Dubai (AFP) – Missing scenes, unfinished episodes and sets sanitised against coronavirus – much-loved Ramadhan television soaps are struggling to keep the cameras rolling just weeks before the Islamic holy month.
Many countries in the Middle East have imposed tough restrictions to curb the spread of the pandemic, forcing studios to shut down temporarily and others to work under strict rules.
At the same time, residents have been asked to stay off the streets and work from home, unleashing a potentially huge captive television audience and pressuring networks to provide a constant supply of content.
“We have four unfinished Ramadhan TV series we were shooting in Lebanon, and another one in Syria. All are on hold now,” the head of acquisitions at a Dubai-based network told AFP.
“The countdown has begun. We need as much content as possible before Ramadhan. If we can’t have our shows ready, we’ll look at buying from outside production houses even if it means lower quality,” he said, requesting anonymity.
Up to 90 per cent of people across the Middle East watch traditional television, according to United States (US) research firm Frost & Sullivan and the Pan Arab Research Center at Northwestern University in Qatar.
Viewing spikes and advertising prices skyrocket during Ramadhan, set to start this year in the third week of April, as families settle down with soap operas after breaking their fast at sunset with the iftar meal, or with suhoor in the pre-dawn hours.
Gangster wars in rural villages, social taboos, historical sagas, love, cheating, mystery and comedy all form part of the daily diet on pan-Arab and local channels.
They are already locked in a fierce battle for viewers with online platforms such as Netflix and local competitor Starz Play.
For Jamal Sinan, owner of Eagles Films Production, it’s a race against time to get the cameras rolling again for his company’s three Ramadhan series in Lebanon.
“We are committed to following the rules while we look for a specific way to continue working, like doing the job with fewer cameramen… But we don’t know when this can happen,” he told AFP.
“Only circumstances will decide how ready we will be.”
In one of the series, Lebanese star Cyrine Abdel Nour plays the leading role – a tailor who falls in love with the owner of a fashion house.
Wearing a white mask and blue gloves, the actress closed her eyes and stood still while she was sprayed from head to toe with sanitiser before entering a house in a Lebanese village where one of the last scenes was being filmed before shutting down.
Abdel Nour posted a video of the incident on her Instagram account, which has 8.9 million followers.
“Please don’t laugh at me,” she wrote in the caption. “This is how we used to film. May God end this phase… so we can go back to filming.”
While filming has shut down in countries including Lebanon and Kuwait, cameras have kept rolling in other places such as the United Arab Emirates, but under strict rules limiting the number of cameramen and non-essential crew.
Pan-Arab leading broadcaster MBC has been “constantly sanitising the studios and places of filming”, according to its spokesman Mazen Hayek.
“There are mobile (medical) emergency units outside our HQs,” he added.
In Egypt, a country with a population of almost 100 million, television is considered a golden goose, and no official order to close studios has been issued.
But Ashraf Zaki, head of the actors’ syndicate, said “80 per cent of filming has stopped anyway”, and a handful of actors have petitioned online for an official order to stop work, accusing the authorities of taking risks.