Saudi Arabia’s ambitious reform drive takes another step forwards this week, with the launch of a new public TV channel that seeks to lure young viewers and project a modern image beyond the kingdom’s borders.
Branded “SBC”, the channel will broadcast exclusive content including films, talk shows and cooking programmes.
The move follows the launch earlier this month of a $35-billion drive to turn Saudi Arabia into a culture and entertainment hub by 2020.
“This is a general channel that’s seeking to attract the new generation of Saudis,” said the station’s director Dawood Shirian, a frank-talking TV personality who previously hosted a talk show tapping into the public’s gripes.
“Most of the content, about 75 percent, is geared toward the youth between 15 and 35 years old,” Shirian told AFP, adding that SBC would “complement the changes seen in the kingdom in the artistic, cultural and entertainment spheres”.
Shirian was poached late last year from private rival MBC to head up the state-run Saudi Broadcasting Corporation, and to mastermind the launch of SBC.
The move was seen as a deliberate shock for the state broadcaster – one in a series of radical changes guided by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
The 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne, who declared to foreign investors in Riyadh last October that his generation of Saudis “want to live a normal life”, is seen as the guiding hand behind the lifting of longstanding social restrictions.
The kingdom last year announced a decades-long ban on women driving would be lifted – a decision slated to take effect on June 24.
Bringing home the money
Like Saudi Arabia’s nascent entertainment industry, which aims to convince citizens to spend their riyals at home instead of in Dubai or Bahrain, SBC is positioning itself as a magnet for hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising money.
“As it stands, 90 percent of these budgets are going outside Saudi Arabia, and this channel’s mission is to repatriate that money, along with (skilled) young Saudis,” said Shirian.
SBC will become the entertainment flagship for the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation, whose portfolio also includes two channels dedicated to Koran readings and education and news-dedicated channel Al-Ekhbariya.
Channel 1, which broadcasts public programming, will remain, “but is geared more for the older generation”, said Shirian.
Last week, SBC said in a statement that its programming aimed to “keep pace with the spirit of development and renewal launched by the kingdom’s Vision 2030… to promote the spirit of openness… and reject extremist thought”.
“Our goal is to have a very strong launch,” said production and programming director Fahad Shalil, adding that the venture “will compete with the top channels”.
SBC’s launch is timed to coincide with Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims, but a period when families tend to gather in the evenings to watch television, after breaking the fast.
The channel’s schedule will include mainly Saudi and other Arab series, with one featuring Egyptian star Adel Imam.
Women – whose wardrobes on the sister news station Al-Ekhbariya have evolved from all black abayas to coloured palettes and bold makeup – will feature prominently on screen and off, working in production alongside their male colleagues.
Buoyed by his colourful past and strong ratings, Shirian enters the playing field with a clean slate and the blessing of the authorities.
“We aim to be at the front of the pack from the first day,” said Shirian. “We are not afraid of the weight of competitors and we will overtake them quickly”.
The channel will be competing with leading Saudi private networks in the Middle East, including MBC and Rotana.
But the competition doesn’t seem too fazed, for the time being.
“We have always been in favour of competition,” said Mazen Hayek, a spokesman for MBC. “The tougher the race, the sweeter the victory.”
In Dubai, SBC has launched a campaign with the slogan, “You are forced to love it”, a play on words, because Saudis in the past would joke they were forced to watch limited state programmes.
The Rotana group replied in a Tweet “You can’t force love.”
MBC chief Walid Al-Ibrahim and Rotana’s Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal were among the hundreds of high-profile Saudis detained over alleged corruption last year, their clout and businesses put on the line.
Rumours have swirled that the media titans were pressured to hand over major stakes in those channels in order to secure their release.
Those reports have never been confirmed, but Saudi Attorney General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb in January said $107 billion was recovered in the wide-ranging crackdown in assets including property, securities and cash.