The Egyptian private sector is investing heavily in local media, putting an end to a 40-year state monopoly, and banking on the country's dominant young population to stump up the funds.   

Since the nationalisation of the Egyptian press in 1961 by the late president Jamal Abd al-Nasir, heavy state censorship and obstructive licencing laws have made private investment almost unthinkable.

Consequently, state conglomerates, including the Arabic-language daily al-Ahram and the Egyptian Radio and Television Union, have dictated what the nation should read, watch and listen to.

But the rising popularity of Pan-Arab satellite channels in the 1990s featuring high budget entertainment and more open debate of political issues has prompted the emergence of new TV, radio and print outlets attracting local audiences and claiming a large chunk of the advertising revenues. 

"People were impressed by the productions and interactive programmes offered by satellite channels," Usama Jamal, Egypt's general manager of media house Starcom, says.

"The majority of the population is under 30-years old; they need more colourful programmes, more music and sports than what the state media can offer. They need big productions like Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Big Brother," he added.  

Booming business

Experts argue that the developments were triggered by the 2001 launch of Dream satellite TV owned by tycoon Ahmad Bahjat.

"The majority of the population is under 30-years old; they need more colourful programmes, more music and sports than what the state media can offer"

Usama Jamal,
general manager,
media house Starcom

The station went on air with 24/7 all-music content, benefiting from eased media restrictions following the launch of Egypt's first commercial satellite, Nile Sat.

It was followed by Dream 2 with news-oriented and sports programmes, some presented by local celebrities.

In 2003, two new all-music channels, Melody and Mazzika - Arabic for Music - went on air to popular acclaim.

Along with advertising, the two channels introduced interactive content to generate income, with viewers sending thousands of SMS comments to appear on screen.

Marketing experts says SMS revenue provides around 50% of the two channels’ income.

Advertising, however, remains vital.

Between them, both melody and Mazzika garner some five per cent of Egypt's $64.5 million annual TV advertising market, Jamal told Aljazeera.net.

Sources at Dream TV said that Bahjat, whose businesses range from real estate to household commodities and electronics, uses the channels to advertise his other products.

The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bahjat Group's annual TV advertising budget, estimated at some $1.2 million, has been cut down to five per cent since the launch of the station.

Radio follows suit

The new TV stations' commercial success prompted similar moves in the less-glamorous radio industry.

In 2003, listeners welcomed Egypt's first two privately owned stations; Nojoum FM, featuring Arabic pop music, and Nile FM, dedicated to English-language music.

Pop stars such as Enrique Iglesias
are popular in Egypt

The stations are owned by Cable Network Egypt (CNE) and Good News group, which is headed by media mogul Imad Adib, whose media empire also owns six print publications. The stations operate around the clock and target the 20 million population of Cairo and Giza.

Amr Adib, Imad's younger brother, says advertising revenues in the first year reached $3.2 million, a record-breaking figure in Egyptian radio history dating back to 1934. Amr is the managing director of two radio stations and the head of the entertainment section at Good News groups.

All other state-owned radio stations have only made $600,000, he told Aljazeera.net.

Big spenders

Key to the rapidly rising popularity and commercial success of the new privately owned media outlets is their focus on young people and "the top classes in Egyptian society", says Zuhair Ammar, a marketing expert and former senior official at Vodafone Egypt.

Although the top classes represent only around eight per cent of the country's 70-million population, they have the money to buy the products promoted on air, Ammar explains.

According to one market researcher, top spenders in TV and radio advertising are mobile phone operators Vodafone and MobiNil, along with Pepsi and Coca Cola.

And apart from direct advertising, the two mobile-service companies offer special numbers for the stations to allow viewers to participate in programmes and answer quizzes.

People pay premium rates for these calls and the revenue is shared between the station and the mobile operator.

News sidelined

Despite the new media's popularity, experts point to the lack of news and news-oriented content, only featured in a few lacklustre programmes on Dream and a less-popular TV station al-Mihwar, Arabic for the Axis.

Criticism of Husni Mubarak's
government is still scant

"There is no chance of having serious and open political and news-oriented content on both Dream and al-Mihwar because the government owns and runs the broadcast facilities," Hazim Munir, a correspondent of the London-based Arabic-language daily al-Hayat, said.

"This made them and the new projects focus mainly on entertainment and neglect hard news," Munir, head of the press committee at the leftist opposition party al-Tajamu, told Aljazeera.net.

Late last year, Dream TV suspended two of its most popular news-oriented programmes featuring outspoken journalists Hamdi Qandil and Ibrahim Issa, who are both known for criticising the Egyptian and other Arab governments.

And despite not announcing the reason for the suspension, it is widely believed that government pressure played a major role.

"Such restrictions on freedom of speech will hinder attempts to produce serious press," says Saad Hajras, managing editor of the financial daily al-Alam al-Yum, the World Today, a Good News group publication.

Adib, however, suggested that the reason behind the lack of all-news TV or radio services is financial.  

"Providing a good news service needs massive investment and will not generate revenue before several years," he says. "Nobody here in Egypt can afford investing millions of dollars in projects such as Aljazeera."

Print is next

Despite being regarded as a less attractive business than its more accessible audio and visual counterparts, the Egyptian private sector is also attempting to compete with dominant state-owned print media.

Two new daily newspapers are set to hit the stands in May. The first, Nahdit Misr - Egypt's Renaissance - is owned by Adib's Good News group, while the second, al-Masri, is reportedly owned by a group of businessmen including Dream TV's Bahjat.

"Privately owned weekly papers have failed to grab significant attention due to their sensationalist tone"

Hazim Munir,
al-Hayat correspondent

"We represent the liberal voice in Egypt and have a specific editorial agenda," Nahdit Misr's editor-in-chief, Muhammad Hassan al-Alfi, said. "We will campaign for full freedom of speech but will avoid a sensationalist tone, unlike other private newspapers." 

But even before the newspapers hit the stands, experts doubt their ability to attract Egyptian readers who are used to picking up al-Ahram or al-Akhbar every morning.

"It's too soon to judge," Munir says. "But other privately owned weekly papers have failed to grab significant attention due to their sensationalist tone," he added, referring to four weekly papers that were granted licences by the government in 1996.

Starcom's Jamal echoes the same sentiments.

"It's hard to change the consumer's habits in print press, whereas it is much easier to do so when it comes to radio or television," he told Aljazeera.net.

Although exact figures for the privately owned media share in the market's annual print media advertising, estimated to be more than $97 million, state-owned media dominance is unquestionable. And it looks as if it will dominate for some time to come.