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It's an ad, ad, ad, ad world
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 21 - 12 - 2000


By Tarek Atia
A lot of people are upset that advertisements are now shown during soap operas, films and other programmes on Egyptian television. "Aren't the ads between the programmes enough?" asked one irate viewer.
But the problem is not necessarily the ads; it's their seemingly haphazard placement during the broadcast. Imagine this: an important scene has just ended and a new scene with other characters begins. Just as you're getting into it and one of the characters begins talking, he is abruptly cut off -- most probably, by an ad featuring a dancing girl hawking ghee.
Such crude transitions have resulted in actors and writers calling for a ban on ads during shows, saying that they break the mood and hamper the drama of the situation. Scriptwriter Wahid Hamid, whose soap opera Awan Al-Ward (Flowers Bloom) was this Ramadan's must-see, complained that the highly-coveted ads that broke into his serial cut into the drama. "I need people to stay in the mood. Instead they suddenly get people talking to them about soap, ghee and oil."
Such complaints are neither rare nor unjustified. The real point, however, is that ads don't have to be eliminated altogether in order to stop them from taking away from the dramatic events on screen. A soap opera can be split up in ways that make the commercial breaks actually enhance the drama, keeping people on the edge of their seats until the action starts again. Suggests director Issaf Ismail, "The same way a director usually ends each day's or week's episode of his show on a big event -- he can also find two or three such events inside each episode, and using fade out, music or some other technique, make space for the ads."
Ismail is surprised that the TV Union hasn't caught on yet. Soap operas that come from abroad -- where advertising within programmes is the norm -- are frequently aired on Egyptian television. TV Union programmers need only take their cue from the master tapes of these programmes, which include instructions as to where commercials should be placed between scenes. But others, like Awan Al-Ward's Hamid, don't think the problem is just a matter of editing. "What if an ad doesn't get bought in that space?" he asks, adding that Egyptian soap operas are usually sold to numerous other Arab countries, where the guarantee of advertising could be even less secure.
The answer lies with the TV Union itself, which has proved capable of handling American or European series that account for advertising breaks. The "Place commercial here" instruction is usually ignored and the episodes are shown in one chunk. Fade in, fade out. The same could be done with Egyptian series both at home and elsewhere if the ads don't come through. And, of course, in a more sophisticated system, there would be established ways to deal with these problems, such as airing pre-recorded promos for the network or public service ads.
In any case, the middle of popular soap operas has become a highly coveted space for advertisers; it is the most expensive of all advertising categories and runs for 250 per cent of the normal rate. The union's policy here is that commercial breaks during the shows themselves should be no more than a minute long. TV Union Economic Sector Head Sayed Helmi says that Awan Al-Ward represents the first time even a modicum of coordination has been attempted between the show's producers and the TV Union regarding where to place ads. People working on the serial had indicated where the ads could be placed, but the trouble is that this is not the end of the story.
According to director Ismail, if producers do not submit their master tape with the space for ad segments already edited in, it is still a hit-or-miss situation as to where the ads will be placed -- more likely in the wrong place than the right one. "The problem is that the actual technical process of cutting into the show for the ad is done by four different people, who are not in the same place. So even if it is done correctly once in a while, that's usually a coincidence," Ismail said.
The whole controversy stems from the fact that the TV Union is only taking its first steps in an ongoing attempt to catch up to more media-savvy and profit-oriented television cultures. Beleaguered by financial difficulties, the union seems to be inching through a complicated transition from being a government-funded body offering free services to having someone else foot the bill. That someone, of course, is the advertiser, and the union is constantly looking for creative ways to incorporate advertisers into the mix.
Shows like Al-Camera Al-Khafiya (Candid Camera), Hiwar Sarih Gidan (Honest Conversation) and Bedoun Montage (Without Editing), for instance, are produced by ad mogul Tarek Nour. Nour pays for the production and "gives" the product to the TV Union. He only pays for the ad space within the shows, which is offered exclusively to his agency. Economic Sector Head Helmi thinks it's a good system and encourages more advertising companies to take advantage of the scheme. The only stipulation is that the TV Union must judge the shows to be of a certain quality, which is decided by a programming committee before the show is accepted.
Also on the union's plate is the practice of product placement, a familiar practice in more advertising-saturated cultures, but one that Egyptian television is approaching slowly and carefully. Advertising for certain products can be subtly linked to the programme during which it is aired; for example, a food commercial could follow a dinner scene. But because the union has already drawn such fervent criticism regarding ads being placed during programmes, it fears anger will only double if the ads became "part" of the dramatic action itself.
Helmi says the union is currently working out the details of its so-called product placement policies, keeping in mind other Arab viewers abroad. Products would have to be relevant on a regional level. He says that naturally, he wouldn't want scriptwriters and directors to start tailoring their scripts around products, but that when a certain car is being driven, or cheese eaten, there's no harm in renting that space out to an appropriate advertiser.
"All these things can only benefit all the parties involved," Ismail insists. That they will all become standard practice seems inevitable, considering the ever-rising costs of running a TV empire.
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