Our results point to shifts in the supply of regional media in the Middle East. If the region’s media landscape was once associated with limited offerings and stagnation, these findings beg to differ. Our report shows that the number of media channels has increased and content offerings have not only expanded but diversified – across all sectors including broadcast, digital media, and print. This content has come from a wider range of sources, including new local and international players not typically associated with the industry in the Middle East.

Previous research had suggested that regional audiences are both hungry for more media content reflecting their own culture and generally open to media from other parts of the world. However, people have often been limited by the mass-market options available to them. The recent expansion of media offerings may be softening the disconnect between what audiences in the Middle East want and the content available to them.

Within this general impression, however, we find a number of clear differences between the media and communication platforms investigated here:

  • Mainstream Cinema: Among modern media, movies and their production have a long tradition in MENA countries, together with cinema as their distribution platform. In two of the biggest MENA cinema markets – Lebanon and Egypt – Arabic films earn more at the box office per title than non-Arabic films. This is despite Arabic films claiming only a fraction of box office revenues overall throughout the region. While Egyptian films collected nearly all box office revenues among Arabic films in Egypt and UAE since 2012, Lebanese films have made nearly two-thirds of box office revenues in their own country over the same period.
  • Independent Film: Our analysis of previously unreleased data compiled by the Doha Film Institute reveals a robust independent film scene in the Arab world, reflecting a far greater diversity than the relatively homogeneous mainstream cinema that has been the custom in the Middle East. In fact, independent films are twice as likely to have female directors and originate in a far wider range of countries than their mainstream cinema counterparts. Egypt is not only home to mainstream films, Egyptians are also the most common nationality overall among writers, directors, and producers of independent film. France plays a central role in independent Arab film – more than any other country outside the region. The most common nationality of writers and directors of higher-budget independent films is Lebanese.
  • Television: Television remains a strong, growing, and increasingly dynamic industry in the Middle East. More of the total advertising revenues in the region go to television now than they did five years ago. The total number of channels has increased strongly. Pay TV and other on-demand services still constitute a small part of the industry compared to other parts of the world, but account for much of the recent growth. IPTV digital services provided by telecommunications companies have also become popular. Satellite remains the main method of transmission and reception. The relatively border-blind nature of satellite broadcasting, the limited number of locations creating high production-value content, and a common regional language create the conditions for a strongly Pan-Arab TV industry, especially when it comes to advertising. The leading channels in the region have increased the number of non-scripted programs such as reality and talent shows. Compared to only a few years ago, more of these non-scripted shows come from Arab countries.
  • Digital: Compared to the total population of Arabic speakers, there is a disproportionately low number of Arabic language websites. At the same time, Arabic claims a disproportionately high number of the world’s top 100 media Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and YouTube channels. Broadband mobile use in the wealthy Gulf nations is as high as in other developed markets, and over-the-top IPTV services are a growth area. Television networks are increasing their premium online offerings, and major international digitally-native services such as Netflix and Spotify are expanding into the region. Digital advertising is fast-growing but still remains a small portion of advertising revenues, compared to many other parts of the world.
  • Newspapers: Newspapers (i.e., printed general and business dailies) have not lost as much of their circulation as in the West. They have, however, experienced a decline of advertising revenues overall and as a share of the total ad spend by more than a fifth since 2010 – with the exception of two of our focus countries: Qatar and Lebanon. But newspapers still account for a substantial share of overall ad spend in their respective countries because, compared to electronic and digital platforms, they can be used to narrowly target just one country.
  • Magazines: Magazines (appearing in print at least monthly), compared to international trends, seem to fare rather well in the Middle East. We find the most readers of magazines in the UAE and Lebanon, and almost two-thirds of all magazine titles, are produced in those two countries.. Perhaps not surprisingly, the circulation of Consumer magazines is almost three-and-a-half times as high as Business & Trade magazines. For Consumer magazines, almost two-thirds of the circulation is in Arabic. For Business & Trade magazines, where English is more important, less than half are in Arabic. Additionally, almost half of the circulation of Business & Trade magazines goes to one category, Finance. Among Consumer magazines, Women’s Interest dominates together with Lifestyle. These two Consumer magazine categories, along with Cars, Bikes & Boats, Travel, and Property, have seen a little growth in the last five years in the MENA region – both in terms of the number of titles and their circulation. A comparatively greater increase, however, can be stated for Business & Trade magazines – first in their most popular genre, Finance, but also on a lower level in the Health & Medicine and Construction & Engineering categories. Like everywhere else in the world, the share of advertising revenues for magazines has recently decreased somewhat in the Middle East. But still, almost 90 percent of the revenue of MENA magazines comes from ads, compared to about only a third in the U.S., for instance.
  • Radio: In all five of our focus countries, the number of radio stations has grown considerably since 2010, but attempts to expand cross-border broadcasting have been facing regulatory obstacles, especially in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Many channels are now responding to these regulations by delivering content across the region via their online platforms. The UAE seems to be the radio country among our five focus countries: It has by far the most radio stations and broadcasts in more languages than any other country, with a weekly reach of radio of four-fifths of its population. The radio ad revenues of the UAE and the KSA combined account for almost half of the MENA market as a whole. Radio’s ad spend share is considerably lower in MENA than elsewhere. But, compared to other regions of the world, where radio’s percentage of ad revenues has decreased somewhat since 2010, it has remained relatively stable or even increased slightly in the MENA countries.
  • Music: In MENA, live music contributes to the major share of industry revenues and is significantly more important than in other world regions, due in part to the pervasiveness of illegal downloads and piracy. Also, performance rights revenues, which constitute a significant share of revenues for record companies, are virtually non-existent. This is why large international record labels have difficulty justifying investments in local talent. Given these constraints, live performances in the Middle East constitute an even larger share of total music revenues than in many other regions of the world. But even there, the region seems to have a significant disadvantage. Whereas worldwide nearly a quarter of live music revenues come from event sponsorships, in the Middle East this figure is estimated to be below 10 percent.
  • Advertising: In 2015, the size of the advertising market in the MENA region was approximately USD 5.5 billion – an estimate that NU-Q calculated from different sources and introduces in this report for the first time. Television and newspapers are the most important advertising platforms. In fact, television – albeit on a very low level — and online advertising have grown. Newspapers have lost but remain the most important platform for national advertising, often paid for by governments and other non-commercial organizations. Pan-Arab advertising has increased significantly in the last five years. Most advertising agencies are located in Egypt and the UAE. But only a relatively small portion of advertising in MENA countries is administered by companies headquartered inside the region. More modern ways of marketing, such as branded content, mobile, and native advertising as well as programmatic buying of ads in the electronic media, are still in their infancy.
  • Ramadan TV: During Ramadan, Arabic TV channels are more popular than at other times of the year. At five major stations in our MENA focus countries, almost half of the programming consists of scripted material – that is about three times more than other months. In particular, the number of Arabic series, often produced in Lebanon and the KSA, grows on free-to-air (FTA) TV from almost zero to about 30 percent. Among the non-scripted programs, those with a religious theme become more important. During Ramadan, advertisers concentrate their commercials on specific primetime slots – e.g., after the typical Iftar meal in the evening.
  • Religious TV: The number of religious FTA television channels grew by 50 percent between 2011 and 2014, keeping pace with the increase in FTA channels overall. While the majority of religious channels in the region are Sunni-affiliated, much of the growth in recent years has been in Shia and Christian channels. Similarly, Arabic remains the primary language of religious television, but the number of non-Arabic religious channels more than tripled from 2011 to 2014.

These and other findings are presented in greater detail on the pages that follow. In addition, there is a website that helps readers examine the data more flexibly. For that presentation, visit mideastmedia.org.