Could Expanding Foreign Markets Bring More Muslim Characters to Television?

I’ve spent a fair piece of the last year mulling over how we can get more Muslim characters on television, and what those characters might look like, as tropes or as individuals. But the real question is what would convince networks that doing so is a good investment. The Hollywood Reporter, in their story about licensed remakes of American shows and retransmissions of American shows in Middle Eastern countries, might have the answer:

In many cases, you actually are watching Western (or at least Western-owned) TV. Fox International, through a deal with Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s Rotana Media, operates two satellite channels in the region, bringing subtitled and dubbed versions of hundreds of Hollywood films, along with such series as Glee and Modern Family, to homes in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. Turner Broadcasting operates an Arab version of its Cartoon Network from Abu Dhabi. In 2011, Sony Pictures TV opened a sales office in Dubai.

“Recent years have seen a boom in TV channel launches across the Middle East,” says Stuart Baxter, senior executive VP distribution for Sony in the region. “It offers a real growth market that SPT’s business can thrive in.”

For distributors facing saturated or shrinking domestic and European markets, the Middle East is an oasis. It’s big (67 million households representing 300 million-plus viewers) and young (as much as 60 percent of the population of some countries is under 20 years old). The Pan Arab Research Center estimates gross advertising revenue for the region hit $9.2 billion last year, up $700 million from 2010. These figures have to be taken with a grain of salt — there are no agreed-on metrics for measuring ad spends in the Arab world — but everyone agrees the market is only getting bigger.


If I were a studio, I’d want to make sure I was set up to respond to an emerging market in a way that maximized my profit, and my assumption (do correct me if I’m wrong) is that they’d make more for licensing their shows to be broadcast overseas than from licensing remakes. The Middle Eastern market taken as a whole may not be nearly as big as China, where demand and World Trade Organization dispute resolution mean that we’ll get IMAX and 3D-formatted movies for years no matter how irritated American audiences can be by them. But it is growing. And if hoping to tap into growth that gets executives to send word down the wire that they’d like to see a few more characters that will appeal to that opening audience, than commerce and the public interest have the potential to be in alignment. It would be nice for pop culture to play a role in demonstrating how much the joys and aspirations of folks in the U.S. and in Middle Eastern countries are actually in alignment.