CAIRO: Arabic television is counting on an explosion of Ramadan serials to restore losses from the global recession, but some concerned Muslims are scrambling to pull the faithful back to prayer during the holy month.
Around 60 serials hit the screens on more than 400 channels this month as producers have used bloated budgets and big names to lure advertisers during a fiercely competitive period for Arabic television dramas.
Ramadan is the most attractive month for advertisers, television critic Adel Abbas in Cairo told AFP, putting the ad budget – a good chunk of which is for fast-moving consumer goods – in Egypt at half a billion Egyptian pounds (LE 100 million) in Ramadan alone, 40 percent of the annual budget.
According to regional experts, 30 seconds worth of advertising costs $3,362 this month when families gather around the television after the breaking of the dawn-to-dusk fast.
The financial crisis brought revenues from publicity down 26 percent in the United Arab Emirates for the first half of 2009, and down five percent in Saudi Arabia, according to Abu Dhabi s The National.
Given the fact that viewing rates in Ramadan are the highest this year, TV channels are at pains to generate the highest possible revenues from advertising to try to shore up their budgets dented by the global financial crisis, the Egyptian Mail wrote.
Channels such as the Saudi-owned MBC1 are counting on Ramadan to restore some of the losses incurred, experts said, while spending $70,000 per hour on productions.
Egyptian advertising magnate Tarek Nour even set up a TV channel that will air only during Ramadan.
But angry that the religious angle has been diluted by the lights, camera and action, some in the region have been eager to draw the faithful back to worship, bemoaning the commercialism that has overshadowed Ramadan s spiritual roots.
It is a month of introspection, a month of mercy, patience and self-discipline, Arab News columnist Tariq Al-Maeenahe wrote.
Instead, what has been evident are the heavily advertised television serials… bound to take the viewers away from their activities of faith and keep them up all night.
One Cairo preacher warned program makers to beware of God s wrath for their part in luring good Muslims away from their duties during the holy month.
This frenetic marathon and overdose of TV shows turns this month with all its spirituality into a time for mundane entertainment, the preacher said, quoted by the Egyptian Mail.
The makers of these shows incur the wrath of God for distracting Muslims attention from the sublime value of the month of Ramadan, in order to make materialistic gains. Beware of falling into this trap.
A cartoon in Tuesday s independent Egyptian daily Al-Shorouk pokes fun at the amount of soaps this year with a man holding a television schedule in one hand, testing his wife: Quickly! Tell me when (actor) Nour Al-Sherif s serial is aired on Channel Two and when the repeats are on Dream 2?
Families have to spend at least 60 hours a day watching television if they want to catch all the serials, whose durations have been stretched by the number of commercial breaks, critic Ashraf Bayumi told AFP.
MBC1 is for the 16th year in a row touting its blockbuster series Tash ma Tash, a satirical comedy targeting the conservative values of Saudi Arabian society.
In Egypt, two soaps are topping the favorite spots according to press reviews – Ana Qalbi Dalily (My Heart is my Proof), a biopic of late Egyptian Jewish singer Layla Murad, and Matkhafoosh (Don t be Scared) which tackles the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Syrian drama Bab El-Hara (The Neighborhood Gate) chronicles a Damascus family s daily life and dramas in the inter-war period when Syria was under French mandate. It is a major hit across the Arab world, particularly for Palestinians who identify with its heroes fight against the occupation in Damascus in the 1930s.
The soap is a boon for cafe and restaurant owners in the Palestinian territories, who cash in as crowds throng their establishments after iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast, to enjoy the latest installment with family and friends.
The characters are Arabs who rebel against the French occupation and send weapons to Palestine occupied by the British. They are proud men who defend their country and resist occupation, says Salah Najib, 20.
It reminds us of our own situation, he adds while watching the series at a youth centre in mainly Arab east Jerusalem which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move not recognized by the international community.
Like any good smash hit, the Syrian production has its spin-off merchandise, with the series heroes appearing on T-shirts and chocolate wrappers, and its theme song available as a cell phone ring tone.