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Emerging markets’ media mogul

With her plans for an over-arching programming line-up of long- and short-form content, Amanda Turnbull is driving reach for Discovery in MENA.
Amanda Turnbull.

Amanda Turnbull is scripting a success story. As Vice President and GM for Discovery Middle East and Africa, she oversees a 40-member team and a portfolio of 16 channels (15 pay-TV, one FTA) – the largest in the Middle East. She also oversees nine channels (eight pay-TV, one FTA) in Africa, as well as a digital offering with Fatafeat, reportedly the number one cooking channel in the Arab world.

A self-proclaimed emerging markets media specialist, Turnbull’s journey in the broadcast industry spans several emerging markets. Starting out in magazine publishing in London with IPC (now Time Warner), she moved on to Hachette Filipacchi (now Hearst) across Asia Pacific, followed by a stint at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Her first move into TV came when she joined Discovery in 2007.

Turnbull currently spearheads strategic development of Discovery’s business across the Middle East and Africa. Her work centres around exploring creative ideas that lead to long-term growth and maximising multi-platform revenues.

“I joined Discovery’s MENA business in 2014, as the then MD for Fatafeat,” says Turnbull. “Since then, I’ve seen our presence in the market grow exponentially, thanks to various strategic partnerships and new business ventures. In 2017, my remit expanded to include Africa as an additional territory, and I was tasked with the objective to unlock expansion opportunities across the continent.”

Asked what drives her passion for the business, Turnbull ascribes it to her initial years in the job, learning to balance editorial integrity while driving the business.

“As a new graduate trainee at IPC, one of five from a candidate pool of over 2,000, I was given a 360-degree introduction to the creative and editorial departments, plus the business and revenue generation sides. The learnings there have helped me in all my subsequent roles. I’ve been quite aware of how to balance editorial integrity with commercial acumen, along with the importance of serving consumer niches. Now at Discovery, this ability to power people’s passions is the life blood of our business and one of the reasons I love what I do.”

Discovery delivers more than 8,000 hours of original programming each year, and there are big plans for 2019. Revealing exclusive information to BroadcastPro ME, Turnbull says: “Thanks to our rich US output deal, we have a strong line-up of documentary specials, lifestyle formats and returning favourites that will hopefully resonate with our local audience. This includes a documentary filmed here in the Middle East titled Valley of the Kings, which goes exclusively inside the first major excavation in Egypt’s famed burial ground of the pharaohs. We’re also due to premiere a powerful topical docu-series produced by Steven Spielberg, which traces the evolutionary basis of hate. Both shows will air here in the Middle East later this year, on Discovery Channel.”

Closer to home, Discovery will be exploring the stories local audiences want and expect. Picking up from last year’s 300-plus hours of original long-form content, this year Fatafeat fans will be offered new shows from the likes of Chef May Yacoubi and life coach Leila Almaeena, as well as new talents making their debut.

Offering a glimpse of new Fatafeat programming, Turnbull discloses: “It’s crucial we tell the stories that our local audiences want and expect to hear, so we invest heavily in local production. We will premiere a host of new shows on Fatafeat, as Ramadan is the key season when we present our strongest content.

“In MENA, we will also launch GOLFTV, our new global live and on-demand video streaming service which we’re rolling out internationally, thanks to a strategic alliance with the PGA Tour”

“This year, viewers can look forward to a brand-new series with the queen of the Arabian kitchen, Chef Manal Alalem, who will once again grace the Ramadan table with an amazing mix of traditional Arabic and intercontinental sweets and desserts in Manal Alalem: Halaweyat. In addition, Chef Mohammad Orfali returns to continue his journey tracing the roots of Arabic cuisine in the fifth season of Matbakhna Al Arabi.

“Our local storytelling doesn’t end with Fatafeat. We recently partnered with Captain Boy in Egypt and Roya TV in Jordan to produce the local TLC series My World to You, hosted by Darine El Khatib, which uncovers Jordan’s lesser-known history. Furthermore, following the success of Wild Dubai – the one-off wildlife special which we commissioned for Discovery Channel last year in collaboration with the Dubai Government Media Office – we are now working with various other government entities in both the UAE and KSA, for the opportunity to showcase even more of the region’s unheard stories through the blue-chip documentary style that Discovery is renowned for,” she explains.

As well as innovating in the long-form content programming space, Discovery is looking for its niche in short-form content programming too. Short-form content is gaining popularity in the region – the Middle East has one of the highest levels of mobile phone usage in the world, and any company would want to tap into it.

Amanda Turnbull.

Turnbull elaborates: “Globally, we’ve been adopting a 360-model strategy to ensure our content is engaging with fans across all screens, and it’s a strategy we’ve been employing here in MENA for Fatafeat, with remarkable success.

“Since we acquired Fatafeat in 2012, our mission has been to cement it as more than just a linear channel, as a wider lifestyle brand that engages with fans across all touchpoints. Our digital strategy has been key to reaching this goal, and over the past two years we’ve invested considerably in digital-first content, incorporating bespoke short-form videos as part of our general production workflow.

“Last year, this saw us produce over 800 specialised short-form videos which we hosted across Fatafeat’s popular digital platforms, including the Fatafeat website, social media pages, VOD platform Fatafeat Play and YouTube channel. Thanks to this change in direction, we now reach an audience of over six million active and engaged users in the digital space, giving us the largest digital footprint in the region of any other food brand.”

With Fatafeat’s growing digital prominence, Discovery recently partnered with Snapchat in the Middle East, to bring the best of Fatafeat’s traditional recipes, culinary content and production values to its community of fans across the region.

 “Fatafeat Play is our successful local VOD product (over one million video views and growing), and it will be updated and relaunched later this year, alongside an updated version of the Fatafeat app”

Divulging the strategy for the streaming market, Turnbull says: “Fatafeat Play is our successful local VOD product (over one million video views and growing), and it will be updated and relaunched later this year, alongside an updated version of the Fatafeat app. In MENA, we will also launch GOLFTV, our new global live and on-demand video streaming service which we’re rolling out internationally, thanks to a strategic alliance with the PGA Tour.”

The scope of her job sounds overwhelming, but Turnbull is nothing but positive – she believes that if people are resilient and optimistic, anything is possible. For her, change is an opportunity to scale, grow and reinvent yourself. Her advice to young women seeking a career in broadcast: “Create a network of mentors to whom you can turn for honest advice. But basically, ask for forgiveness later, not permission first.”