Graeme Virtue of The Guardian newspaper called Z Nation a “brazen Walking Dead rip-off” but still included it on a list of five great US TV shows unavailable in Britain. Since Virtue’s article, the show has now become available in the UK on Pick TV.

Not to be overlooked, of course, is Starz’ upcoming launch of Ash vs Evil Dead (based on the classic Evil Dead franchise). With series one premiering on Halloween, the network has shown its faith in the saga by ordering a second season.

Unveiling the news this week, Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik said: “One season isn’t enough to satisfy the fans’ two decade-long appetite for more (lead character) Ash. The early fan and press support, along with international broadcaster demand, has made it clear that the adventures of Ash Williams can’t end with season one.”

Ash vs Evil Dead has already been given a second season
Ash vs Evil Dead has already been given a second season

Starz has signed global licensing deals for Ash Vs Evil Dead with broadcasters and digital platforms in more than 100 countries and will allow the show to premiere simultaneously with the US. Partners include Amedia (Russia/CIS), C More (Scandinavia), Fox Latin America, Sky TV (New Zealand), Stan (Australia), Starz Play Arabia (MENA) and Super Channel (Canada).

Also in the news this week is Australian series Glitch, which has been given a second series by ABC. This isn’t a TWD-style zombie series but it fits in with the general undead theme very well. Produced by Matchbox, it tells the story of six people who inexplicably return from the dead, alive and in good health. The initial run of six episodes aired in July and attracted 350,000-500,000 viewers.

Undead aficionados will, of course, see comparisons between Glitch and the French series Les Revenants (aka The Returned), which also focused on ordinary folk returning from the dead. Les Revenants was adapted for the US market where it had an unsuccessful one-season run. But in France (and around the world) the first season of the original series has been a big hit. Airing on Canal+ in France, the show attracted around 1.5 million viewers across eight episodes.

After a three year hiatus, season two of Les Revenants finally went to air this autumn. While it has been picked up internationally by many of the networks that aired season one, season two hasn’t done as well as season one for Canal+, with some critics blaming the three-year gap for the audience’s lukewarm reaction.

Australia's Glitch is similar in theme to Les Revenants/The Returned
Australia’s Glitch is similar in theme to Les Revenants/The Returned

Although final series numbers aren’t in, the debut episode of season two only attracted 610,000 viewers. Even when you’ve factored in time-shifted viewing, that’s a long way short of what Canal+ would have been expecting.

The Brits also had a critically acclaimed zombie drama on BBC3 called In the Flesh, which ran for two seasons before it was axed. Stretching the definition a little, you could also include upcoming ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles (a reworking of Mary Shelley’s horror masterpiece) in this zombie/undead genre.

Zombie dramas don’t work for every market – Turkey, for example, isn’t big on supernatural scripted shows. But even Korea has dipped its toe in the water with MBC’s two-parter I’m Alive, which aired in 2011.

Interestingly, the word ‘zombie’ probably comes from West Africa and first emerged in its current form in Haitian folklore, where zombies are dead bodies reanimated by magic. That said, there is no strong culture of zombies in Latin American television, though they do pop up in movies.

With TWD still going strong and Ash vs Evil Dead launching this weekend, there’s no sign that the undead are returning to their graves just yet. In fact, there are reports that NBC also wants in on the act. In 2013, the network resurrected an old idea called Babylon Fields and pushed it forward as a pilot. There hasn’t been much news on the show since 2014, but keep your eyes peeled.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Six of the best from Korea

International TV market Mipcom starts in a couple of weeks’ time and one of the hottest forms of content at the event will be Korean drama. Wildly popular across Asia, Korean scripted shows have also recently started to be picked up as formats in the US, with examples including Good Doctor, Nine: Nine Times Time Travel, Answer Me 1994 and My Love From Another Star.

For anyone interested in knowing the hot Korean shows to look out for, there is a handy tool known as the Contents Power Index (CPI). Released on a monthly basis, the CPI attempts to measure fan interest in a series – using factors such the number of articles written about a show, internet search popularity and activity on discussion boards to determine which shows are most popular. Consolidated data for the first half of 2015 puts the following shows out in front. So keep an eye out for them in Cannes…

producersThe Producers: Broadcast by KBS, this 12-part series aired on Friday and Saturday evenings in May and June. Popular in Korea, it tells the story of a group of young producers working in the variety department of – wait for it – KBS. The show, which stars the highly bankable Kim Soo-hyun, has already been sold to broadcasters and platforms in China, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Kazakhstan, while digital streaming rights have also been licensed to parts of Europe, the Middle East and North America. Underlining the show’s appeal, China’s online network Sohu paid US$2.4m for rights to The Producers. The programme has been nominated for a number of Korean Drama Awards, but it didn’t escape criticism, with some entertainment insiders complaining of an inaccurate portrayal of the relationship between producers and celebrities.

sensorycouple2Sensory Couple: Also known as The Girl Who Sees Smells, Sensory Couple is a suspense/comedy/romance hybrid adapted from a webtoon of the same name. Broadcast by SBS, it has an elaborate plot that centres on a woman who sees her parents being murdered by a serial killer but is then hit by a car as she escapes from the killer. She wakes up from a coma six months later to discover that she has lost her memory – but has developed the ability to ‘see’ smells. The show, which aired in April and May, started with a modest 5-6% share but steadily rose to 12% by the end of its 16-episode run. It has been sold to channels in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia. Last week, Singapore-based distributor Bomanbridge Media acquired the Mongolian rights.

pinocchioPinocchio: Pinocchio started airing in late 2014, running through to January 2015. A 20-episode drama on SBS, it has a typically convoluted plotline based around a conflicted romance, a hidden identity and a young man’s desire for revenge. The Pinocchio title refers to a girl who wants to be a journalist but has a syndrome that makes her hiccup when she lies (not great for a journalist). Echoing Sensory Couple, ratings grew throughout the run, starting at a 7.8% share and ending at 13.6%. The show was sold for a record US$280,000 per episode to Chinese video-sharing website Youku Tudou, where it scored huge ratings. It also sold to seven other Asian territories, the US and Israel. It was named Outstanding Korean Drama at the 10th Seoul International Drama Awards.

killmehealme2Kill Me Heal Me: An MBC drama that aired from January to March, Kill Me Heal Me is about a third-generation chaebol (corporation boss) who has memory lapses due to a traumatic childhood experience. Eventually this causes his personality to fracture into seven different identities. He is treated secretly by psychiatrist Oh Ri-jin who (surprise surprise) falls in love with him. The 20-part series reunited actors Ji Sung and Hwang Jung-eum, who previously starred together in the 2013 hit Secret Love. While Kill Me Heal Me did fairly well, it failed to hit the heights of Secret Love – despite the entertaining sight of Ji Sung playing seven characters). Nevertheless, it was licensed to markets including China, Japan, Taiwan and Thailand. In fact, local media reports claim it travelled from Korea to Japan faster than any other drama in history, airing in Japan as soon as the Korean run ended. It’s interesting to note that the market hasn’t yet moved to the kind of simultaneous transmission we now see with US shows.

Mask_(Korean_Drama)-p13Mask: A classic doppelganger story, Mask is about a sales clerk who looks identical to a congressman’s daughter. When the congressman’s daughter dies, nefarious forces blackmail the sales clerk into marrying the deceased woman’s fiancé – the heir to a huge fortune. The heir, who is unaware of the switch, had not been marrying for love, but because his family demanded it. He is pleasantly surprised by his new wife – who is nicer than he expected. The 20-part series first aired on SBS from May to July and was a consistently strong performer – airing in the same slot previously occupied by Sensory Couple. It was written by Choi Ho-chui, who had a previous hit with KBS’s Secret in 2013. International sales to date include ABS-CBN in the Philippines.

schoolWho Are You: School 2015: ‘School’ is an ongoing franchise that aired from 1999 to 2002 and was then revived in 2013. It depicts the struggles and dilemmas faced by Korean youngsters – though not in a Breakfast Club or Skins kind of way. In the latest season, for example, Lee Eun Bi (Kim So Hyun), a student at a top high school, mysteriously wakes up with amnesia. When she subsequently discovers she was once bullied, she decides to put things right by transforming herself into a popular and glamorous girl – but things aren’t as simple as they seem. Especially popular with young Koreans, this latest series of 16 episodes ran from May to June, finishing strongly with a 9.7% share. The show aired on KBS World with subtitles two weeks after its initial broadcast. It’s part of a lively genre of high-school K-dramas that stretches back years.

Other shows to appear on the CPI include Heard it Through the Grapevine; Angry Mom; Let’s Eat; Jeju Island Gatsby; Punch; Healer; Hyde, Jekyll and I; Orange Marmalade; and What’s with this Family?. One that doesn’t appear in the list but has generated a good response is tvN’s Ex-Girlfriend Club.

So what else is worth saying about Korean drama? Well, historically it has generated a lot of its international revenue from Japan. But, as the above examples show, China has become an important market. The interesting thing about China, however, is that foreign shows are banned from airing in primetime, which is why Korean dramas tend to be snapped up by online streaming services (which pay upwards of US$200,000 per episode).

In terms of staying on top of trends in the K-drama market, Drama Fever identifies the top trends in Korean drama this year. These include personality disorders, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, high-school bullying, exes and vampires – all of which sounds like the typical content of a Western drama too!

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,