Is your TV content suitable for the Middle East?

MENA child
Neal Romanek
August 18th 2017 at 12:00PM : By Neal Romanek

We tend to think that opportunities for content localisation are driven by technology. But Ian Brotherston, CEO at TVT, explains how localising for some regions is more art than science

The age of global television brands is fundamentally transforming the viewing marketplace across the globe, and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is no exception. Driving much of this sweeping change is the staggering 292% growth projected for the region over the next five years in OTT TV and video revenue, according to Digital TV Research. It is undeniable that MENA presents a wealth of opportunity for broadcasters and content owners looking to expand into promising new markets.

Versioning content for the region’s linear broadcast, OTT, catch-up TV and video on demand market requires a blend of cutting-edge technical processes and highly skilled people with expertise – spanning regulatory compliance, format versioning, craft editing and a host of other content management skills. The art of effective versioning is key to meeting local market expectations of quality, tone, translation, presentation and the reflection of native values.

Entering this market, however, is not straightforward. There are a number of cultural and compliance issues that need to be addressed to successfully prepare content for smooth journeys to MENA.


Translation is a key question in versioning – whether it is voiceovers, lip-sync dubbing or subtitling programming based on local cultural norms or regulations. Strong language in later evening timeslots is generally tolerated in MENA countries. If the content is being subtitled, then the Arabic translation will tone down the strongest language if necessary. Detailed compliance logs help to speed up the rest of the workflow, and accurate notes on vernacular or unfamiliar local slang will aid localisation teams when they are working on these translations.

Operator brand identity is another key side of the language issue that may necessitate re-scripting for voiceovers. Some channels re-script and re-voice the narration to match the channel personality and house style – even in the same language. For a reality show made in the United States and prepped for distribution in the United Arab Emirates, for instance, sometimes the remit is to remove the narrator’s on-camera appearances and voiceover to create ‘presenterless’ versions – enabling easier re-voicing of the narration either into Arabic, or maintaining it in English but with a local accent and vernacular.

Red flags

MENA schedulers will avoid broadcasting or streaming programmes that feature excessive and persistent violence, LGBT themes, substance abuse, overt sexual themes and, crucially, content that might cause religious offense. For example, Ancient Aliens is a popular, long-running series, produced in a documentary style that presents hypotheses of ancient astronauts and suggests that historical texts, archaeology and legends contain evidence of past contact between humans and aliens.

TV audiences tend to increase during Ramadan as more people are at home due to restricted working hours – and children are often allowed to stay up late into the night


Certain episodes make clear connections between aliens and religious figures – such as the Prophet Elijah – or suggest that the angels referred to in the Bible or the Koran were aliens. These references are likely to offend or dismay Muslim viewers at any time – but especially during Ramadan. Some of the references are brief and can easily be removed by the compliance team and editors; however, in some instances, the entire episode should be omitted from the MENA schedule. The compliance team, therefore, has the added responsibility of providing detailed, clear advice to the schedulers.

Another often-overlooked cultural nuance is the use of religious names for an animal or toy within a programme. Even if this is dramatically appropriate, it needs to be carefully considered before the programme goes to air. For example, a character in the series Footballers’ Wives who professes to be Hindu names her dog 'Krishna'. This revealed much about the character's lack of religious commitment but, despite the dramatic justification, it would cause concern if played in territories with a sizable Hindu audience, such as the United Arab Emirates.

Duty of care to children

The duty of care relating to children is also paramount when it comes to contentious and adult-themed content. Regulations may vary but it can generally be taken as read that no operator can show anything that would impair the emotional development of a child or otherwise harm viewers. This means that broadcasters, other operators and compliance teams need to be aware of when children might be watching – even outside daytime hours.

TV audiences, for instance, tend to increase during Ramadan as more people are at home due to restricted working hours – and children are often allowed to stay up late into the night. The objective for those broadcasters with a dedicated MENA channel is to, therefore, offer viewers more family-focused programming during this time – and often opting to schedule daytime versions of content, when potentially damaging or contentious content has been cut or minimised, is the best recourse for operators.

Tracking and relying on show data

Building a detailed log at the time of viewing provides programming planners with the tools they need to schedule appropriately – especially when a series designated to play in a territory such as MENA for the first time might contain some of the potentially offensive, graphic or non-compliant content discussed above.

What’s more, the versioning and compliance team needs to consider not just the next transmission, but also all possible future transmissions, and provide rich data for every show – participants, actions, and potential flashpoints in each scene. Having a platform for capturing all this information is necessary to ensure an efficient and accurate workflow and media asset management that is comprehensive, flexible, quick and transparent. For example, terms such as ‘plane crash’ must be logged, so that in the event of a major air disaster, a broadcaster knows to pull a scene, or entire programme, that could upset audiences.

Knowing the legal limit

Understanding legal requirements and the potential ramifications of failing to meet them is essential in creating versions of content for any new market, including MENA. For instance, traffic cop programmes, real-life crime shows and court case documentaries often show people not convicted of a crime, or who have finished serving a jail sentence, and whose identity might need to be protected. Versioning for markets within MENA and other regions involves knowing what can and cannot be shown in each.

MENA schedulers will avoid broadcasting or streaming programmes that feature excessive and persistent violence, LGBT themes, substance abuse, overt sexual themes and, crucially, content that might cause religious offense


Another legal issue that can be thorny and requires knowledge of local rules and regulations is the need to mirror the respect shown in the MENA region to the Royal Families in these countries. The Royal Families are highly respected by their people and extreme care should be taken with any references to them, especially if such references are made in satirical or comedy shows.

Any content that might be considered as a possible representation of a Middle Eastern Royal, whether critical or not, needs to be carefully assessed – for example someone wearing a Dishdasha as a fancy dress costume, drinking shots and smoking, would not be acceptable to the local audience.

Maintaining quality and taking opportunities

Editing TV content for any market – whether for compliance, for correct formatting and show length, or even to protect viewers with photosensitive epilepsy from strobe effects, sudden changes in lighting and certain patterns or colours – needs to be achieved without losing the flow and production values of the original programme makers.

For broadcasters and video service operators offering successfully versioned video content, the opportunities in the rapidly growing MENA TV and video marketplace are unquestionable – but there are inherent risks and big potential costs for those that take a wrong step. Successfully navigating the waters of cultural taboos, accepted norms and broadcast regulations requires the expertise, skills and background necessary to get the critical elements of successful content versioning right. That is the true art of versioning.