WHEN FOREIGN CONSUMER GOODS COMPANIES GO TO THE MIDDLE East, they look for media outlets in which to advertise. It is the logical thing to do. But any conventional search is often abandoned, amid consternation, because most Arab media lack the official audits which traditionally validate readership or viewer numbers.
It is but one of several unique conditions which govern the role and function of modern Arab mass media.
Even local companies can find those conditions frustrating at times. In Dubai, for example, banks have often found the best way to reach customers is through the distribution of glossy brochures, rather that conventional television or newspaper ads.
While the number and variety of Arab media outlets is expanding rapidly, there is often little accurate data about circulation, number of viewers, or viewer interests. Very few Middle East media owners audit titles, and those who do are presently very selective about which titles they submit for verification. Often actual figures are far more modest than the press barons would claim, potentially threatening advertising revenues (and reducing their ability to pressure governments).
Earlier this year, the British-based Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) withdrew from the Gulf region, after a dispute with the powerful Al Tayer family publishing group, which angrily refused to provide the data needed to file a report. Obaid Humaid Al Tayer, managing director of the family's Al Nisr Group, publisher of Gulf News and associated titles, said the dispute centred on his contention that ABC audits "could not stand up to intensive scrutiny".
But pressure is growing throughout the Middle East for media outlets to routinely employ tools which accurately measure readership and viewer numbers. The reason is, in market-driven economies, publishers and media companies depend more than ever on advertising revenues. Those revenues in turn are based on rates determined by the data contained in circulation and viewership audits.
At present, advertising revenues are usually not enough to yield operating profits. "Even where there are private media that rely heavily on advertising, advertising revenue often isn't enough to support mainstream newspapers," says Magda Abu Fadil, director of the Institute for Professional Journalists at Beirut's Lebanese American University. "Circulation falls short of keeping those publications going, which means they rely more on political sponsors, such as governments or political parties."
It is an open secret, for example, that much of the print media in the Arab...