Case Studies TV Channels

The balancing act

Sarah Ahmed AlJarman of DMI is consistently working towards keeping television relevant for MENA audiences. She tells BroadcastPro ME about combining meaningful, engaging content with a strong return on investment for the state broadcaster.
Sarah Ahmed AlJarman.

Her passion for the media industry and an unwavering zeal for government service made it only natural that Sarah Ahmed AlJarman would find her way to a state broadcaster. As Director of General Channels – Dubai TV and Dubai One, part of Dubai Media Incorporated (DMI), AlJarman is not only witnessing the broadcast boom in the region, she’s also helping to shape it.

Ruminating on her escapades in the broadcast industry, AlJarman says: “I started my journey in media in 2005 with the English-language entertainment channel – Dubai One. Later, I moved on to Dubai TV, the main broadcaster, which handled the general channels under DMI. My journey has been about going from channel to channel and managing the whole spectrum within DMI. As Channel Manager of both channels, Dubai One and Dubai TV, I oversee the strategy for both.”

While career women are often juggling work and family, AlJarman has a different kind of balancing act. Highlighting the fine line DMI must tread, she says: “There are two pillars to balance. We are a subsidised entity but are also commercially driven. We may be government, but we also have a commercial strategy and objective. We are looking at making revenues and ratings in the region with an eye on ROI, but at the same time we are also mindful of what people want.

“We conduct research with a lot of agencies to understand what audiences want. Based on that, we try to offer informative and entertaining television while also ensuring that it is aligned with the government’s agenda, objectives and vision. We tread very carefully between these two.”

Aligning with the government’s agenda of bringing Emirati talent to the media industry is DMI’s top priority. “As the third pillar, we are trying to be a catalyst and facilitating Emiratis to train in the field of media. At DMI, one of our important objectives, and one specifically close to me, is to create a vibrant platform and space for young people to enter the media and explore the various roles industry has to offer.”

DMI’s programming has seen a shift towards reality television, with popular shows like The Story of My Life, Fashion Star and Carpool Karaoke. Discussing her programming strategy, AlJarman says: “We are looking at innovative ideas and concepts that have not been explored before. Shows that have an original concept like The Story of my Life (a format where celebrities are shown growing old with the help of makeup) have garnered a lot of interest in the region. We want to do stories that have a ‘human-interest’ angle. We’ll be launching season two of Carpool Karaoke. Fashion Star is our fashion reality show, which is very popular and offers a platform for mentoring fashion designers in the region.”

“We will be bringing Astronauts: Toughest Job in the Universe to the UAE. The show will make its debut as a local format with Dubai Media Inc”

Giving BroadcastPro ME an exclusive peek into programming this year, AlJarman says: “We will be bringing Astronauts: Toughest Job in the Universe to the UAE. The show will make its debut as a local format with Dubai Media Inc. The 10-part series, which aired on BBC in the UK, will see ordinary people compete to take their spot as the astronaut they always wanted to be. To air on Dubai TV, this show is currently in production and will be available soon.

“With me handling Dubai TV, we have changed the programming strategy of the channel. We are looking at innovative ideas and concepts that have not been explored before, shows that have an original concept.”

Besides a fresh outlook, DMI is exploring the globe to bring relevant programming to the region, with an open approach to content from around the world. DMI actively engages with territories like Latin America, Portugal, Spain and Italy, where content is appropriate for the culture, cultural sensitivities and family values in the MENA region.

Sarah Ahmed AlJarman.

AlJarman explains further. “We are scouting festivals and exhibitions, and connecting with our vast network of contacts like distributors and suppliers. We are exploring at investing in our original content and some in-house productions as well. We have received a couple of scripted action shows, and they are original – we are in the process of exploring these with different production houses. We have a local focus and are trying to stimulate production in the region.

“At DMI, we are pushing the envelope in terms of content and entertainment. As a broadcaster, you must be very careful about cultural sensitivities and you must respect them. You are really invading people’s homes for free, so you have to be very careful with what you provide. You must be providing quality, classy, entertaining and informative programming and not doing anything that is socially unacceptable. My focus is on quality production,” she emphasises.

With Saudi Arabia joining the entertainment bandwagon, AlJarman is optimistic about collaboration. “With KSA also evolving in the region, it means a lot of talent is available. We are looking at exploring working with friends in Saudi in terms of talent and production, and more cooperation will be on the cards.”

In her 14 years in the broadcast industry, AlJarman has seen many changes. Among the most promising has been “getting a lot of interest from Emirati women students”. The broadcast industry’s appeal has always centred around the camera. In the past, local women did not want to be on camera, and therefore there was a dearth of women in broadcast. But now, thanks to the popularity of new media, things are really looking up.

“You are really invading people’s homes for free, so you have to be very careful with what you provide”

On youngsters going online, AlJarman says: “Although the social media channels have changed it a little, new media in general opened the doors for women. There are a lot of influencers on social media, but as influencers, you have to be very careful about what you are saying and what you are doing. Use the platform wisely. Do it with skill and social responsibility. Don’t do it just to be famous. Be very careful with what you want to do. Do it with a message, there has to be a calling at the end of the day.”

Behind the camera seems to be a different story, she says: “Technical roles for camerawomen are not really finding much appeal among many women. The percentage of women applying for these roles is small, but if there is someone who has the passion for it, there are no employer restrictions holding them back. I have always believed that if you give people the freedom and space to work, they thrive so much. My role is really about giving people the space to grow.”

The general belief is that working for a government broadcaster brings a different set of specific challenges, especially for women. But AlJarman tells a different story.
“A lot of people say that working in the government sector is not the easiest place for a woman. But

I have only felt empowered, and the main reason is because of how much our leadership endorses women. I haven’t faced any discrimination. The government has helped with female workforce labour laws. Maternity leave has been extended for women. A lot of corporations have implemented nurseries as well, and this is something we are looking at in DMI. There is also a lot of flexibility when it comes to women. In this part of the world, women are thriving, they have the empowerment and the space to work. We are lucky to have supportive leadership.”

With so much on her plate, how does she find time for a personal life?“It’s really about time management. Give everything its time. Give your family quality time. I am all in support of people who can do both. My personal choice is that if you have the passion, go for it and enjoy it.”

DMI is keeping pace with the government agenda and will soon be launching an Expo 2020 talk show. AlJarman spills the beans exclusively to BroadcastPro ME: “We are preparing a talk show that caters to Expo 2020. The show will have all the information on the Expo and will be launched in the run-up to the event. This show will be targeted at English-speakers and will be aired on Dubai One and Dubai TV. Even the World Cup comes under our remit. We usually do specific programming, but we are exploring new ideas for this.”

Women, especially Arab women, are empowered and rising as a force to reckon with in the region. AlJarman, who recently finished a Master’s in Marketing, Advertising and Communications from Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, believes in the emotional intelligence that she feels only women can bring to an organisation.

Elaborating, she says: “A lot of elements that a woman can bring to the table, men can’t. Women bring in an emotionally intelligent touch. Being emotionally intelligent with your colleagues, bosses and everyone else helps you deal with work situations. Women are emotional, sensitive and empathetic with people. They understand people’s needs and give them their space. Women really reflect their own self-worth and self-respect. If you are vibrating self-worth and self-respect and you know you are confident… people sniff that,” AlJarman concludes.