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The Ageless Screen: Why Television Still Holds Sway In A Digitized World

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In an age where the pixelated glow of digital screens seems to permeate every aspect of our lives, it might be easy to underestimate the enduring allure of a different kind of screen: the television (TV). I am a big believer that television still matters today. I am constantly asked why I still produce television shows in an era where digital is clearly on the rise with new platforms and growth in consumption.

And while I understand the potential reach and engagement digital platforms can offer, I still strongly believe that the credibility of television is unmatched. I believe that TV brings a level of credibility that digital online platforms find very difficult to meet. Having conceptualized, produced, and executive produced several successful TV shows, I’ve seen firsthand the unique level of respect this work garners. I can tell you that the respect a broadcaster or TV producer receives far outweighs that received by a digital producer.

Time and time again, I see the weight that is given to broadcast over online platforms and channels- executive producing the daily TV show, DXB Today, which airs on the pan-Arab channel Dubai One, has served me many reminders of this fact. I’ve had a front-row seat to how guests light up when they’re given a chance to shine on television.

We’re approached regularly by well-known figures, eager for a chance to tick “TV appearance” off their bucket list, or who understand the credibility that being on a show like ours can add to their personal brand, or are genuinely moved to share their expertise, service, or product with a TV viewing audience. To them, a spot on a television show is a coveted milestone.

Now, ask yourself: would they get that same spark in their eyes for an online channel?

Reim El Houni, founder and CEO of Ti22 Films and Dubai ON Demand, in the DXB Today studio. Source: Ti22 Films/Dubai ON Demand

Let me take you back to 2014. Fresh from the NAB Show in the US, the annual trade show produced by the National Association of Broadcasters that’s the world’s largest industry convention, I was brimming with a passion to break new ground. The idea? To create bespoke YouTube channels showcasing Dubai’s dynamic personalities. That’s how my enterprise, Dubai ON Demand, was born. It was a brave new venture, with channels focusing on everything from CrossFit, to parenting and wellness.

Given my media background, I knew how to generate a buzz, and before we knew it, big-name brands were knocking on our door, eager to be part of our content. I remember those meetings as if they were yesterday. “What channel are you on?,” they’d ask. “YouTube,” I’d reply. ‘No, no; what TV channel are you on?,” they’d insist. “We’re not on TV, we’re on YouTube,” I’d confirm. Suddenly, their enthusiasm faded: “Oh! We’re sorry, we thought you were on a TV channel, we don’t want to move forward on YouTube.”

Back then, it didn’t matter how hard I tried to convince them about the possible reach as well as the opportunity to target an audience, they were not swayed. It was a hard pill to swallow, a reality check that, in the eyes of many, the credibility of TV still reigned supreme.

Less than 10 years later, and the landscape has certainly evolved. YouTube has grown tremendously, and is now an integral part of any digital strategy, with many brands now clamoring for a slice of the online pie. Other platforms like TikTok and Instagram have also stepped into the limelight, each with their own unique strengths and audience.

Reim El Houni in the Studio Expo studio. Source: Ti22 Films/Dubai ON Demand

But amidst this digital buzz, something fascinating is happening. Audiences are not just flocking to social media platforms- they’re also embracing subscription-based streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and Apple TV. It’s like the golden age of television all over again.

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The numbers don’t lie. A recent report by Digital TV Research focused on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region predicts that over-the-top (OTT) TV episodes and movies will generate US$5.69 billion by 2028. That’s double the estimated number for 2023, which sits at $2.83 billion. But despite these numbers and predicted growth, I believe that, in this day and age, there is still a place for traditional broadcasters, even if it is only in the short term. In this digital era, traditional television is simply finding new ways to thrive.

While OTT platforms have spoiled us with the opportunity to binge-watch our favorite shows, every once in a while, a show comes along that reignites that nostalgic spark of what has been termed “appointment viewing.” The hit dramatic series, Succession, which aired in the MENA region on OSN, reminded us all of “the old days” with everyone ensuring they were in front of their TV sets on a Monday evening (the show aired on a Sunday in the US). Indeed, the series finale became the talk of the town- it drew in a series-high of 2.9 million viewers worldwide.

Admittedly, viewership is calculated across all platforms, including digital, but it is still subscription-based. It could be argued that even the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) announced a plan in March 2022 to close down parts of their broadcasting arm, and go completely digital. BBC Director General Tim Davie announced these changes as part of a movement to “build a digital-first BBC,” which would “embrace the huge shifts in the market.”

If a broadcast institution like the BBC has made this public claim, then surely that is a sign for things to come. I believe it is.

However, even the BBC said that this would happen over the next few years, and, in fact, there were reports in March 2023 that the BBC might backtrack on its original decision to go digital with its BBC Four channel owing to its to solid ratings- so, let’s perhaps not be too quick to dismiss the power of television.

Let’s also not forget that the crux of the matter lies in creating high-quality content that truly resonates with your audience. A well-produced show that either thoroughly entertains or educates an audience will still draw viewers, and whether it is on TV or online is secondary. There are still big blockbuster formats that grab attention such as Shark Tank or Dragons’ Den in the business space, and MasterChef or The Voice in the lifestyle segments. TV channels compete and vie to get the rights to these shows, as they know the impact they will have on the overall channel’s reach.

One area where the power of TV is undeniable is on large-scale events and sport. The FIFA World Cup selectively grants TV rights to a handful of broadcasters globally, who are known to pay a significant amount for them, because they know that this level of high-quality content can draw a large viewership for their channel.

According to FIFA, the final match of its 2022 edition in Qatar achieved a global reach of nearly 1.5 billion viewers across various platforms and networks worldwide, and out of that total, 242.79 million of those viewers watched live on TV on beIN Sports in the MENA region. That is an impressive number, and it goes to show that for certain types of content, television remains a commanding force in captivating audiences.

I personally felt the importance of this while executive producing the daily live coverage of Expo 2020. We were live for 183 consecutive days, and we aired globally through a dedicated Expo channel, Expo TV, as well as on Dubai One. While social media and digital channels definitely played an integral role in ensuring a buzz was generated around all the amazing activities, shows, performances, talks, and pavilions at the Expo, our daily show, Studio Expo, undoubtedly had viewers from around the globe tuning in to catch these moments live, and celebrate their respective countries.

Reim El Houni with the Studio Expo presenters at Expo 2020 Dubai. Source: Ti22 Films/Dubai ON Demand

There are a number of incidents that come to mind that demonstrated the impact the show had internationally. To share one, I recall inviting a Dubai businessman into the studio to discuss his ventures in Uganda. Two weeks later, he rang me to say thank you for the opportunity, as it had resulted in close to 20 new opportunities from businesses in Uganda who had seen him on TV! I have to admit that it caught me by surprise- but it was a good reminder that viewers are everywhere, and in some parts of the world, TV content is still the go-to.

While I am not in denial about the growth of the digital world, and, in fact, can argue that I was an early adopter with our launch into the YouTube space in 2014, I do believe that we are not yet in a world where only the online universe reigns supreme. Perception still carries significant weight, and the potential of TV should not be neglected or brushed aside.

As far as I am concerned, the answer isn’t to cancel all TV efforts, but instead, we need to recognize that having your content aired on a broadcast channel can add that secret ingredient, a sprinkle of credibility that elevates your project’s profile. A broadcasting approach, when coupled with a strong digital strategy, will ensure you capitalize on maximum reach, while also successfully garnering the best of both worlds.

For me personally, there is nothing that beats the adrenaline, the energy, the excitement of a TV studio, let alone a live broadcast. Perhaps by sharing this perspective, I can stave off those who prematurely believe the era for TV is over, prompting a shift in understanding that the most effective strategy is not an “either-or,” but, instead, an “and.”

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