You may know Ali Jaber as the tough judge on Arabs Got Talent who looks like famous Egyptian actor Mostafa Fahmy. When you meet him you will realise there’s much more to Jaber than meets the eye. In this eniGma exclusive, Deputy Editor Omnia Zaied talks to Jaber, Director of MBC Group Television, about what it takes to run the region’s biggest media conglomerate.
We are in the middle of Dubai’s Media City where MBC’s offices occupy a large building with an outstanding view of the region’s busiest city. The building is bustling with staff and visitors throughout the various offices and studios. As I make my way to Ali Jaber’s office, I see posters of the network’s channels covering the walls, telling the success story of this giant network. On our way into his corner office, Jaber is on the phone arranging his trip to Cairo the following day to attend the shooting of the first episode of Bassem Youssef’s Al Bernameg for MBC.
Long before Jaber appeared on TV, he was behind the scenes making TV happen in a lot of Arab countries. Currently also the Dean of Communication and Information Studies of the Mohammad Bin Rashid School of Communications at the American University of Dubai, Jaber set up Future TV and Zen TV in Lebanon in 1993. He then worked with Dubai Media Incorporated, the official media organisation of the government of Dubai, creating and managing Dubai’s main TV channels.
In 2011, he became Director of MBC Group Television. Since then, Jaber has helped increase the growth and popularity of the network by producing Arabic versions of big international shows like Arab Idol, The Voice, and Arabs Got Talent, on which he is one of the main judges…
After all these years working behind the scenes in media, what made you finally decide to appear in front of the camera?
I was already working at MBC and when I was asked to do it, I was a little bored at that point in time. I wanted to do something outside the box so I agreed to be a judge on Arabs Got Talent because I really believe in that show.
And how did things change for you after you became famous?
I didn’t change. But my personal life is over, I can’t have an innocent lunch with a pretty lady anymore. It’s good and bad. It’s good in a way that you spare yourself a lot of the hassle like in airports and so on. The bad thing is you don’t have privacy. But all in all it’s a good experience, it balances itself out.
How would you evaluate the success of Arabs Got Talent in the region?
It exceeded our expectations. This show was in the making for two years before we picked it up because it was a very difficult show to do and it takes people like MBC to pull it off. Unfortunately in the Arab world there is no legacy or heritage of nourishing talent. We don’t have proper music, acting, or dancing institutes, so there are no nurseries that can produce talents you can showcase. The talents we have are practicing at their homes and fantasizing about what they can do. That’s why it’s really very difficult to hunt for and select such talent. And that’s also why when we succeeded we were very happy.
Last season you added famous Egyptian actor Ahmed Helmy as the fourth judge, do you think he was a good addition to the show?
It was a very good decision. He was the best addition to the show at the time. He is not overexposed, plus his persona and comedic attitude fit the show in general. He is also known to support young people and this is what the show is about.
MBC also very recently signed another famous Egyptian. How did the decision to sign Bassem Youssef come along?
Before Bassem Youssef signed with CBC last year we owned 25% of his company via MBC Ventures which invests in startup companies. When he was starting up, we saw his potential and we invested in him. When he decided to move into the mainstream media with Al Bernameg we wanted to sign him. I didn’t really know him then but our Coordinating Channel Manager Abul Khair was very interested in having him on board. We had a disagreement on the amount of money he asked for, so he went to CBC on a purely financial decision. When he left CBC we approached him again because he puts on the kind of show that we need in MBC Masr to push the ratings up. This is the only reason we approached Bassem Youssef, because he will bring the ratings up.
This takes us to the question of media performance in general, how do you evaluate the performance of media in the region?
Media in the region is still in its infancy. Let’s take television as a case in point. Television in the region is still not real. Out of the 2,200 television stations in the Arab world, none of them make money except for two or three which I work in. Everything else loses money, and if you are losing money you should close down by law. Yet nothing is closing down, why? Because there is money being pumped into media. When you have media that depends on money other than its own, it doesn’t have the power to take decisions to put programming that fits the audience. It will put programming that fits the people who are financing it which totally defies the definition of what media is. I think that’s the problem: when you start catering for someone other than your audience. But I think things are changing in the right direction. When people like Bassem Youssef are allowed to speak their minds in Egypt, that’s a very good step.
From your experience working in several Arab countries, do you think the environment differs from one country to the other?
I worked in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Dubai. They have completely different DNA. In Dubai, I worked with the Dubai government and MBC and both are very different as well. But I realised that Egypt is by far the most difficult market to work in.
Working in Egypt for MBC Masr is tough because the market isn’t real. There’s a lot of money being spent on television production and there isn’t enough money to cover the advertising costs. The reality is that there’s a lot of political money put into media which makes it unreal and this is tough for commercially driven media like MBC.MBC Masr is picking up very well now. We have a new team headed by Mohamed Abdel Metaal and he is putting together a very interesting lineup. I am very optimistic about it. I think eventually MBC Masr will work, it will break even and make money. Egypt is a big market that we need to be present in. I hope political stability really sets in in Egypt. This is the most important factor for economic growth which is a precondition for a channel like MBC Masr to really grow, prosper, and become profitable.
What can we expect from MBC in 2014?
We are going to have a big format called Your Face Sounds Familiar. It’s a singing format about people who can impersonate famous people. The series, Saraya Abdin, will be huge as well. We also started airing Lesh La’ (Why Not) which is taken from the American show The Buried Life. It’s an adventure format which we are trying to promote. Of course MBC Masr will have an important Ramadan lineup, not to mention Al Bernameg.