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Insight: The Forrester Focus
Another Major Mid-East TV Development

by Chris Forrester, Columnist

The past few years have seen a flurry of media hubs created in the Middle East, not the least of which is the giant Media Production City in Cairo (at 35 million sq. feet) which was completed in 1996. More recently established is the Dubai Media City and its associated facilities that opened its doors in 2000. Other clones have followed, each offering similar tax-advantages, 100 percent foreign ownership with promises to boost local media production, create jobs and place the venue onto the map — as far as Hollywood and Bollywood are concerned.

The need for new production space is unquestioned. Middle East television is expanding at a spectacular rate, with reliable forecasts predicting massive growth. For example, consultancy Northern Sky Research says the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) will enjoy an average 38 percent annual growth rate in the number of HDTV channels available over the next 10 years. Basic (standard definition) channels have seen growth rates of some 30 percent annually over the past few years on Arabsat. Every minute of this output depends on satellite TV for distribution.

Abu Dhabi’s entry into this creative vacuum takes a very different approach and deliberately side steps the argument that millions of square feet are needed to make a mark in production. ‘twofour54’ COO Wayne Borg says the concept is very much focussed on creating the right ecosystem. “We launched in October last year, and have already mounted our first batch of vocational training sessions. For example, our learning academy, Tadreeb, is all about up-skilling and re-skilling of the workforce that’s already in the region. As international players come into the region they need to see a talent pool that’s trained in the very latest technology, and across all disciplines and techniques.”

‘twofour54’ has linked with the BBC, Thomson-Reuters and the Thomson Foundation to raise production and craft skills to internationally-acceptable levels. Borg says they’re already supplying training in sound recording, lighting, directing and producing as well as editing and other post-production skills. “We will broaden the scope to cover animation, web design and including finance for film production and accounting. The courses, which began in January, will reflect every aspect of the industry — and include music which is hugely important here.”

Borg says that they’re also offering internships to enthusiastic candidates. He said interns work with twofour54, or its international partners, and perhaps in the process move around the world to gain new skills and development.

‘twofour54’ has already managed to secure some heavyweight clients and partners. Not the least of which is CNN, now in the process of building its own studio at the facility in readiness to start daily transmissions of a nightly show.

Tony Maddox is CNN’s international EVP/MD, based in Atlanta, and he says the Abu Dhabi operation satisfied two aims. “First, we have a number of bureaus already in the region, and we run our Middle East website out of Dubai and are already making programmes like Marketplace Middle East from the Emirates. We asked ourselves whether it was sensible to create a hub in the region, like a mini-London hub, because our viewing figures in the Middle East are always good. This would then allow us to create a daily show for primetime viewing in the region, and where we could coordinate the other bureaus we have in the region. We then had a sort of shopping list, all of which would be handled by Abu Dhabi, which included our regular ‘Women in the Middle East’ coverage out of Cairo, the same with output from Baghdad and Jerusalem. When the Abu Dhabi opportunity came along, we saw that we could operate our own facility, producing shows that we wanted to do, and it ticked all of the boxes. It also gave us a much greater level of coherence as far as the region is concerned.”

Maddox says the daily show out of Abu Dhabi will be seen throughout the CNN International system. “The Middle East can always be depended on for news! So it is entirely logical to make sure we cover those issues which have a global reach. But if the main news that night is the economy, then we’ll go with that. Our stories out of London are not all about London, the same with Hong Kong, or even Atlanta. But if a plane lands on the Hudson River then that’s a big story right around the world.”

“We are staffing up now. We are concentrating on getting everything ready in Abu Dhabi and the local teams have been very supportive, which is a huge help in pushing everything forward. We see everything being in place towards the end of this summer. We have already hired the Managing Editor and the person who will supervise the technical aspects, and the rest will now quickly follow.”

Maddox says that Abu Dhabi was keen to win CNN’s presence in the twofour54 venture. “They’ve been very flexible which has been a huge help. But let me stress we have paid our way on this deal. We have not been given the facility, and there are very real costs to us in making this investment. They see us as the Anchor Tenant in the shopping mall, and that’s nice.”

“As far as Dubai is concerned the web-site production works well out of Dubai, so it will stay there. We have a good deal in place in Dubai, so we’ll continue with it. Both generate news, which is not a big issue so we’ll keep them both, and they are barely a 45 minutes drive apart.” While Maddox didn’t comment, it might be that CNN is hedging its bets and satisfying two highly competitive cities that want the CNN brand associated with their own media efforts.

twofour54’s Borg says the enthusiasm shown locally for the opportunities created is impressive and encouraging. “We are focusing on weekly, highly-intensive vocational training courses, with participants coming from local companies as well as from Jordan, Kuwait and other countries. These short courses are deliberately chosen because businesses cannot afford to lose staff for weeks on end. However, as time goes on we will supplement this pattern with longer courses.”

Intage is twofour54’s production arm. “The first studios are under construction right now and will be ready about June. There will be three initially, in a dedicated complex with a range of production and post-production facilities. The intention today is to fill a huge gap in the market. To be honest, there’s very little by way of production facilities hereabouts, especially for organizations to use. As broadcasters from other regions and further afield start generating new content then we will have these dedicated facilities. Meanwhile if someone else wants to slot themselves into one of the studios, then that’s fine, too. CNN’s studio is purpose built and separate to these three. Some people are choosing dedicated facilities, and others want a more flexible approach. We have also signed Rotana to partner with us, and use some of our facilities for film and drama production. Abu Dhabi Media is another of our key partners at twofour54, and part of the complex. Our role is to facilitate others, like Rotana, CNN and others, to produce their content.”

The plan, initially gauged to 2014, extends well beyond that date in the calendar, and reflects what Abu Dhabi sees for itself as a world city in 2030. “This city is being positioned as a cultural centre within the region. You only have to look at what other cultural cities have, and usually, a strong and diverse media sector is part of the mix. We want the same. Our immediate priority is to focus on pan-Arab content, and creating a true, consolidated centre for excellence and Arab content. Our ambition, certainly by 2012-2014 is not only to match what’s happening today in Cairo or Beirut, but to exceed them because we are offering so much more. Especially, when you look at the overall infrastructure which covers the entire content industry, whether it’s music, drama, animation, games development, on-line work to publishing to broadcast to film. I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the region that’s covering anything like this.”