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Egyptian TV gets edgy over Ramadan

By Daisy Carrington and Jon Jensen, CNN
updated 10:18 PM EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ramadan is the most lucrative TV season in Egypt.
  • TV networks spend $140 million on programming over the holy month
  • Lately, dramas and commercials have become more experimental with content

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- In Egypt, television is a big deal. This is especially true during Ramadan, when networks spend an estimated $140 million on TV programming -- a sum nearly matched by what's spent on advertising.

"Ramadan is still the biggest TV season. It's the Super Bowl of Arab TV, except that it goes for an entire month," explains Joseph Fahim, a prominent, Cairo-based film critic.

It used to be that the plotlines for the myriad soaps and commercials that aired during Ramadan adhered to similar clich├ęs: Family, unity, community, charity. Lately, with the region in upheaval, Ramadan television has acquired a distinct edge.

Actor Amr Youssef is a TV and film actor whose Ramadan dramas have helped him shoot to national fame. Halfway through the Holy Month, he was filming "Aad Tanazoly", or "Countdown", in which he plays a university professor who is tortured in prison and ultimately driven to a life of terrorism.

"There's definitely been a radical improvement in (television) quality -- aesthetically, narratively, conceptually and especially acting-wise," says Fahim.

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Assir Yassin, a former soap star who has since broken into the film industry, found himself playing a similarly meaty role in last year's movie, "Rags and Tatters", in which he played a convict who escaped prison during the 2011 revolution. Though the unrest from that period forms the backdrop of a lot of film and TV coming out of Egypt, particularly during Ramadan, Yassin notes that people, not politics, are the main themes.

Read: In Beirut, Ramadan is different

"(My movie) has a very subliminal message. (It's about) the people who went to the revolution, and those who didn't go. It's about the conditions of poverty and illiteracy. It was about people. Definitely it wasn't about revolution," he says.

Many are taking advantage of Egypt's more experimental approach to subject matter during the holy month. Two years ago, J. Walter Thompson's Middle East division (JWT MENA) ran a series of humorous commercials for Vodafone Egypt featuring the country's most famous soap actors. In one, one of the actors gets hit by a Vodafone sign, and is left buried under the ruble.

Ramadan is the Super Bowl of Arab TV
Joseph Fahim, film critic

Vatche Keverian, the company's CEO, noted that Egypt makes it easier to try out new formats.

"In the Gulf region, you still don't really have the freedom to explore new ideas when it comes to Ramadan because it's still a bit more conservative. In cultures such as Egypt, you find a lot more engaging content than anywhere else in the world," he says.

As the subject matter matures, many actors are taking Ramadan as an opportunity to prove themselves, and ultimately further their career.

"It's a lot of pressure, definitely," says Youssef. "You are competing with superstars and with very professional people, and all this is happening in 30 days," he says.

Read: In Beirut, Ramadan is different

Read: The Middle East's glitziest Iftar tents

Read: What was Ramadan like for Syrian refugees?

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