SXSW 2013: Ditching Al Gore to Hang With Bassem Youssef

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On March 9, 2013 the lines seemed to go on forever to get into the Walt Mossberg/Al Gore SXSW session inside the Austin Convention Center.  True, it’s hard to beat star power like Al Gore, but a devoted group of about a hundred huddled in a conference room just two floors up from the former veep and buzzed for their own celeb.  They were waiting to hear Dr. Bassem Youssef, the Jon Stewart of the Arab World, tell his story of media domination.

The backstory on Youssef, a practicing doctor in Egypt, is that he frustrated by the biteless Egyptian media.  When President Mubarak fell, Dr. Bassem filmed a Jon Stewart-esque political commentary clip in his office and put it up on YouTube in March 2011.  Fast-forward a year and Bassem’s satire-fest has now been picked up by CBC and his combined show YouTube plays top 200,000,000 (as a comparison, American Idol currently has just over 40,000,000 plays on YouTube).

Here are some takeaways from the session:

1. Timing is Everything!
Youssef, who had no intention of being a media star, put up his first clips immediately after the Egyptian Revolution and never looked back.  His timing couldn’t have been better as viewers were hungry for something other than state-run media reporting.

2. Style is Everything!
Political criticism clearly isn’t anything new, but Youssef’s use of comedy was attractive during uncertain times.  Satire eases the tension of the conversations and Youssef mentioned that even those that don’t agree with his positions often find the show very watchable.  Youssef brought a ton of bravery with the effort, as he said his show was the first of its kind in the region to poke fun of officials and name them in process.

3. Ride the Wave of Technology
Before Mubarak fell, TV was the king of the hill when it came to information dissemination.  Since the revolution, Internet use has gone up 400%.  If Youssef had tried to get his show on television instead of embracing YouTube, chances are that he wouldn’t have gotten far.

4. There’s YouTube Gold in the Middle East
Sure, the CBC transmission of Youssef’s show, El Bernameg (translates to “The Show”) does well, but the traction on YouTube has been nothing short of stunning.  Check out the channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/bassemyoussefshow and witness the massive engagement in the comments area of each clip.  TV just can’t do that…yet.

4. Don’t Stop Supporting the Underdog
Youssef pointed out that his guests on the show often include bands and other artists that are not well known.  A recent example Youssef spoke of was a band that had 2,000 Facebook followers before the performance on his show and 50,000 after.  Youssef’s support for the underdogs emits authenticity and gives hope to viewers who aspire for more.

5. Continue to Evolve
When the CBC picked up El Bernameg, Youseff wanted to move the format of the show from being taped to including a live audience.  Executives pushed back, but Youseff held firm.  The show now takes place in massive theater and the audience feedback helps the rhythm of the show.  Additionally, Youseff is looking to expand his brand to other show formats for new talent, as well as exporting his show branding to reach other parts of the Middle East and beyond.

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Randy Abramson

Randy Abramson

Randy Abramson is the Director of Product Management and Operations for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow him on Twitter: @randyabramson.

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