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Old 12-01-2005, 09:47 AM   #1
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how to win the hearts and minds of Saudi women ...

more fun than "shock 'n awe," give them Oprah! the most influential woman alive!

[q]'Oprah' Is Attracting Young, Female Viewers To TV in Saudi Arabia

December 1, 2005; Page B1

More than a year after the pan-Arab satellite station MBC started broadcasting "Oprah" on its channel 4, it made a discovery: The show's ratings were higher than those of any other English-language show. The interest was coming from an untapped audience in the largest country in their coverage area: young Saudi Arabian women. And what these young women wanted was even more "Oprah," as well as other programs like it.

"We found 'Oprah' to be the biggest hit with our viewers," says Andrew Maskall, marketing manager for MBC2 and 4, which are based in nearby Dubai. "It helped us identify a commercial gap in the market." Almost a third of Saudi Arabia's population of 26 million people is women under the age of 25 years old. MBC4's target audience is 18- to 25-year-olds.

When it discovered the popularity of "Oprah," MBC also learned that a group of women commonly perceived as sheltered and conservative was actually identifying with the same issues as women around the world. So along with putting Oprah at the heart of its new programming for MBC4 -- the show now airs twice a day, five days a week -- MBC decided to rebrand MBC4 to specifically target young Saudi women. "We realized that they're our core audience," says Mr. Maskall.

Making "Oprah" the centerpiece of the network is hardly a risk-free strategy. Oprah Winfrey is a sore spot for many Saudis. Earlier this year, in a show on "Women Across the Globe," she included Saudi TV presenter Rania Al-Baz among the 11 interviewees sharing uplifting stories. Ms. Al-Baz had made headlines in Saudi Arabia last year when she was nearly beaten to death by her husband. Of the 11 interviews, hers was the only tale of abuse. After sharing pictures of the broadcaster in a bruised and battered state, Ms. Winfrey said, "Thank God we live in America."

In the avalanche of criticism of Ms. Winfrey that followed, one Saudi columnist wrote, "Oprah is like a sieve that tells the needle that it has a hole in it. It would have been better if she had spent the time and money for this segment on doing a service to her own society, and on revealing the true situation in that society."

In Saudi Arabia, satellite television is officially banned, but the law is widely ignored and more than nine out of 10 households receive satellite TV. Still, Maha Akeel, a Saudi journalist, says the critique against Western programs, especially "Oprah," is constant. "Weekly there are critics who say they are a cultural invasion and inappropriate to society, but the shows reach Saudi homes via satellite, so there's really nothing they nor the government can do."

In any case, Ms. Akeel says, the criticism has done nothing to diminish Oprah's appeal to young Saudi women. "So often conversations among young women start with 'Did you see "Oprah" last night?' " She addresses the issues that Saudi media don't, the issues that are on these women's minds."

MBC, which is Saudi owned, teamed up with Jeddah-based advertising agency 3Points to produce the station's new identity, using the slogan, "It's for you!" The Saudi agency is working with young Saudi women to address their needs without offending them. Because showing faces in public-space advertisements is banned for religious reasons in Saudi Arabia, for example, an avenue to reach women needed to be found.

It turned out to be placing ads in beauty salons, at women's universities and in local women's magazines. The ads show Saudi women adhering to conservative dress codes -- fully covered with none of their hair showing -- but with a modern touch: colorful backgrounds, vibrant smiles and clear body language. "The girls in the ads are covered up, but in a very fashionable way," says Mr. Maskall. All the shows on MBC4 are broadcast in their original format with Arabic subtitles.

MBC4's efforts to win over young Saudi women is part of a growing trend in the region. A recent report by the TNS Female Research Center in Saudi Arabia encouraged marketers to target Saudi women, reporting that their stereotype of being timid and oppressed is outdated. "Women are increasingly seeking ways to express themselves and their individuality," says Hana Balaa, the director of the center. She says a major driver of this new adventurousness is the availability of satellite TV channels. Saudi women are also looking at their neighbors, like Dubai, or Kuwait, where women recently got the right to vote."

Ms. Balaa says better education and jobs are also giving Saudi women a broader perspective. The younger generation, in particular, is much like Western women: They like to be fashionable, they love to shop, they fret about their weight, and they discuss crushes, relationships and aspirations, she says. "They're expressing their opinions more."

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