“We will respect our audience’s culture and upbringing without diluting the essence of MTV,” Bhavneet Singh, managing director of emerging markets, MTV Networks International, says. “Everything will be tasteful. What is acceptable in Egypt might not be so in Jedda.”
There are more than 50 music channels in the region. MTV will attempt to wrest dominance from Rotana, owned by Prince Alwaleed, the Saudi businessman, which also operates the Middle East’s largest record label and has exclusive contracts with most top-selling artists.
The rewards could be great for Viacom because two thirds of the Arab world is younger than 30 and they are hungry for cutting-edge music, especially hip-hop.
MTV favourites such as Pimp My Ride and the practical joke show Punk’d will be amended for Arab audiences, but the scatological South Park would be too controversial, Mr Singh concedes. Culturally sensitive editors will make cuts to contentious Western videos, although local artists will account for 40 per cent of the music aired.
Pimp My Ride and Punk’d are favorites? The only show on MTV I ever watch is Made. Of course, I’m not their target audience. I wonder if they’ll show the execrable My Super Sweet 16.
But isn’t MTV a symbol of American cultural imperialism for an audience still angered by the invasion of Iraq? “We asked our focus group where they thought MTV came from,” Mr Singh says. “The most popular answers were Europe and India. It is not perceived as an American brand.”
Ironically, MTV Arabia reflects the pioneering spirit of the network at its inception 26 years ago, before the flagship channel became a vehicle for dating shows and cliché-ridden R&B videos. Mr Singh says: “We want to break the stereotypical image of Middle East youth. I want to take the best new rappers from a basement in Egypt and put them on the first MTV Arabia international awards show, shown across all our outlets.” But the MTV mission remains the same, whether you are in Damascus or Darlington. Mr Singh says: “If I can find a kid on the corner in a small Middle East city who says: ‘I love my MTV’, then my job is done.”