DUBAI:  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 programmes 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 humour 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 behaviour, 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 specialises in digital, mobile and new media.–Reuters