An industry under threat: Ramadan 2019, brought to you by Egyptian Media Group

This time of year, the offices of TV production companies are usually bustling with stars conducting meetings in preparation for the upcoming Ramadan television season (which falls in May this year) and celebrities’ social media accounts are typically abuzz with teasers of their latest projects. This year, however, these companies have shut their doors to most stars and stakeholders have taken to social media to voice their frustration instead.

The local television scene is rife with talk about the implications of recent developments in the field, which entail an effective halt in almost all TV drama production. This controversy is particularly pertinent as made-for-TV dramas currently represent one of the most valuable artistic industries, in terms of both profit and quality. Moreover, after a number of actors and producers broke their silence regarding recent developments, discussion surrounding this issue grew even more heated. For instance, director Kamla Abu Zikry issued a statement on her Facebook account addressing the crisis, while actress Ghada Abdel Razek made a statement (which she later deleted), claiming that she had been threatened not to work based on orders by authorities.

What we’re witnessing this year is not a marketing crisis, or a weakness in screenplays, or any of the other issues that have ailed the drama industry in the past; rather, the very existence of the industry is under unprecedented threat. The number of series being produced has plummeted, and is expected to amount to 18 series at most, the majority of which are  to be produced by Synergy, the production house owned by Tamer Morsy, head of the intelligence-affiliated Egyptian Media Group (EMG). It is the newest step in the state’s ongoing bid to monopolize all forms of media and artistic production in Egypt.

How has the industry shifted in one year?

To understand the current change in the production of TV dramas, one must go back to the outset of the crisis, nearly three years ago. Back then, there were over 30 series released every season, produced under a diverse range of production houses and addressing a wide array of subjects. The industry cycle was more or less stable, starting with producers in competition with each other, to satellite channels racing to purchase the best series’ screening rights and advertising revenues being the central source of profit. The main issues concerned increasing production budgets and the skyrocketing salaries of certain stars.

However, parallel to seasonal debates among industry heads over these issues, the state was preparing a plan to exert control over the entire market. The first signs of this plan emerged in June 2017, with statements by the president and a number of government officials voicing their displeasure with the content offered on Ramadan TV series, and their desire to remedy the situation. This remedy manifested in the form of extreme censorship measures, including the establishment of the Drama Committee within the Supreme Meda Regulatory Council, designed to monitor the TV drama industry. Another attempt at controlling the content of Ramadan TV series entailed ordering writers to product certain screenplays, to be produced under close state supervision. The effects of these directives became apparent last year in the striking similarity of the content of the series released, as well as the ubiquity of police and army officers as characters in most of them.

The state’s control later extended to include satellite channels, many of which — including ONtv and Al Hayah — are currently controlled by EMG, owned by Eagle Capital for Financial Investment, a private equity fund founded by Egypt’s General Intelligence Services (GIS). When Morsy, the founder and head of Synergy, was subsequently appointed CEO of EMG in February of this year, the move signalled further crisis for the TV drama industry, as one producer suddenly exercised total control over a large portion of the existing distribution and exhibition outlets.

A Tamer Morsy Season

The initial outcome of Morsy’s monopoly over the Egyptian drama market became clear last year with the elimination of certain series from Egypt’s Ramadan season, including El Adl Group’s We Have Other Statements (starring Youssra) and Land of Hypocrisy (starring Mohamed Heneidy), which were only aired on non-Egyptian channels, as well as Beelink ProductionsWhat Came to Pass (starring Ruby), which was not broadcast at all. Now, with Morsy’s newly acquired control over more channels, in addition to EMG’s acquisition of shares in the CBC television network and Morsy’s partnership with D Media, it appears that other producers will no longer have access to air their series in Egypt. Both D Media and DMC, another prominent television network, are owned by the GIS.

A young director who had a show airing last Ramadan and spoke with Mada Masr on condition of anonymity says that Morsy used to produce about five to eight series per season before he acquired so much control over TV outlets. Now, his company plans on producing nearly 12 series, to be distributed across the various channels owned by EMG, in effect monopolizing both production and distribution. The source reveals that, as a result of this monopoly, many producers are out of work this year, including Beelink’s Mohamed Mashish, El Adl Group’s Maha Selim, and producer Ahmed Al Sobky, when the three of them combined had eight series screening last Ramadan. He adds that Mashish, after What Came to Pass was dropped last year, had come to the conclusion that he would not be able to sustain his activities in the Egyptian market and was considering  relocating to Beirut — even though he had had plans to produce a series starring Yasser Galal in 2019.

The same source predicts that Morsy will leave enough space for a handful of producers to release five to six shows, in addition to his own productions, in an attempt to avoid accusations of monopoly. The total number of released productions should be around 18, aired across six or seven channel — numbers that pale in comparison the industry’s output in previous years. He also mentions that the entertainment scene is filled with speculation about the reason behind this radical shift in TV production patterns, and that most seem to attribute it to the president, who appears to be irked by the scale the industry had come to operate on and the high salaries paid to TV stars.

The source also revealed that the reason behind Abdel Razek’s surprising Twitter attack on EMG — where she claimed that the company was threatening to put her out of work under instructions from the GIS and the military — was a personal conflict between the actor and Morsy himself. The dispute had taken place during and after the production of Abdel Razek’s series Against Unknown (2018), which Morsy produced. Expecting that he would not allow her to star in any of his subsequent productions, Abdel Razek decided to go public, hoping that she would cause trouble for Morsy with the authorities, according to the source.

 Meanwhile, a source at El Adl Group confirmed to Mada Masr that the company will no longer be engaging in drama production. There is a long-standing dispute between producer Gamal El Adl and Morsy, he says. Back in 2016, he says, when Morsy was head of advertising company Synergy White, he was in charge of allocating airtime for series on ONtv. Morsy screened El Adl’s shows Above Suspicion and Free Fall without buying the rights from El Adl Group, and went as far as advertising the shows’ times on the channel on billboards in the streets. The series’ episodes were also uploaded on ONtv’s YouTube channel without the production company’s logo.

The antagonism continued in 2017, with Morsy removing two of El Adl Group’s shows from ONtv’s schedule and imposing impossible criteria for buying prospective productions: his channels would not buy rights for more than LE50 million, and the script for every episode should be presented in full for approval prior to airing. Such conditions, the source says, forced El Adl to back out of the current production season.

He goes on to recount the difficulties the company faced when filming last year’s Eagle of the South, as a result of excessive military intervention in the series’ content and production process. Members of the Armed Forces were often present on set and would interfere in most details during the shoot, not to mention that the show’s star, Mohamed Ramadan, would often miss shoots because his military conscription service overlapped with shooting times. Sometimes, he would arrive to the shooting location in a military vehicle.

On the other hand, producer Essam Shaaban, owner of King Tut Productions, states to Mada Masr that there is indeed a crisis, but that it shouldn’t mean the end of the TV drama industry. The problem, he says, is that the clock is ticking, and it is unlikely that the crisis will be resolved in time for this upcoming Ramadan season. He, however, refuses to place blame on any particular party, and rejects claims of monopoly over the market. He does not consider the current situation to be deliberately orchestrated: “Nobody is specifically targeting anybody.”

Shaaban believes that the current setback in television production has been primarily brought on by declining economic conditions, which have led to a decrease in advertising budgets. The industry, he says, is built on the flow of money from advertising agencies to satellite channels to production companies. If channels were reaping advertising revenues, they would be able to buy series from producers, who in turn would be able to produce more series, and so on. However, given the current economic climate, corporations haven’t been spending as much on advertising as they used to, and this has definitely affected the production cycle.

Counting the losses

To this date, with Ramadan only five months away, only two series have been officially named: Princess Beesa, starring Mai Ezzeddin, and Cuffs 3, starring Amir Karara. Meanwhile, Mohamed Ramadan and Ahmed Fahmy are said to be in talks with Morsy for two other series, while some predict that we might be seeing other shows starring Mostafa Shaaban, Dina al-Sherbiny, and Mostafa Khater.

However many other familiar names seem to have dropped out of this production season, or had their shows postponed. One of them is prominent actor Adel Imam, who could potentially miss his first Ramadan season in seven years, due to alleged censorial objections to the subject matter of his new series, in which he was reportedly set to play the president’s physician. Other names on the list of potential absentees include Abdel Razek, Hend Sabry, Mona Zaki, Amr Youssef, Eyad Nassar, Youssra, Tarek Lotfy, Yahia al-Fakharani and Yasser Galal, among several other Ramadan staples.

It appears that the number of series released next year will indeed not exceed 18, according to several sources. Television channels, sources say, will fill up the remaining airtime — previously overflowing with series — with variety television shows, including talk and game shows, instead. Tawfiq Okasha, the controversial media personality who made his comeback in March — courtesy of  Synergy Productions and EMG — recently dedicated a segment on his show (which airs on Al Hayah) to criticizing actors and “the obscene sums of money they demand.” Okasha then proceeded to discuss a plan to bring down the number of series airing this Ramadan to 18, with each television channel airing only three.

This number is catastrophic on multiple levels, given the previous size of the market in Egypt. It is possible that, for the first time in history, the Egyptian drama sector will produce less work than its counterparts in Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait, who produce 10 to 20 works on average each Ramadan season. Not to mention the most important aspect of the problem, as mentioned by Abu Zikry in her Facebook post: the threat to the livelihoods of 2 million Egyptian workers of all stripes who contribute to and depend upon this industry, patiently waiting for the Ramadan season from year to year.

In a statement on his Facebook page, director Karim Medhat mentions “new conditions put forth by the entity controlling the production of TV drama in Egypt,” without identifying the nature of this entity. The conditions, as he cites them, resemble Morsy’s criteria for buying television shows as stated to producers, as well as Okasha’s so-called recommendations for downsizing the market: ”Production companies are not to sell their series to more than one channel, each channel is allowed to air a maximum of four series, and the airing rights cannot exceed LE50 million.” Medhat estimates that the industry spends about LE2 billion annually and brings in about LE4 billion in revenue — all of which, in the 2019 season, will go almost entirely to one entity.  

One interpretation of these recent developments is that the Egyptian state — nostalgic for the heyday of state television, when the state alone was in control of all television productions — is planning a comeback under new terms, tailored to fit the demands of the current moment. After exerting its control over satellite TV channels, it now seeks to control production as well, in order to keep the media and entertainment sectors securely under its wing, only for the state to emerge once again as the only player on the local scene.

Mohamed al-Aswany 

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