A flurry of global TV kids networks, including US giant Nickelodeon, are descending on the Middle East to be the first to take advantage of a lucrative young market, where over a third of potential viewers are under 12.
A spell of newcomers have stepped up competition in the region, with experts predicting that more channels targeted at children will drive growth and set new standards for local kids' TV. In recent months, European-owned JimJam and Viacom's Nickelodeon have both launched products here, following in the footsteps of global children's channel Kidsco, which went on air in the region in January.
"It's a cliché but competition is good. It will help improve the choice of content and how it's delivered by the international players, and will continue to challenge the local players to come up with original innovative programming, which is relevant for the region," Azhar Malik, Showtime Arabia's vice-president of marketing, told Emirates Business. The Dubai-based subscription network lays claim to kids channels Boomerang, Disney, Cartoon Network, Kidsco and newly launched pre-school "edutainment" channel JimJam.
According to Showtime Arabia, the growth in the kids' TV industry is being driven by a population in the Middle East where more than 60 per cent is under 30 in most countries, with 33 per cent under 12. In the GCC, kids aged three to 13 represent 44 per cent of the Arab population.
The network estimates double-digit growth in the children's television market over the next five years thanks to soaring demand.
Research firm Ipsos Stat ranks kids' channel Spacetoon Arabic in the region's top 10 most profitable free-to-air stations in terms of advertising dollars, despite ad spend for the channel falling 11 per cent from $196.6 million (Dh721m) to $175.4 million between 2006 and 2007. Meanwhile Spacetoon's English channel pulled in about $200,000 in advertising last year.
MBC3, a primarily Arabic kids' channel with some English programming, also saw advertising spend drop during that period, from $22.3m in 2006 to $19.4m in 2007. However, total ad spend for all free-to-air channels in the Middle East is on the rise, reaching $3.39 billion last year, compared to $2.35bn in 2006.
According to Showtime Arabia, the large number of free-to-air and pay TV channels – in many cases privately owned – that are available in the region make it difficult to size up the industry in terms of revenues and profits. "This fragmentation means only a few channels are likely to be making money and most probably aren't. This trend is likely to continue as long as the industry remains so fragmented and with so many options for consumers," said Malik.
However, recent moves by MTV Networks International (MTVNI), Kidsco and JimJam suggest the TV industry in the region is still in an expansion phase and that there is plenty of demand for kids entertainment. MTVNI, which sets up MTV channels around the world, including newly launched MTV Arabia, recently tapped into the demand with ambitious plans to take centre stage in the Middle East's children's television market.
It is set to launch Nickelodeon Arabia – its first localised free-to-air Arabic channel for children across the region – with local partner Arab Media Group in the first half of the year, and plans to deliver up to five of its channels and brands across the Middle East by the end of 2010. The 24-hour channel will broadcast via satellite to 36 million TV households, with a potential audience of 190 million people across the region.
Bhavneet Singh, MTVNI's emerging markets managing director and senior vice-president, told Emirates Business: "It's a significant investment we've made into the region, both financially and in terms of resources, and we believe the ad market and the brand optimisation opportunities are good enough to seal in our investment in the medium to long term."
Showtime Arabia said the new stations on the network feature increasing Arabisation of content, with more subtitling and dubbing across the many programmes.
According to network President and CEO Marc-Antoine d'Halluin, JimJam will present parent-trusted programming and Arabic editions of animation shows such as Barney and Friends, Bob the Builder, and Thomas and Friends, and an increasingly higher mix of English and Arabic programming.
MTVNI has said the initial programming on Nickelodeon Arabia would also be largely international content, with the split to slowly become more equitable. The station will be joining the region's international bigwigs Disney and Cartoon Network but has its sights set on developing locally relevant content, not unlike Al Jazeera Children's Channel, which advertises that it produces about 40 per cent of its own programmes – the highest proportion of any children's channel.
"There will be a component of local productions and local content that we will produce, which will be focused on the issues this region is looking at. As we get more and more research and as people get familiar with the brand and the values, we'll start to do a lot more local productions. I want to get to a place where we can actually do some really cool live action and animation series that come out of Arabia.
"We've done some made-for-TV movies in some markets, why can't we look at an Arabic Nickelodeon TV film out here in a few years? There's no reason why we shouldn't," he added.
The network's main challenge is turning out a product that is relevant as an umbrella brand across the vast Middle East region, yet that can relate with the microcosm of smaller cultures within the language band, said Singh. "The challenge for me would be how the channel can relate to a kid equally in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, which are countries in different stages of revolution and development, and kids in their sub-cultures are different enough to warrant specific targeted programmes."
The network attributes the current media climate as one of the main forces driving interest in the region. "The media environment and regulation has become much more robust, much more transparent, and has been growing consistently for the past few years," Singh said, adding that he sees a real gap in the market for children's channels in the region.
The network is now looking at a proposition for Nick Junior – targeted to pre-school audiences – as well as a Nick Toons channel to follow in its footsteps. "There is no real global children's brand that is talking and engaging with Arab children in a language and manner they understand. We believe there is a big niche here where a brand such as Nickelodeon can take centre stage. We're doing a lot of research to find out what these children really want, what the issues that are pertinent to them are, what things we want to showcase on the channel, which of our global franchises will resonate with this audience, and what will be acceptable to their parents," said Singh.