The rise of ‘halal’ TV
More and more ‘Islamic’ television stations are being launched. And despite strict rules on content, they are proving increasingly popular with advertisers.
March 31, 2010 5:17 by Farrukh Naeem
Up until the 1990s, most TV channels in Muslim-majority countries were broadcast by state-owned monopolies with limited reach outside their native country. Since then the liberalization of broadcasting rules and the proliferation of media zones has led to the explosive growth of free-to-air (FTA) and subscription-based TV channels.
In the GCC, where the nationals are Muslim but most residents are religiously diverse expatriates, terrestrial channels operated by the government were the norm. The local English channels showed Western shows, and Arabic channels served up imported Arabic fare and locally produced content. Religious channels covering Islam and Muslim living – beamed out by broadcasters such as Saudi TV and Sharjah TV – have retained their importance.
The number of privately owned satellite channels in the Middle East started growing in 1991 with the launch of MBC, the first pan-Arab FTA satellite broadcasting company to reach millions of viewers. This was followed by Future TV in 1995, Al Jazeera in 1996, Al Manar in 2000, Zayn TV and Dream TV in 2001, and Al Arabiya in 2003.
According to researchers Arab Advisors Group, there are more than 470 FTA channels in the Arab world alone. TV is almost a national sport in the region, with a daily average consumption of four hours a day and a satellite penetration exceeding 95 per cent, according to Mazen Hayek, MBC’s group director of marketing.
For marketers interested in the halal consumer, mainstream channels like MBC offer a large audience, although not an exclusively Muslim one.
“Clearly, we are living in the heart of the marketing segmentation and customization era, but when we talk about Muslims in the Arab world, the mainstream approach [is] the norm, with few exceptions when it comes to non-Muslim Arabs or expats,” says Hayek. “The halal lifestyle is a given in the Arab world… being culturally relevant and sensitive to tradition is key – at all times.”
Thus it’s no surprise that secular terrestrial and satellite channels in the region, from Dream TV to Future TV, are producing and airing ever more Islamic programs, with viewership figures and subsequent advertiser interest peaking during Ramadan.
“Ramadan becomes an opportunity for massive reach and higher levels of bonding with TV content, for longer hours per day – hence enabling greater brand-to-consumer connections in specific product categories that are meant for the mood and lifestyle of the Holy Month,” says Hayek.
The inspiration for religious programming on mainstream channels can be traced back to the popularity of Islamic channels in the region. The region’s first Islamic satellite channel, Iqra, was launched in 1998 by Jeddah-based Arabic Television and Radio (ART). Although its programs are in Arabic, English subtitles on a show like that of the immensely popular preacher Amr Khaled expanded its reach to non-Arab viewers.
The evolution of regional TV programming has created a colorful spectrum of choices for marketers. The halal lifestyle is treated differently by various channels – from a liberal interpretation as seen on the celebrity-filled and sleek Al Resala channel and the recently launched 4Shabab “Islamic” music channel, to austere Quranic channels that do not accept any advertising and the conservative Al Majd bouquet of channels, which do not air programs or accept ads that contain music.
The Muslim way of life differs from country to country and from one culture to another, and their interpretation of the halal lifestyle differs, too. While many would see this as a challenge, savvy broadcasters have been quick to understand the needs of their target markets and meet them appropriately, with Al Majd winning viewership in one of the most conservative yet lucrative Muslim markets – Saudi Arabia.
“There is a segment [in Saudi Arabia] that avoids watching satellite channels,” says Antonio Boulos, CEO Aegis Media Middle East. The key to engaging this conservative segment, which shuns music and Western programming, is not necessarily through Islamic shows alone but by adhering strictly to Islamic values. It’s this rare insight that has led to Al Majd having more than 315,000 subscribers in Saudi Arabia, more than the subscriber base of the Orbit Showtime Network.
Although all the channels under the Al Majd brand follow Islamic values, not all the programs are about Islam.
“We give these people the lifestyle they want to live, the things they want to learn,” says Ahmad Al Saadeh, VP Qotoof Al Eilamiah, the sole representatives of the Al Majd bouquet of channels worldwide. “We have programs about medical issues, psychological issues, cooking, social issues – a variety within the halal spectrum.”
The company produces 100 per cent of its content, from educational programs and documentaries to cooking shows and children’s cartoons.
Al Majd’s conservative format and thoughtfully produced content have helped it become the only TV channel available on board Saudi Arabian Airlines. It is also the only broadcaster allowed to deliver a live feed of its televised broadcast to mobile devices via Saudi Telecom’s Al Jawal 3G network.
Advertisers wishing to reach the audience served by Al Majd need to adhere to the channel’s Islamic guidelines, which prohibit music and female models but allow natural sounds and female voice¬overs. Advertisers whose music-free “halal” ads can be seen on Al Majd channels include General Motors, Kraft, P&G, Reckitt Benckiser and Unilever.
Although there are now hundreds of Arabic channels, the Arab world represents only 20 per cent of the world’s total Muslim population. More TV channels targeting specific Muslim ethnic groups are coming up, opening new avenues for marketers to consider in their media mix.
QTV, a part of ARY Television Network that reaches some 130 countries, beams religious programs to Urdu speakers around the world. Peace TV, an FTA religious channel founded by Zakir Naik, of India, broadcasts Islamic programs in English and Urdu to Muslims in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Australia and North America. Due to its strict code of ethics, and despite being open to advertiser inquiries, the spots seen on Peace TV are for its own programs.
One Islamic channel that produces its own content and enjoys a strong viewership and good advertiser support is London-based Islam Channel.
“In the UK, government statistics show that, among the community channels, we have more viewers than [all] 30 put together,” says the channel’s CEO, Mohamed Ali. “We reach half of those reached by the BBC.”
In addition to its primary UK viewership, the channel’s reach spans across more than 130 countries. It is not government owned and is a member of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association.
Just like its Middle Eastern counterparts, Islam Channel’s advertising peaks during Ramadan. It is estimated that UK Muslims give the equivalent of $160 million to social causes during this month.
“We have seven major charities in the UK; they have had annual contracts with us for the last four years,” says Ali. The charities advertise on Islam Channel throughout the year, not just during Ramadan.
Like most channels positioning themselves as Islamic, Islam Channel has its halal code: “We will never advertise something haram.” Interest-based banking, for example, is against the halal lifestyle, and therefore haram. That’s why we don’t advertise for major banks. Even if it is not an Islamic bank, the product should be Islamic,” adds Ali, citing the case of HSBC, which advertises its Islamic product, Amanah, on the channel. “Usually when big companies advertise with us, they make separate adverts or they give us permission and we’ll change it ourselves,” he says.
Despite its religious-sounding name, Islam Channel represents a growing trend among broadcasters that target Muslims – moving beyond conventional theological and religious content.
“The programming of Islam Channel reflects many aspects of the halal lifestyle, mostly in the Western context,” explains Ali. The content ranges from economic reviews and children’s shows, to programs discussing women’s issues and “Week in Parliament” debates filmed inside the British Parliament. The most coveted spots for sponsorship, however, remain the five daily calls to prayer.
To supplement its advertising revenue, the FTA channel introduced voluntary subscriptions that loyal viewers take out to support the channel. They are given a Dawah card, which entitles them to discounts and special offers at about 1,000 participating business outlets.
But running an Islamic channel is not without its challenges.
“Commercial channels are focused on the business aspect, and public-funded channels like the BBC are community focused,” says Ali. “Islamic channels have to also look at being politically balanced, adhere to Islamic values and ethics, and be self-sustainable if they are not funded by a government or by private finance.”
The Muslim market, bound together by common values and the halal lifestyle, has the attention of some of the world’s leading brands, from financial services for HNWIs to mass market FMCGs. The opportunity to reach Muslim homes globally through TV is bringing in more players from private entrepreneurs to holding companies, governments and even educational institutions. At the time of writing, plans were under way in Malaysia to launch an Islamic channel operated by the government, and Al Azhar, one of the most reputed institutions of Islamic learning, will be on the airwaves with its channel, too.
How many channels targeting Muslims will succeed in building a loyal audience? How conservative can they remain and how valuable will they be to marketers? What is certain is that TV will reflect and influence the halal lifestyle in more ways than one.