Made to measure
Being the Middle East's third richest man, and the world's 60th richest according to Forbes magazine's 2008 rankings, is not enough for Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris, 54. He also wants to be host of a Ramadan TV show. And talk shows being far and away the most popular format -- not just during the holy month but throughout the year -- for the second year running OTV, the businessman's own TV channel, is promoting "Naguib Sawiris yohawer" (Naguib Sawiris interviews) as one of the highlights of its Ramadan schedule.
Given the aggressive advertising campaign on TV and in newspapers ahead of last Friday's encounter between Sawiris, estimated to be worth $12.7 billion, and Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the independent Al-Dostour and an outspoken critic of the Mubarak regime, the programme was guaranteed a mass audience. And viewer numbers, of course, translate into advertising revenues. In the words of OTV's deputy channel director Sahar El-Beiley, the spin-offs from the "billionaire versus opposition journalist" combination were twofold: "The viewer gets to hear and witness views he doesn't normally get because of the wide margin of free speech, and at the same time it generates money for the channel."
The episode certainly received a lot of attention and media coverage, despite -- or possibly because of -- the overtly political hype during what is probably the least politically active time of year, the holy month of Ramadan, when fasting is supposed to focus attention away from the things of this world. Yet whatever OTV's El-Beiley sought to suggest the show steered clear of any red lines, carefully avoiding politically sensitive topics as the two men chitchatted about the Muslim Brotherhood, election rigging in Egypt and freedom of speech.
On 4 September, a day before the much trailed Sawiris-Eissa encounter, the newly launched Ramadan-only TV channel Al-Qahira Wal Nas (Cairo Centric) broadcast what is perhaps the most talked about show this month. Lemaza? (Why), hosted by leading Lebanese presenter Tony Khalifa, featured another TV anchor, Egyptian Amr Adib, presenter of the popular Al-Qahira Al-Yom (Cairo Today) live daily talk show on the Saudi-owned Orbit satellite network, as guest. If the frequency and length of commercial breaks -- they averaged 13 minutes each in a 30-minute programme -- was anything to go by, the show attracted a massive audience. (Viewing figures were unavailable at the time of writing).
The Adib-Khalifa episode combined two exceptionally popular TV presenters. Given current received wisdom within the industry that talk shows enjoy sky-high viewer ratings it was hardly surprising that it should have attracted so much advertising. According to Sherif Amer, presenter of Al-Hayat Al-Yom (Life Today), a daily talk show on the private owned Al-Hayat channel -- ranked by media tracking companies as the most watched station in Egypt during the first two weeks of Ramadan -- advertisers now prioritise successful talk shows over the drama series that once ruled the Ramadan schedules.
In recent years, as evening talk shows gained massive popularity, their hosts have been able to transform themselves into brand names. When Tarek Nour, guru of Egypt's advertising industry, launched Al-Qahira Wal Nas, his sole marketing tool were the faces of the channel's three TV presenters, Italian-Palestinian Rula Jebreal, Lebanese Tony Khalifa and Egyptian Lamis El-Hadidi, which suddenly appeared on massive billboards across the capital and Egypt's north coast. Talk shows have become such a staple in Egypt that their hosts are now immediately recognisable national figures.
Says Al-Hayat's Amer: "When I'm presented with a problem in a given district regarding, let's say, a public service, and I bring it up on my show, I know that within 24 hours officials will take action to address the issue." The problem, he points out, is that "this is not my role as an anchor."
"I'm not supposed to bring water to a town that is lacking water, my job is to report it."
Like other TV presenters who get precious airtime daily during peak viewing hours, Amer is aware of his influence. But he is uncomfortable with it: "It's the role of the government, politicians and civil society [to solve such problems], not mine."
Al-Qahira Al-Yom 's Adib, interviewed last Thursday by Khalifa, addressed the issue when he spoke about the role he plays and the price he pays for it. "If it wasn't for the protection of President Hosni Mubarak I would be in trouble," he said, alluding to his own political influence and the "enemies" he has made as a result of expressing his views on air. Adib does not shy away from making grand political statements: "This is a country that has been silent for too long and now is the time to speak up," is typical of his utterances. When Khalifa suggested during the course of the interview that influential presenters "mobilise and toy with the masses" Adib's response was: "On the contrary, the masses are impacting me."
Adib may well come across as an independent, influential voice, but there are critics who take issue with his agenda. Ayman El-Sayyad, editor of the monthly cultural magazine Weghat Nazar, argues that the Adib-Khalifa episode covertly promoted Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal. "The message was clear, all that talk about change and the talk about how the president protected Adib," El-Sayyad told Al-Ahram Weekly. A segment of the episode, where Adib predicts that Gamal Mubarak will succeed his father, was censored.
Al-Qahira Al-Yom has aired live 250 days a year for a decade now. Until 2004 -- the year the anti- Mubarak dissent movement Kifaya took to the streets triggering a wave of protests across Egypt -- it was mainly a celebrity gossip show. Then came the shift, and for a while at least Adib was the only Egyptian discussing political developments as millions watched. Other talk shows -- Dream TV's Al-Ashera Masaan (10 o'clock), national TV's Al-Beit Beitak (My house is your house) and Al-Mehwar's "90 Minutes" -- soon followed. Presenters vied for the loyalty of the audiences. Once they succeeded in securing it they enjoyed an influence that, arguably, no politician or official has ever enjoyed.
In a country where political groups are denied the right to form parties (the government has denied over a dozen requests to form political parties in the last two years), and where political stagnation leaves no room for change, talk shows and their presenters have unwittingly filled the gap.
Advertising companies were quick to notice the popularity of such shows among viewers. Says Reham El-Batanouny, manager of the ad company Initiative: "When a talk show becomes popular it is targeted by advertisers. And the most successful shows attract even more viewers immediately following a political event."
Ramadan, with its paradox of the prayer mat and the small screen, is seen as the perfect time to reach out to viewers. Everyone, including the finance and transport ministries, is marketing their products in expensive commercials. Yet even this most lucrative of months, as far as advertising revenues are concerned, has not been immune to the financial crisis. From LE350 million in 2008, the market has fallen to LE230 million this year. Which means competition to attract viewers is more intense than ever. The race is on to find the next star presenter, with channels promoting actors and film directors to fill the slot. The result, says Al-Hayat TV's Sherif Amer, is "a state of distortion". The army of TV presenters, he argues, is a "bubble" that will eventually burst.
"The market can't handle it financially and viewers are close to reaching saturation point."