Ballot Box

The rise in reality TV, together with the simultaneous increase in mobile penetration among the youth market, has helped interactive services flourish.

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By  Tawanda Chihota Published  April 19, 2006

|~|Starac200.jpg|~|SMS voting for popular reality TV show Star Academy was blocked in Saudi after a religious decree.|~|Operators and broadcasters in the west have for several years been using SMS voting as a way to bump up revenues. The rise in popularity of reality TV programmes, such as the global brand that is ‘Big Brother’, has given viewers an increasing amount of interaction with their televisions from their mobiles, enabling them to vote on situations should they be willing to pay to send premium messages. Broadcasting stations have thus been tailoring their output to include this new service. While it is now commonplace to see some form of SMS interaction included in the daily output of western stations, the service is becoming more popular in the Middle East, and last year it was brought to the forefront of media attention. Star Academy, a reality TV show broadcast regionally by LBC in Lebanon, saw contestants living together in a house while training to become the region’s next pop music superstar. Through a special devoted satellite station, viewers could watch the contestants go about their daily routine - eating, sleeping, singing, dancing - via remotely operated cameras situated around the house. At the end of each week, floods of SMS votes would come in for the viewer’s favourite, and the contestant with the least would be shown the door, with the final winner handed a recording contract. The format is a fairly simple one, franchised from Dutch production company Endemol, but Star Academy became one of the most popular shows in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, arguably the show’s biggest supporter by viewing numbers witnessed a religious decree condemning the show being issued against Star Academy, deeming the show as immoral. Saudi’s two mobile operators offering the SMS voting service eventually came in line with the fatwa. Al Jawal was the first to comply, announcing in January 2005 that it would block its customers at the time from voting by text message. According to the operator, the show did not “match the value of Saudi culture”. In December 2005, during the third series of Star Academy, Saudi’s second mobile operator Mobily, decided to follow the religious line and ban SMS voting as well on the show. “The decision was taken because of a fatwa issued last year, since the programme is culturally inappropriate,” says Mobily spokesperson Humoud Alghodaini. “It shows men and women living in one house, sometimes semi-naked and in inappropriate situations.” Alghodaini admits that the decision would affect Mobily’s revenues, but claims the move was worth it. “We will definitely lose money, but how much, I don’t know. If we don’t stop messaging it would backfire on us and affect our brand.” According to Judeh Siwady, senior media analyst at Amman-based research firm Arab Advisors, this has not deterred many Star Academy fans. “I have heard that some people are travelling outside of Saudi just to vote for their favourite contestant. It’s a must for them.” In Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, SMS voting for Star Academy amounted to around 500,000 messages per day. The Tunisian government apparently took out advertisements in local newspapers, urging their citizens to vote for the local candidate. While the increased SMS usage driven from such TV shows is obviously good news for the operators, revenue sharing agreements need to be drawn up so that the TV stations receive their share of the spoils. According to Mohammed Al Faraj, director of messaging and data marketing at Al Jawal, the Saudi operator has drawn up a standard model that benefits all parties in such deals. “We scanned the market and found a lot of models that would in most cases lead to one party benefiting over the other. Therefore we came up with our own simple model that would not load the TV or the service provider with any set up, rental or traffic costs.” Al Jawal pays 50% of all service billed revenue to the station. The bonus for operators is clear. It takes more revenue from SMS services, without having to develop any of the programme formats, or involve itself in the advertising. But Al Faraj still believes that it is the stations that benefit the most financially. “The service is much more profitable for TV stations than for mobile operators given (TV stations’) low cost base.” Al Jawal does however promote the opportunities to TV stations and other media outlets. “It is an important step in mobile and media convergence.” ||**|||~|Mobile-Smiley200.jpg|~|Youths are increasingly using SMS forums on TV to flirt in societies where such activity is frowned upon.|~|Arab Advisor’s Siwady says the Middle East’s scope for advertising revenues has pushed stations towards SMS interaction. “Most TV stations are acquiring that kind of technology as an alternative revenue stream. The advertising market is a bit limited in the region, so TV stations have to find other ways to generate revenues, such as adopting SMS and IVR (Interactive Voice Response).” While the model Al Jawal’s Al Faraj describes involves two parties, the nature of revenue sharing agreement drawn up depends on just how many players there are involved in the service. Not all TV stations have the technology to offer such SMS interaction, and have to turn to third parties specialising in this activity. “The revenue is then divided among the three: the operator, TV station and third party,” says Siwady. Sometimes, with shows such as Star Academy, that require the station to acquire a licence from the programmes’ creator, there is a fourth party looking to get a share of the revenues. While the income from SMS and TV interaction helps provide an additional source of revenue for operator like Al Jawal, such services are also important for other reasons. “We consider it an educational step to prepare both broadcasters and viewers regarding what is coming next in data value-added services, which will ensure full interactivity of viewers with TV stations and programmes,” says Al Faraj. However, it is suggested that programme makers and broadcasters can do more still, with other interactive opportunities available that promise further signifucant financial rewards. “SMS is still under-utilised by media entities,” says Al Faraj, claiming that the current interactivity applications of voting and chatting are just the basics. “Most stations and broadcasters are major content originators, and licence holders for content that could be accessed using interactive SMS.” He suggests TV guides; SMS news broadcasting and TV branded SMS content as a few examples not yet picked up in the region. Saudi Arabia-based Rotana is one such broadcaster. The biggest distributor of Arabic music and song worldwide, it also has four music video channels transmitted across the Middle East and North Africa, and has established relationships with almost all of the region’s mobile operators. “We have some direct partnerships, like with Wataniya in Kuwait, Areeba and SyriaTel in Syria, Umniah in Jordan and Mobily in Saudi,” says Mohammed Outa, assistant director of value added services at Rotana. “In other cases we deal with service providers, and the they distribute our content through a mobile operator.” Outa says that 40% of Rotana’s revenue’s come from Saudi Arabia alone. Aside from mobile content such as ringtones, video clips and wallpaper, a large part of Rotana’s business is from interactive activities. “We started our interactive services about four years ago,” says Outa. “It is based on a revenue share basis.” For its TV services Rotana asks for 85-90% after the operator has taken its fee, which he says works out at roughly between 40-50% of the initial price the customer pays. “Where we have direct partnerships, then we take everything the operator does not,” Outa says. For the past two years, Rotana’s revenue from such operations has been stable, but Outa believes that when 3G services are introduced there could be a substantial increase. “With things like live streaming and mobile TV.” Rotana currently runs SMS forums, whereby users can chat on the TV screen via SMS messaging, and this service is extremely popular in Saudi Arabia. “Maybe it’s because of the restrictions there,” says Outa. With Saudi culture forbidding any form of mixing between genders outside of the family, and teenagers have caught onto the fact they can flirt anonymously via such SMS forums. Just as Bluetooth technology is being used by youths in the Middle East to secretly communicate with nearby members of the opposite sex, SMS forums are also providing a way for the circumventing of cultural restrictions, allowing people to chat behind the hidden veil of a TV screen. Realising this, stations have gone to lengths to remove email addresses and phone numbers from the messages before they are broadcast. “We censor all of the messages. Any that contain material of an explicit nature is removed,” says Outa, who admits that Rotana has had issues in the past with viewers complaining about the content being discussed. Should anyone send in an SMS to Rotana’s TV forums that does not comply with the rules, then as a punishment that person is then banned from future participation. “All of our programmes must follow the Islamic regularities. We cannot launch any programmes like Star Academy,” says Outa. While it may be possible to monitor what is taking place in such chat forums, the sheer number of them might make move to close them down more difficult. “We are talking about 80 plus channels,” estimates Arab Advisors’ Siwady. “If you are going to cut off this number it could be an issue given the number of people involved.” ||**||

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