Battle for viewers rages as Ramadan keeps Egyptians glued to TV
Sep 3, 2009, 12:04 GMT
Cairo - Those who find themselves trapped in the endless gridlock of Cairo's highways and overpasses this month cannot avoid gazing at the beaming faces of Egypt's big screen stars.
On giant hoardings the image of greying beau Jehia al-Facharani extolls the virtues of broadcaster Dream TV and its series 'Ibn al-Arandali' (El-Arandali's son), the story of a wily, corrupt lawyer. He competes for attention with the two worldly ladies Magda Zaky and May Kassab who star in 'Karima Karima.'
The hyperbolic slogans grab attention too: 'Exclusive - you can only watch it with us!' or 'You won't get this anywhere else, you can only get it here!' Even the most weary traffic jam victim can hardly fail to sit up and take notice: Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month is upon us, and that means television around-the-clock.
The holy month is meant to be a time of contemplation. Devout Muslims forego food, drink and smoking from dusk until dawn. They read the Koran more often, the holy book whose opening words were revealed to the Prophet Mohammed during Ramadan. Muslims go to pray in the mosque more often, particularly after dark, yet in the age of global consumerism there is another side to fasting month too.
Those who can afford it celebrate sumptuous evening feasts with their family (Iftar) to mark the end of a day's fasting. Admiration for the host grows proportionately, depending on the opulence and quality of the meals offered. Newspapers publish long articles on how best to weather the fast, advising people to avoid fatty foods and and other culinary excesses which could put a strain on the heart.
Watching television is one of the main pastimes for the period between Iftar and breakfast (Sahur). Broadcasters compete for the attention of viewers with a barrage of new series or new seasons of old favourites. There is little to choose these days between the state-run broadcasting companies, whose terrestrial signals can be picked up by antennae, or the satellite channels.
'The competition for viewers is more intense than ever before,' said media studies professor Hassan Abul Anein in the Gulf News newspaper published in Dubai. Many of the programme-makers generate up to 40 per cent of their annual advertising income during Ramadan.
When it comes to film production, Syria is gradually supplanting the former Arab screen superpower Egypt. The Syrian TV series 'Bab al-Hara' (The District Gate) goes into its fourth season this year and is as popular as ever. It tells of complicated family intrigues in the Damascus of the 1930s in a rich panoply which includes the underground fight against colonial rule.
The programme caters for a nostalgic yearning for the 'good, old days,' commented one Syrian TV critic, 'when the heads of families were still patriarchs and women were still subservient.'
Ramadan series are happy to assimilate anything that interests people between Casablanca and Baghdad. Historical programmes which sometimes do not adhere strictly to the facts are grist to the mill along with biographies of notable political leaders and bygone entertainment greats.
Contemporary scenarios go down well too, especially when they highlight the problems familiar to everyone such as corruption, the arbitrariness of the authorities and the weak character traits of fellow men and women.
The TV productions are certainly a very lucrative source of income for the stars who appear in them. Al-Facharani allegedly picked up a fee of eight million Egyptian pounds (1.5 million dollars) for his portrayal of the hack lawyer in 'El-Arandalis Son,' according to Egyptian media reports. His role includes a duet with Lebanese pop star Nancy Ajram, a young lady revered in the region as a sex symbol for her yearning vocals and scant clothing.