By Hanan Alnufaie
ROBERT Knezevic is an international media consultant and a strategic thinker skilled in forging private and public partnerships, building trust and mobilizing individuals into high-performance teams. He is the former senior executive at Sesame Workshop, responsible for expansion of Sesame Street’s businesses in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and Latin America.
In this interview with Saudi Gazette, he talks about his thoughts, views and evaluation of the media industry in Saudi Arabia. He also talked about the main points highlighted in his presentation at an event on Audio-Investment Forum SME 2016 at King Fahd Cultural Center in Riyadh on Dec. 27.
With experience of over 17 years working in the Middle East doing educational media projects in Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and now in the GCC, Knezevic told Saudi Gazette that he strongly believes the Kingdom has an incredible creative community underground.
“The reason I say underground is because there is no economic system and environment that support the creative community. And they all live in kind of a subsistence mode not in the open economy but in a niche economy. But there are a lot of them. If Saudi Arabia really wants to create a true creative content ecosystem, they need to give opportunities and create incentives for these young creative talents to produce content for television because television is still the dominant medium. Besides, most of the money is spent on television.”
Knezevic agreed that a tremendous number of Saudi people prefer YouTube to television. However, there is a problem with that huge number, which lies in the fact that the Saudi market is a fragmented one. In other words, it is not economically sustainable to get a niche audience following niche content on YouTube.
Another problem with YouTube is that it is a very creatively immature market. The nature of the Internet allows anyone to say anything they want no matter how ridiculous or silly it is. And human nature tends to be fascinated by the silly and ridiculous but human nature is also curious and wants to learn and be informed and entertained and if quality content was available, people will consume it, Knezevic said.
“People don’t consume silly, they consume it because it is available in abundance. If quality content was available in abundance, they would be consuming it as well. The best way to describe this is to say that it is currently an unfair fight between poor content and quality content,” he said.
The Kingdom can solve this issue by helping stimulate quality content. Content that is educational, cultural and scientific, and all of that content can be produced in such a way to attract mass audiences. Take for example the National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. They are educational platforms that are immensely popular and attract viewership.
The reasons they are popular can be attributed to the fact that history, science and culture are fascinating content. Good storytellers who can narrate content in a simple and interesting way are important as well. The Kingdom can have similar platforms. He believes that educational, cultural and scientific programming must be subsidized at first.
The US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) started Sesame Street, cooking shows, science shows and cultural shows. Each of the genre was publicly supported until eventually became commercial ventures. The Discovery Channel took the public broadcasting focus on science and then made it commercial. If the country is particularly interested in quality content, it should subsidize it first until it becomes commercially viable.
Of course, the sponsors and investors might not invest at this stage; however, once the quality of products improves and viewership ratings go up, they will show interest because they want their names to be associated with this kind of quality.
In his recommendations to the Saudi General Commission for Audiovisual Media, Knezevic said if the commission is interested in developing an ecosystem of quality content, it must subsidize it first.
“Media as you all know is the most influential force particularly in the Middle East because most people get their information from the media rather than the print,” he said.
“It really depends on what the government and regulators do. If they actually are serious about implementing a strategy, they should put clear objectives such as having the local production grow by 20 percent, reducing the outsourcing of media content of other countries by 50 percent and creating hundred hours of educational programing. They should hire good consultants who are going to help bring that content together,” Knezevic said.
“The Kingdom can achieve that by the creative talents and the strong economy it has. It can act as an exporter rather than importer of content as it has that capacity. But again it all depends on the commitment and willingness of the General Commission for Audiovisual Media and coordination among different ministries,” he added.
For example, the Ministry of Health needs to promote health through the media; the Ministry of Sports needs to promote participation of women in sports because 50 percent of the population is not active in sports, he said, adding: “Heath and economy go together. That is to say, if one eats well and exercises, they will be less of a burden on the economy.”
The Ministry of Health should put out media messages to encourage people to be healthier, he said. “The same idea applies to other ministries. Media is an immensely powerful tool.”