Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- The last few years have witnessed a rapid increase in the number of religious-themed television channels based in the Middle East, including 11 in Saudi Arabia.
The channels, despite their popularity in the Arab world, are not enjoying the financial benefits of advertising revenue that usually comes with popular programming because of what the channels proprietors and advertising agencies see as a conflict of interest.
The conflict of interest is a two-way street between these religious channels and advertising firms, with the agencies shying away from advertising on religious programming because the do not regard such channels as appropriate for their products.
This has left these channels with very few alternatives in regards to financing their operations with the majority depending on donations from loyal viewers and charities to stay afloat.
One channel that is suffering from the current grid lock that exists between these religious channels and advertising agencies is the Saudi based “Al Fajr” Islamic channel.
CEO of “Al Fajr” Wajdi al Gazzawi, told Asharq Al Awsat that he believes that commercial advertising in the region is controlled by a “mafia” that “intentionally deprives religious channels of the profits of advertising”. Al Gazzawi is demanding that authorities intervene not only to help the many popular religious channels, but also the new generation of emerging Saudi advertising agencies.
Al Gazzawi also stressed that viewers of religious programming are consumers that are interested in the latest products like everybody else.
Sadiq Khalifa, the financial manager of an advertising consultancy, says that advertising agencies usually search for channels that attract the most audiences, but that the commercials content should be inline with the conservative content of religious channels, which is rarely the case because commercials often feature women, music and singing. He added that throughout his 12-year advertising career, he is yet to be commissioned to produce an Islamic–themed commercial to be broadcast by an Islamic channel.
Islamic TV presenter Ahmad al Sayyad, also pointed out that the audience members of these religious channels are highly sensitive and that commercials would need to be catered to them, bearing in mind that these commercials would lack the polished feel that normal commercial might have, which in turn would “repel advertisers”
For his part, Omar Zaruk, a marketing and sales executive based in the kingdom believes that these religious channels should utilize other methods of generating income, namely the use of SMS (short messaging service) that helps viewers with fatwas, consultations.
In actuality, many channels earn large amounts of revenue from SMS services, but al Gazzawi says the net profit that his channel receives from its SMS service after distributing revenues with the service providers and the Saudi Telecom Company is not sufficient to maintain the channel.