by Jeffrey Dastin:
Few events merit renting the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet on May 8, 2006, the museum hosted a black-tie dinner in honor of a new television show, “Ben and Izzy.” The show follows the unlikely friendship of two boys, one American and one Jordanian, as they travel through time in high-tech computer graphics. Hundreds of executives and celebrities attended the event, walking a red carpet to the Egyptian gallery where the dinner was held.
Bathed in warm red light, the grand Temple of Dendur shined brighter than it had in two thousand years. The location seemed fitting: an Egyptian temple built by Romans, a confluence of East and West. While the guests ate chicken tahini salad, Barbara Walters introduced Queen Rania of Jordan, the keynote speaker. The Queen spoke of the show’s promise: “This cartoon uses a language that modern children understand — a language that unites them, whatever their background or beliefs, and makes them realize that you do not have to be alike to get along.”
The show ended after one season.
After the initial 13 episodes aired in 2008, “Ben and Izzy” fell into obscurity. No American distributor picked up the show, and the first reruns aired on Cartoon Network Arabic in 2010. Only recently did writers pen new episodes. Why did this promising show fall short? The answer lies both in creative shortcomings and deeper cultural traits of the United States and the Middle East.
“Ben and Izzy” was first conceived by David Pritchard and Issam Ayoubi in Manhattan Beach, CA. Pritchard was a veteran of the entertainment industry, having produced “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” and “King of the Hill;” Ayoubi was the head of technology at the new Jordanian media firm Rubicon Group Holding. The two met some months after the September 11 attacks.
“I wanted to find ways to build communication bridges where there aren’t any,” Pritchard said. “And the place where that really starts is with young people.”
According to Pritchard, the idea came from his relationship with Ayoubi. The two came from different cultural backgrounds and had different life experiences. Yet they connected over their interest in entertainment — and in telling stories.
“His stories were about great scientists that came out of the Arab world. My stories were about heroes that were part of American culture. So, the concept was using heroes in our two cultures to get a peek into their culture, which I was not familiar with” said Pritchard. “[‘Ben and Izzy’] was a lens into that history… to get exposed to this in a way that was kind of cool.”
Jordan seemed the natural place to test their cross-cultural experiment. King Abdullah II long supported progressive reform. The country’s education system was strong. And more so than its neighbors, Jordan’s economy was increasingly based on technology.
Rubicon adopted and created the show. The media company had ambitions to make Jordan a global entertainment center, and “Ben and Izzy” would be its headlining project. Despite little funding, Rubicon managed to pay for 13 episodes without the help of distributors. Pritchard helped with production, and Jymn Magon, an Emmy Award-winning writer for “Winnie the Pooh,” wrote the scripts.
The show’s announcement generated a lot of excitement. P. Baman Rusby, whose consulting firm Atoka International represented Rubicon, said, “It was received with a lot of pride in Jordan and in other markets in the Middle East… There were emails we were getting from a teacher in Australia or teachers in the United States who had read about ‘Ben and Izzy’ and really wanted to get their hands on the episodes. And that was all because of the [Met] launch. But the product wasn’t yet available.”
“Ben and Izzy” did not air until two years after the Met event; Rubicon still had not completed the show. The early event aimed to capitalize on Rubicon’s fame as a rising star in animation. “This raised expectations but also took away a little bit of momentum,” said Rusby.
The show finally aired in Jordan in 2008. In each episode, the genie Yasmine (played by Lucy Liu) takes Ben and Izzy across time to stop the greedy, neo-imperialist Clutchford Wells from stealing treasures. Along the way, the boys meet famous Arab thinkers—from the Baghdad philosopher Al Kindi to the Moorish inventor Abbas Ibn Firnas.
Rubicon also released commercials for “Ben and Izzy,” video games, and some merchandise. Rubicon even produced the show in Russian and other languages. But Middle East Broadcast (MBC) quickly put “Ben and Izzy” aside: ratings were low despite the show’s prime-time slot during Ramadan, the highest-viewed television season of the year.
Was the show poorly made? Randa Ayoubi, the CEO of Rubicon and Issam Ayoubi’s sister, said, “I was satisfied with the ultimate product within the constraints that we worked with. Like I said, it was [Rubicon’s] first product… There was action and there was humor, but not enough action and humor to make it a complete entertainment show.” Rusby praised the show’s animation but echoed Ms. Ayoubi’s concern about comedy.
Humor was the missing key. “Ben and Izzy” had the difficult task of striking a balance in edutainment. “What is it that we want to achieve?” asked Rusby. “You either had the commercial world or you had the PBS world… Distributors were not looking to air something that was educational, though now you can find more edutainment programs.” Ultimately, the show erred on the educational.
While edutainment was tough itself, Rubicon lacked experience at the time. “‘Ben and Izzy’ was the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life, because it was the first production we did on that large scale,” said Ayoubi. “We didn’t want to be preaching either on the Arab side or the American side. We wanted it to be fun yet true, representative of the characters.”
Still, Rubicon went to great lengths to ensure success. The company created focus groups of children in North America, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe and changed episodes—line by line—based on feedback. This practice is uncommon in the television industry, but Ayoubi explained it was necessary given the stakes. Yet the show did not pick up steam.
To Pritchard, a deeper cultural issue was at play. “It ended primarily because of a lack of inquisitiveness on behalf of the Western audience, and that’s a real tragic statement for me to make. The stereotyping and narrow-mindedness that exist in so much of America is the thing that’s actually hurting us the most in our capacity to innovate, our capacity to grow… We are more interested in being entertained than we are being provoked or informed.”
The cultural problem extended beyond American frivolity to viewing interests in the Middle East. At the core was the novelty of shows like “Ben and Izzy.” Pritchard, Rusby, and Ayoubi agreed that the Arab world lacked positive heroes. There was no Michael Jordan or Barack Obama in the Middle East. Indeed, its high-profile politicians were far from role models. “People appreciate those who stand up to the West, like Saddam Hussein… but no kid can relate to him or other politicians on a regular basis,” said Rusby. The focus “Ben and Izzy” placed on heroes made it essential for the future of Arab culture yet inaccessible at the same time.
Labeling “Ben and Izzy” as a failure, however, would be unfair. First, it jumpstarted Rubicon and the animation industry in Jordan. After “Ben and Izzy,” Rubicon produced the new Pink Panther movies; today Rubicon remains a top company. Likewise, Pritchard went on to produce “Captain Abu Raed” with goals similar to those of “Ben and Izzy.” The film won awards at the Sundance Film Festival and received acclaim as one of the first great international films in Arabic.
Even “Ben and Izzy” has a second chance at the spotlight. After airing reruns, Rubicon planned to release a second season in 2012. The new episodes will take Ben and Izzy outside the Middle East to engage heroes from Latin America, China, and the United States. The characters will have a twist; merchandizing will include smart phone apps, e-books, and video games; and Rubicon intends to increase the show’s action and humor significantly.
“It’s now beginning to show the success it should have shown maybe two years ago,” said Ayoubi. “I’m hoping [the second season] will create a lot more interest and get to be known in the United States.”
But “Ben and Izzy” still tells a sad tale about popular culture. Producers must walk a fine line between education and entertainment to appease capricious, thrill-seeking viewers. Few shows can afford to try.
Jeffrey Dastin ‘14 is in Saybrook College. Contact him at email@example.com.