By Matt Smith
DUBAI (Reuters) - Turn on a Saudi television and you'll usually get a diet of religious programming and uncontroversial imported fare. But there's much more to a "night in" for the average Saudi - they're also the world's most avid watchers of YouTube.
The programs of Jeddah-based UTURN, from drama to reality shows, are typical. "3al6ayer", or "On the Fly", is a Saudi version of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart". "Eysh Elly" is a lighthearted weekly review of Arab online videos.
As of mid-September, UTURN had 286 million views on YouTube and 8 million followers on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, most of them Saudis, said Abdullah Mando, 27, who set up the company in 2010 with two university friends.
The secret of UTURN's success is simple, but in a Saudi context, rather revolutionary: give the audience what it wants.
"These kinds of shows are useful and entertaining, and because they are made by young people, they are close to the heart," said Maram Gaily, 16, a student in Riyadh.
Addressing serious social issues through humor made it easier to reach the audience, she said. "The public wants to watch what makes them laugh."
The Internet's challenge to traditional media is not unique to Saudi Arabia. YouTube has helped fund around 100 new channels on its platform, and 25 attract more than 2 million views per week as of February, according to the most recent data provided by the company.
But the restrictions on Saudi society, where morality police patrol public spaces to enforce approved modes of behavior, has created a uniquely captive audience for web-based news and entertainment, media experts say.
With a population of 28.3 million, Saudi Arabia is now the biggest user of YouTube per capita in the world, and according to analysts Semiocast was the eighth most active country on Twitter as of April, accounting for 2.33 percent of all tweets.
"Because of the way of life over there, the main entertainment is based online," said Salam Saadeh, managing partner of Y+ Venture Partners, a Dubai venture capital firm that specializes in digital, mobile and new media.
Saudis have been ravenous for media outside the state's purview since they started using the Internet on a mass scale in the 1990s, said Joe Khalil, associate professor of communications at Northwestern University in Qatar.
"This included homemade videos and forums where people could exchange ideas," he said. "The homegrown videos would be duplicated on DVDs or CDs and distributed among friends. This is a do-it-yourself type of media."
The direct contact with the audience that the Internet allows works to the advantage of low-budget productions, said Kaswara al-Khatib, owner of Saudi advertising agency Full Stop, who joined UTURN in 2010 and is now company chairman.
"You produce, you put online, you get feedback immediately - the number of likes or dislikes, number of views, comments. It's not like we have to produce a whole season and then 'Ooops! It's not doing well'," he said.
About 90 percent of UTURN's revenue comes from advertising, of which four-fifths comes from product placement.
Neither UTURN nor C3 (Creative Culture Catalyst), which runs its rival Telfaz11, would provide data for revenues or other financial information.
C3's programs have claimed 222 million YouTube views as of mid-September, and according to a company presentation also have 2.85 million followers on Twitter, 1.16 million on Google+ and 724,000 on Instagram.
Eighty-four percent of its viewers are from Saudi Arabia, 5.6 percent from the United States and 1.2 percent from the United Arab Emirates, C3 says.
La Yekthar, a satirical series launched in 2010, has 560,000 subscribers and 4.7 million monthly views. Its spinoff Temsa7LY, featuring a puppet alligator talking about popular YouTube videos and interviewing celebrities, claims 11 million monthly views.
"What makes C3 a success is not the product or the business model, but the lifestyle (it promotes)," said Abdulaziz al-Shalan, C3's co-founder.
C3 also utilizes in-content advertising and has integrated products from Unilever, BlackBerry, Saudi Telecom, Samsung, Dunkin' Donuts, Nestle and Coca-Cola Co into its shows.
"There's almost no (original) advertising in Saudi Arabia because there aren't a lot of creatives working in advertising agencies," said Shalan.
"We are developing a new industry in content advertising,"
THE OLD WAYS
The Saudi government owns about nine free-to-air television stations through the Broadcasting Services of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (BSKSA), plus there are some privately-held local broadcasters such as Al-Majd, which is religiously-focused, and Rotana, owned by billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.
No foreign stations can broadcast within Saudi Arabia - although multiple channels reach the kingdom from other countries, capturing about 45 percent of market share - and cinemas are banned.
About 90 percent of households have satellite or digital television, according to consultants Informa Telecoms & Media.
Channels transmitting to the kingdom tend to rely on shows that present an idealized picture of Saudi life or foreign productions that are often remote from the experiences of most viewers in a country where nearly half the population is under 25.
"Traditional media companies ... create content that is disconnected from reality," said UTURN's Mando.
The Saudi government has taken steps to monitor or block some web-based communications and content with an eye on the role social media played in the protests that unseated rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
But the authorities have so far given YouTube free rein.
"There were attempts to regulate blogging, but they haven't been very successful, so for now they (the authorities) are turning a blind eye," said Northwestern's Khalil.
That means production companies are operating in an unregulated space - for now.
"They're not broadcasters so don't need a license, yet they are filming," Khalil said.
YouTube declined to say whether it was planning to help start-up channels in Saudi Arabia but said it was watching developments in the region with interest.
"We're impressed with the boom of content creators in MENA and want to bolster the ecosystem and support them as much as possible," said Maha Abouelenein, a spokeswoman for YouTube in the Middle East and North Africa.
The companies for their part are careful to avoid attracting official attention by being provocative.
"Everybody who works at UTURN was raised in Saudi Arabia and understands the sensitivities," said Mando.
"We're a business and in order to fulfill what we started it for, which is to advance society, the best way to do it is without offending anyone."
(Additional reporting by Shahed Qamhiya; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)