Qatar's broadcast and print media attract consumers beyond its borders

 

Media outlets based in Qatar are increasingly prominent on the regional and international stage, but there are also intensifying efforts to develop content tailored for the Qatari market. According to a 2014 study by Northwestern University in Qatar in partnership with Doha Film Institute (DFI), across the MENA region, people spend more time consuming entertainment media than news or current affairs. While international cultural products – from Hollywood films to the “Korean Wave” and European pop – are of course popular in the region, there is a desire among viewers, listeners and readers for products that reflect their own culture and language. Some 94% of Qataris describe themselves as “strongly committed” to preserving their culture.

ENCOURAGING LOCAL CONTENT: The Northwestern University and DFI study found that 79% of those surveyed felt more should be done to preserve cultural tradition, and 65% prefer films that depict their own cultures, while the same proportion would like more entertainment based on their own history and culture. To an extent, this reflects what has been a relative lack of film and television production in many countries in the region – but it also presents a great opportunity for studios, film-makers and publishers to produce more content tailored to specific markets. For decades, Egypt was the main “cultural exporter” within MENA, with its films, television and music predominant across much of the region. While it is still dominant, countries like Qatar are now investing to produce more content specific to their domestic market, as well as the wider MENA Arabic-language one, which consists of some 355m people, according to the World Bank. Indeed, the rise of Arabic online content is also part of this process, and since many MENA residents live in middle-income countries, the potential market is significant.

FOREIGN MEDIA: The interest in local content does not mean that Qataris or other Arabs shun foreign content – two-thirds say that they benefit from it.

The majority of Qataris also want their country to be more integrated with the globalised world, with media being a natural means of achieving this.

The Northwestern University and DFI study found the most common foreign-language media in Arabic-speaking countries was in English, with 46% of Arab nationals watching English-language films, 40% watching online videos in English and one-third listening to English-language music. The proportions reading English-language print media or watching television in English were 14% and 18%.

MARKET SPECIFICS: Qatari media outlets are often outward-facing, targeting global, MENA or Gulf markets. However, they also play close attention to trends at home, as do international outlets and advertisers operating in Qatar. The study by Northwestern University and DFI also focused on the Qatari market and its nuances. Qatar’s demographic structure makes it a particularly complex media market. Around 90% of the population are expatriates, with their own media consumption habits and preferences.

Most expatriates in Qatar still identify strongly with their home cultures, and many non-Arabs do not understand Arabic well enough to enjoy media in the language. As a result – and also because of the nature of much locally produced content aimed at the domestic market – most expats prefer to consume media from their home regions, or media produced in their own language (which may be locally produced, such as Al Jazeera or Gulf Times).

According to the study, Qataris also tend to support government regulation of media, considering it necessary to protect social stability and religious values. However, residents of Qatar, including expatriates with residency, are keener readers of print media than those of neighbouring countries. Some 81% of Qatari residents read newspapers, compared to a figure of 65% regionally; 53% read newspapers daily. Qatar stood out among MENA countries for the value its citizens placed on reading, with 61% of those surveyed saying reading books for entertainment is important, and 69% and 41% reporting the same of newspapers and magazines, respectively.

Three in 10 residents of Qatar watch television produced locally, a figure that rises to half for Qatari nationals. In both cases, this is a relatively small proportion that producers and broadcasters could look to increase by tailoring content both to Qataris and specific expatriate groups. Such programming would potentially be transferrable across the GCC region, given similarities in the culture and composition of expatriates in various Gulf countries. Similarly, only 18% of residents watch online content and 14% listen to music produced in Qatar, figures which rise to 29% and 32%, respectively, among Qataris. Some 18% of Qataris watch Qatar-produced films, a low figure, considering the film industry’s recent growth, and one that domestic producers would like to increase, given the broad dedication to upholding Qatari culture expressed by nationals.

NEWSPAPERS: Total circulation of daily newspapers in Qatar is expected to reach 224,000 by end-2015, up from 211,000 in 2011, according to “Arab Media Outlook 2011-15”, a study by professional services company Deloitte and the Dubai Press Club. This reflects the popularity of newspapers as a medium in Qatar, as well as ongoing population growth.

Qatar’s newspaper industry is thriving now, accounting for the largest share of advertising spend of any medium. But it is relatively young, as until the 1960s newspapers were imported, generally from the UK or Lebanon. Today established titles include the Gulf Times and the Arabic-language Al Raya. The Gulf Times was established in 1978 and was the first English daily in the country. It hosts an online edition and carries extensive coverage of local affairs, as well as publishing current content on the home countries of many expatriates in Qatar, including India and the UK. Al Raya was launched the following year and is a semi-official state newspaper, with government news and reports on the royal family’s activities, as well as broader coverage and features. Other major newspapers include The Peninsula ( English, launched 1996), Al Sharq (Arabic, 1985) Al Watan (Arabic, 1995) and Qatar Tribune (English, 2006).

Qatar also has a range of magazines, particularly in the lifestyle segment. Two larger publishing houses in the magazine market are Firefly Communications and Oryx Communications, respectively owned by prominent Qatari businessmen Mohammed Jaidah and Yousuf Al Darwish. Firefly publishes several titles, including business magazine The Edge and Sur La Terre, a luxury lifestyle publication, while Oryx’s main products include current affairs title Qatar Today, Arabic-language business magazine Qatar Al Yom and women’s lifestyle publication Glam.

OTHER LANGUAGES: While Arabic- and English-language newspapers may be the most prominent, they are actually outnumbered by newspapers in Malayalam, a language predominantly spoken in the southern Indian state of Kerala, from which many of Qatar’s Indian expatriate workers come. The launch in January 2014 of a Doha edition of Malayala Manorama, a century-old Kerala daily, took the number of Malayalam newspapers to five, compared to four in Arabic and three in English. The others are Madhyamam, Chandrika, Thejas and Varthamanam, all Qatari editions of Kerala newspapers, commanding their own local readership often based on allegiance to a specific political party in Kerala. The focus is on Indian and Keralan news. The total circulation of the Qatari Malayalam editions is thought to be less than 10,000, according to local press reports, but readership is considerably higher. With a QR2 ($0.55) average cover price that is relatively expensive for many expatriate labourers, money is pooled to buy a newspaper that is then shared among several people. Even among the more affluent, a newspaper may be read by several family members.

The newspapers face competition from a proliferating range of Malayalam TV channels and the online media, and there are reports that circulation is slipping. However, the large Keralan population and continuing enthusiasm for news from India means that publishers are confident of retaining a market, confidence reflected in Manorama’s launch.

Qatar’s Dar Al Sharq is one of the leading publishing houses catering to the expatriate-language market, publishing three of the Malayalam dailies, a Tagalog daily and five weeklies (two Nepalese, one Urdu, one Tamil and one Sinhalese). It also plans to launch a Bangladeshi newspaper. The readership of each varies from 5000 to 25,000, Neegal Noronha, the company’s manager, told local press. Given the small circulation, each publishes content specific to the community in question, with national news taken from the publishing houses’ parent newspaper.

ON THE TUBE: Television has become an increasingly important medium in Qatar in recent years. Arab Media Outlook estimates that there will be 134,000 households with a television in the country by end-2015, up from 121,000 in 2011. This growth is driven by the increasing population, as much as economic factors. Some 73% of residents consider watching television for entertainment “important”, according to the Northwestern University and DFI study, with 54% saying the same for films on television ( compared to a MENA average of 66%). Seven in 10 residents of Qatar watch television daily, with the proportion falling to closer to six in 10 for Qatari nationals – perhaps a sign that more content could be produced for this demographic.

The most popular genre of television programming is news, with 44% of residents tuning in. Comedy gets 33% of viewers, religious and spiritual shows attract 30% (rising to 39% for Qataris), followed by sports (28%) and documentaries (26%). The proportion of expatriates of all backgrounds watching news is higher than among Qataris. Subscription TV is particularly popular among Western expats – 57% tune in – and Asian expats (44%), probably due to the broader availability of international content through subscription services. Qatar’s first television station was Qatar Television, founded in 1970 and followed by a second state-owned channel in 1982. The launch of Qatar Cablevision in 1993 enabled satellite broadcasting and cable TV to Qatar for the first time, bringing with it stations like CNN and the BBC. In 2012, Al Rayyan Media and Marketing Company launched Al Rayyan, a new television station focused on Qatari culture and raising the profile and understanding of Qatar across the region. One of the Qatar-based broadcasters to increase its regional reach in recent years is Al Dawri & Al Kass Sport Channel, originally launched in 2006 with a focus on Qatari domestic football and the 2006 Asian Games. Since then it has become one of the region’s most popular sports channels, covering sports across the Gulf as well as world football and other events.

In January 2015, Qatari company Fadaat Media launched Al Araby TV Network, a satellite television channel based in London but broadcasting across the MENA region. The focus is on regional content and the concerns of “everyday people” rather than political and business leaders. About 60% of the content is politics and news, and 40% is entertainment, including drama, music and independent films.

AL JAZEERA: Qatar’s most globally renowned media outlet is the Al Jazeera Network, founded in 1996, and now one of the world’s most high-profile and well-respected broadcasters. The Arabic channel quickly established a reputation as a pioneer addressing controversial topics, not least in the Middle East, and is often considered to be a more independent alternative to the coverage provided by state-owned broadcasters in the MENA region. In 2006, the network launched Al Jazeera English, bringing Qatar-based broadcasts to a global audience. The news channel, like its Arabic counterpart, often brings coverage from underreported regions and has built up an enthusiastic audience, many of whom see it as a counterweight to what are perceived as somewhat ethnocentric and biased Western channels.

As of 2013, the last year for which figures were available, the Al Jazeera Network reported broadcasting to 260m households in over 120 countries. It had 70 bureaux worldwide with 1000 journalists, many of them experienced reporters and presenters who made their names at other networks.

ARAB SPRING: Across the Arab world, the role of media in society has been thrown sharply into focus by the events of the Arab Spring, which brought social media in particular into the spotlight. While Qatar was barely affected by the Arab Spring politically, as a media centre for the region, it did play a role. Al Jazeera, in particular, was notable for its coverage of the Egyptian unrest – at one stage, the government of Hosni Mubarak shut down the station as it covered the regime’s suppression of protests.

DCMF: Al Jazeera has, in many senses, put Qatar on the global media map. In 2008 the broadcaster was joined by the Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF), a non-profit organisation with a wide-ranging remit, including the promotion of media freedom in the Arab world and beyond, advocating for journalists and supporting the development of media in Qatar specifically. Its programmes include media training, media law, safety and security for journalists, information access and citizen journalism. It also supports the training of experienced journalists as media educators, passing on their skills and knowledge to colleagues and the next generation of reporters.

GETTING ONLINE: Qatar’s internet penetration rate was 85.3% as of end-2013, according to the International Telecommunications Union, one of the highest levels in the GCC. Qatar’s 1.8m internet users are a relatively new, promising market for media and advertisers, both domestic and international. The scope for the growth of online media is substantial. Usage of the internet for entertainment in Qatar is around the MENA average, according to the Northwestern University and DFI study, with 72% of residents saying “passing time online” is important to them, as the survey terms it, compared to 71% regionally. Some 59% said that watching videos on sites such as YouTube, Hulu and Istikana was important to them. One-third of internet users in Qatar watch television online, both streaming and downloaded, compared to a quarter regionally. While Facebook is most popular among expatriates, more Qataris use Instagram, according to the study. Furthermore, the increasing usage of smartphones is, as elsewhere in the world, a growth driver for online media, including social media. In 2014, smartphone penetration in Qatar reached 75%, the highest level in the Middle East, according to the regional media.

This proportion is likely to continue to increase as those still using older models upgrade to smart-phones, broadening the mobile internet market. However, almost as important for content providers and telecoms firms as increasing the number of people with smartphones, is encouraging them to use them more often to access value-added services. The growing availability of Arabic-language content will help, as will development of apps tailored to the tastes of the small but diverse Qatari market, and here Qatar-based companies can take a lead.

FILM & CINEMA: Cinema-going is popular in Qatar, particularly among expatriates, with 71% of Asians and 67% of Western expats going to watch films, though the proportion is lower for Qatari nationals (43%) and Arab expats (38%). Again, this is perhaps further reflection of the lack of Arabic-language output, though a cultural preference for watching films at home may also be a factor.

As in other media, Qatar is making efforts to become a regional centre for filmmaking, and cultivating the development of the Qatari film industry, particularly through DFI. DFI aims to cultivate local talent in film-making, as well as support the financing and production of films for the domestic, regional and international markets.

OUTLOOK: The past two decades have seen Qatar establish itself as a regional centre for media, particularly through the rise of Al Jazeera. The state looks set to continue to support media outlets with a regional and international outlook, modern technology and ample resources, meaning that Qatar-based companies can have a truly global reach. Al Jazeera has tapped into demand for an alternative media voice within and well beyond the region, and the future of media in Qatar is likely to lie in identifying gaps in the regional and global media markets.

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