Missing scenes, unfinished episodes and sets sanitised against coronavirus — much-loved Ramadan 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 Ramadan 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 Ramadan. 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 percent of people across the Middle East watch traditional television, according to US research firm Frost & Sullivan and the Pan Arab Research Center at Northwestern University in Qatar.
Viewing spikes and advertising prices skyrocket during Ramadan, 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 Ramadan 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.
I’ll really need that
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 percent 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.
The worldwide death toll from the novel coronavirus rose to more than 48,000 this week, and the measures taken to stop the spread have hit the whole of the entertainment industry.
Scores of events have been postponed and cinemas have closed their doors in many countries, with more than three billion people confined to their homes.
Syrian producer Diana Jabbour said her company stopped filming even before the authorities demanded it.
“We will not gamble with the health of anybody working with us, from the smallest technician to the greatest actor,” she told AFP.
But for fans like 60-year-old Hayam Ali, who hasn’t left her home in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, for three weeks for fear of catching the disease, not having plenty of soap operas to watch during Ramadan would be a real blow.
“Ramadan is prayers, good food, family gatherings and TV. But I havent seen anyone in weeks and I don’t think I will soon. The TV series better be good enough. I’ll really need that,” she said.