Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

How to be a media mogul

Donatella Della Ratta, Naomi Sakr and Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, eds., Arab Media Moguls, London: I.B. Tauris, 2015, pp233

How to be a media mogul
How to be a media mogul
Al-Ahram Weekly

How does one become an Arab media mogul? According to the contributors to this new book, the recipe in the Arab world is not so very different from that elsewhere.

Look out for opportunities, especially as regulatory environments change and new technologies promise greater reach and larger audiences. Be careful about relationships with the authorities. Don’t be satisfied with a single platform. If you start in advertising, think about moving into newspapers, television, or social media.

Think trans-nationally and on at least a regional scale. No media mogul ever achieved true moguldom without having interests in at least three or four countries and usually on several continents. Don’t be too concerned about profits, at least at first. Building a media empire is expensive, and rewards can be slow. But even generally losing propositions like newspapers can be useful in bolstering influence.

As the essays in Arab Media Moguls explain, media moguls, fixtures of the European and North American landscape, have only recently made their presence felt in the Arab world. European moguls like former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, owner of most of Mediaset, Italy’s largest media business, and American ones like chairman of News Corporation Rupert Murdoch are household names worldwide. Arab moguls like Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris and Saudi entrepreneur Alwaleed bin Talal have only recently become familiar, still on a mostly regional scale.

State control of much of the press, radio and television in many Arab countries in the post-independence decades tended to crowd out opportunities for large-scale private-sector involvement in the media. In Western Europe and North America, on the other hand, the press has always been in private hands, and the first moguls arrived on the scene only a few years after the development of the modern mass media.

Moguldom was difficult to achieve in the European broadcast media until the 1980s when deregulation, privatisation, and then the development of new forms of distribution like satellite television enormously expanded private-sector involvement. The revenues delivered by the broadcast media in many European countries are such that it is the public sector that is now in danger of being crowded out, and technological change has allowed the private sector to take over turf previously occupied by public broadcasters.

In the Arab world, the development of satellite television in the 1990s also cracked open old state monopolies, creating a pan-Arab TV market for the first time and providing opportunities for budding moguls. As the essays in this book explain, no Arab mogul has been able to use the press as an initial springboard, and in some it is countries still under significant state control. Satellite television has been overwhelmingly the medium of choice. On the other hand, once wealth has been achieved elsewhere the acquisition of a few print titles has been useful in adding ballast to a broadcasting career.

The book uses an academic definition of the media mogul, seeing him – there have been no women moguls – as someone “who owns and operates major media companies, who takes entrepreneurial risks, and who conducts these media businesses in a personal or eccentric style.” The definition would seem to work well for many of the classical Anglo-American moguls, some of whom were famously eccentric. The question is how far it can be applied to the Arab world.

Arab moguls have undoubtedly sought ownership of major media companies, and while it is difficult to generalise they have tended to go about it in a similar way. The key point is to acquire the necessary licenses. Once that has been done it can be almost plain sailing all the way. Most of the moguls discussed here are Saudi or Lebanese, and while they almost always did not start out in the media, they were quick to move into it when new technology, mostly satellite television, and regulatory changes opened up new investment opportunities and attractive new markets.

The book includes chapters on Antoine Choueiri, “president of Arab advertising,” Pierre Daher, “sheikh, baron and mogul” of the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, also a media mogul, and Saudi national Walid al-Ibrahim, the “modernising mogul” of Saudi satellite chain MBC. None of these men started their careers in the media, though Choueiri started out by selling advertising. All of them moved into it when regulatory changes and new technology were promising to shake up a moribund industry.

Daher’s LBC started life as a partisan broadcasting station in wartime Lebanon, but was transformed into a major player on the new satellite TV scene when it acquired a national license in 1994 in the wake of a law reorganising the Lebanese media industry. Similarly, al-Hariri, a businessman who had made his money in construction in Saudi Arabia, acquired the licenses for his Future TV in the mid-1990s under the same law, subsequently developing it as a pan-Arab channel. Al-Ibrahim, a businessman enjoying close connections to the Saudi royal family, started his channel MBC in the early 1990s, then branching out into an array of associated channels including the rolling news service Al-Arabiyya.

One of the questions discussed by the authors of these chapters is why these men wanted to become media moguls, if that was indeed their aim. Two main points emerge. Controlling a media empire can give political influence, though the relationship between media ownership and political influence is often an “inverse” one: rather than gaining political influence through the ownership of the media, the average mogul is more likely to have used political influence in order to gain such control. Having gained it, changing political circumstances mean there is always the possibility of losing it again.

Money is not likely to be the spur, since while satellite TV channels can make large sums of money, particularly if developed on a regional scale, they can also lose millions. Newspapers almost always make a loss. Perhaps a clue to the reasoning behind these men’s ambitions comes in the second main point to emerge here: the search for “cultural” rather than narrowly political influence.

According to the chapter on al-Ibrahim, one of the main aims of MBC is to promote “modernity” among Saudi audiences, the channel broadcasting Turkish soap operas at prime time, commissioning Tash Ma Tash, a popular sitcom, and putting out Al-Ra’is, an Arabic version of the European reality TV show Big Brother. The idea, also true for Saudi entrepreneur Alwaleed bin Talal, owner of the country’s Rotana media group, is to promote a “liberal agenda… staying within the socio-political bounds of the Saudi mainstream while introducing new elements from both the global media industry and global youth culture.”

European and North American moguls have often portrayed themselves as self-made men, building media empires that then became dynastic operations involving several generations of family control. The second part of this book’s definition of the media mogul is someone who likes to take “entrepreneurial risks” in order to achieve such ends, and while Arab moguls have not tended to form dynasties, at least not ones solely concerned with the media, they have run a variety of work-related risks.

One such risk is of offending influential constituencies or falling foul of viewers who do not like a channel’s programmes. This is a risk that every proprietor has to take, and it can obviously lead to a loss of audience and, with it, advertising revenues. However, in the Arab context the risk is not just economic since if a private-sector media proprietor offends the political authorities there may also be a risk of his losing his livelihood.

Many of the moguls discussed here have been helped by the careful fostering of political relationships. But just as many have seen those relationships either potentially or actually turn sour, with stark consequences for their businesses. One example is Tunisian national Tarek Ben Ammar, the only media mogul discussed here who is not from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt. Ben Ammar was able to convince former Tunisian president Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali that the private-sector media could help Tunisia “gain a more prominent role within the Euro-Mediterranean area and attract foreign investment,” this book says, smoothing the way towards his acquisition of Nessma TV.

However, during and particularly after Tunisia’s 2011 Revolution Ben Ammar found himself in an “ambiguous position” because of his perceived ties to the previous regime. Nessma adopted a politically engaged programme strategy in order to meet audience expectations of greater societal engagement. But when it became clear that this strategy could be dangerous in the light of the increasing polarisation of Tunisian society, Nessma returned “to a predominantly entertainment-oriented strategy aligned with Ben Ammar’s December 2012 acquisition of the Egyptian private channel ONTV,” the channel that, previously owned by Naguib Sawiris, had hosted the first series of satirist Bassem Youssef’s popular programme Al-Bernameg.

Related to such strategic changes is the third part of the definition employed by the book – the mogul as conducting business “in a personal or eccentric style.” Some European and North American moguls have done this, particularly in the “heroic phase” of media empire-building when it was not uncommon for the personal eccentricities of the owner to become a kind of selling-point for the product as a whole.

In the Arab world, it is not obvious that the “personal or eccentric style” of media proprietors is something that is particularly practiced or valued. There has been no Arab equivalent of William Randolph Hearst, owner of the Hearst newspapers in the US in the first part of the last century, who lived a celebrity lifestyle in a castle in California, or of Silvio Berlusconi, whose various interventions seem to have done nothing to dent the fortunes of his companies.

Some Arab moguls are important public figures in their own right, and the Egyptian mogul Naguib Sawiris, as he is described here, has sought to put himself in the public eye, notably through founding the Free Egyptians Party after the 25 January Revolution. Sawiris, in fact, emerges as a paradigm case of a certain kind of Arab mogul, since, having made his fortune in an unrelated business, he moved into newspapers with Al-Masry al-Youm in 2004 at a time “when Egypt’s only daily newspapers were run by the government or opposition parties,” and then into satellite TV.

Technological changes were important in such success, this book says, notably “the convergence of mobile phones, television and Internet, online streaming of television and online publication of newspapers,” as was a kind of “bargaining” strategy vis-à-vis the public authorities.


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