In August 2005, Tarek Ayntrazi, the Starcom Group’s Middle East chief executive, left the media-buying arm of Leo Burnett after 15 years with the company, to head up Future TV (FTV), taking over from Nadim Munla, now an economic advisor within the Future Movement. Not only was the new position a challenge in the sense that Ayntrazi was moving to another branch of the media equation, he had been handed the reins of a TV station that had been pushed to the forefront of the struggle for a new, independent Lebanon. In this exclusive interview with Executive’s editor, Michael Karam, Ayntrazi talks of his ambition to consolidate the financial fortunes of Future TV and the inherent challenges that go with preserving the station’s core values of responsible broadcasting to Lebanon and the region.
E Your previous employers called the time of your leaving a “transitional period.” Was it a good time to get out?
Absolutely, it was a good time. On reflection, I should have made a move a bit earlier. Still, I am very excited about the move. I have always said to family and friends that my next job would be running a television station and there are not that many around, so it is lucky I like Future. I feel that it is important to like it as a viewer … its political and social values and standards. In that way, I couldn’t see myself running a Saudi station. There were a couple of channels I liked and both of them offered me a job. I took this one.
E What was the other channel?
I’d prefer not to say.
E How did you get the job exactly?
What made them certain you were the right man?
I don’t know if I can answer that [laughs]. I think Future wants to get programming closer to the advertisers’ and the viewers’ needs and demands rather than being a media that comes up with programs it thinks people will like. So, we are trying to bridge the gap, to get closer to the Arab consumer, the Arab youth in particular and advertisers outside Lebanon. My 15 years working in the Gulf was an important factor.
E A more commercial approach?
No, not a more commercial approach. We want to adapt to the viewers’ needs and demands and a natural consequence of that is if you are more in tune with what people want to see, then ratings go up and then you get more ads. One leads to the other. If you adopt a purely commercial strategy, there are more shortcuts to get an audience, such as sensationalism, which is not part of this station’s policy, strategy or culture. This is a station that will never offend social or religious values. Even in its politics, it has always looked at the point of intersection rather than a point of conflict. We try to bridge the gap. Some may call this boring. Some may say we should stand out, but I feel that the right thing to do is to act in the best interests of the community and youth.
E So responsible broadcasting with an eye on the bottom line?
E Adopting this approach, how easy is it to take on the competition. Are they more ruthless in getting viewers?
Our job is more challenging and more difficult when you have to work within boundaries. We believe this is the right thing to do for the owners and the viewers.
E You mentioned reaching out to the community. Which community?
Future has a core audience base in Lebanon and with satellite Arab viewers in the Gulf region. Our main target is Saudi Arabia as an economic heavyweight, and also for its religious and social demographic. Then there are the other Gulf markets, such as Kuwait and the UAE. Yet we will not alienate Egypt or the Levant area. We are very strong in Lebanon and in Syria, where many areas get us without a satellite. We are strong in Jordan, as reflected by the Superstar voting and the fact that a Jordanian won; also in North Africa where we have distribution plans.
E You have outlined the broad strategy. Can you tell us specifically what we can expect on Future in the coming months?
As you know Future Television went through a crisis with the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. We had to respond politically to this and rise to the events and this meant less entertainment programs from our regular schedule. However, I believe we were the catalyst in driving events. We were part of shaping the future rather than covering events that shaped the future. We set the agenda. Now we are back to our original mission and we are planning a big relaunch for Ramadan, for which we have a rich grid. Ramadan is a landmark in every year. It represents 25% of annual ad budgets and is very competitive. We all try to get the latest drama series from Syria or the Gulf. We have a bloc of eight hours of new programming from the iftar till the early hours. We have signed the two top Egyptian dramas this year – one with Yusra and the other with Yehia Fakhrani – the top Syrian productions and one of the best comedies to come out of the Gulf, a Kuwaiti production. Ramadan is the trigger, the point for us to re-enter the market. Ah yes, and we will start the 3rd season of Superstar. Future will come back to the viewers and the advertisers.
E Was Future blown off course this year?
Future had a choice. It could have gone for 40 days of mourning with classical music and the Koran or say: “Yes we are sad. Yes we are angry. Yes we are serious and we are not going to remain silent anymore.” So we rose to the challenge. At the end of the day we have a responsibility to the community more so than the advertiser and you have to lead or at least stand next to your community facing the social, economic and political challenges. So we took a pioneering role and before long the political establishment was dancing to the tunes of what was being shown on Future Television. At least this is what people said at the time. This is not my observation.
E Is the new season a move to leave that behind?
The station will never let go of its political and social responsibility.
E Have you been appointed general manager with a view towards increasing ad revenue?
One could be a hypocrite and say no, but we want to increase market share. So building on my strong understanding of Arab viewers and being a TV buyer for 15 years and having lived in the Gulf and knowing what the young generation is looking for, I am sure I can bring programming closer to this.
E Competition among Arab Sat TV
stations has been increasing. Where do you see the growth potential of FTV, where are the best markets and what are the types of programs that hold most promise (survivor stuff, talkies, quiz games, own soaps, or political coverage)?
It’s a combination of so many things. Each segment of the day requires a different formula: early morning, morning, noon, afternoon, prime time, late night. We are a general entertainment channel. We are not news. We are not movies. We must meet the needs for every segment of the day.
E The Lebanese market is minimal, and the terrestrial channels are well sated. How important is Lebanon for FTV, what are your programming essentials here, and how will the terrestrial channel differ from the sat channel in coming months?
The Lebanese channel has more of a focus on local politics and local news. It has more of a Lebanese flavor with no GCC programming.
E What is the weighing of your resources and revenues between the terrestrial and the satellite channel, and how is it going to change?
It is difficult to assess as there are a lot of shared resources, but the emphasis is on the satellite channel because this is where we generate 70% to 80% of our income. It’s as simple as that.
E The genesis of FTV is inextricably linked to the station’s founder, Rafik Hariri. It was widely considered a media where the views of Hariri and the Mustaqbal movement were receiving priority coverage. Over the past seven months, FTV very understandably emphasized the life and death of Hariri by allocating large theme blocks to related issues. How is the dissemination of the Hariri message and preservation of his personal legacy going to remain a priority in FTV programming and to what extent?
By continuing to be socially responsible and by continuing to promote tolerance, openness and acceptance of others and by rejecting any cause that encourages confessionalism, which other stations continue to hammer in their news coverage. We see this day in, day out, especially during elections, which helped wipe out the achievements of the March 14 movement by their coverage. So tolerance, acceptance and liberal thinking were key. We [prioritized] this when he was alive and we continue to do this after his death. I believe Sheikh Saad and everyone within the Hariri political movement is committed to this.
E So not him but his values?
This is how you pay tribute to someone’s legacy. E You are poacher turned gamekeeper. Coming into this position with experience in media buying on behalf of advertisers, do you see the media industry, and the TV industry in particular, as mature partners to advertisers in terms of the transparency of the dissemination of data and information?
The biggest challenge, and maybe these are harsh words, but the biggest crime against television stations is the lack of transparent and reliable research data. The TV audience data available in Lebanon is shameful. I will not make any further comment on this because there is currently a court case against the people who have been providing the data for the past seven or eight years but in reality, in the absence of this data, we are all operating in the dark. I think that a certain program is good because my family and my friends like it. As fragmentation increases … did you know there are now over 200 satellite channels in the Arab world – it gets harder. We used to have our own data and fund it. We were not ignorant but every year every agency was put under pressure to skew the data one way or the other and every time you used data that was not in conformity with someone’s demands all hell would break loose.
E So what is being done?
There is a project underway to revamp the TV audience measurement system and another project in the Gulf led by the GCC Association of Advertisers. We believe that advertisers and media owners have no interest in biasing the data in one way or another. Advertisers want to know where they should spend their money and TV owners want to know the real value of their programming in the eyes of the viewers. All the others have a vested interest: the media sales rep will skew the data to where his financial commitment is higher with no consideration to the media owner or the advertiser. We are happy the advertisers have established their own association and we are fully supportive, knowing they will work in their best interests. Research should move away from the media sales reps, because they have no interest in getting transparent data.
E Between advertiser interests, the political legacy of FTV, and the overall political and social operating environment for Arab TV stations, what is your vision for a mature FTV network – journalistically, entertainment-wise, and commercially?
Look, 60% of the Arab world is under 30. These people are disoriented by the violent times and often conservative times in which they live. I want to reach out to the Arab youth. I want to offer them entertainment and responsible broadcasting.
E You yourself are young. Is that a handicap?
[Laughs] I am 39. Is that young? If so maybe, it is part of this station’s strategy to reach out to the youth. It has not been an issue. It has in fact been a plus.