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Vidnet 2021: Local flavour drives OTT growth in MENA region

Players are looking into licensing content to FTA channels for monetisation.

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NEW DELHI: Consisting of 22 countries, speaking at least four different languages, and lined with a growing South Asian diaspora, the MENA region is one of the most diverse parts of the world rooted in traditions and culture. Over the past few years, with better macroeconomic conditions, agility in driving broadband penetration, better digital advertising rates and more paid subscriptions, it’s a promising realm for OTT dominion. According to Frost & Sullivan’s analysis, the MENA OTT market which has about 75 million active viewers was projected to grow at a CAGR of at least 38 per cent in viewers and to $775 million in revenue by 2021.

What has helped the leading players in the market create a robust growth and sustain audiences is their sharp focus on regional content and simplifying the payment modules of subscription in a region where credit card penetration is still low. This insight was delivered by an interesting panel composed of OSN SVP - OTT business development, telco & partnerships Zahra Zayat, ZeeL territory head - MENAPT Manoj Mathew, and Starzplay Arabia CCO & co-founder Danny Bates on day one of the fifth edition of Indiantelevision.com’s Vidnet, presented by technology partners Bitmovin, Pallycon, support partner Contiloe, and community partners mipcom and miptv. The session, which was about examining the international OTT market, was moderated by SynProNize founder-MD Nitin Michael. 

Zayat observed that ‘the more, the merrier’ is the motto of the new generation flocking to streaming platforms. “The main thing here is that customers are moving from linear to OTT services in the region because of its demographics. We have a young population who wants better control on the type of content they watch, on their subscriptions, and also on the devices they are viewing their content on. OTT provides that service. We have seen that Netflix has become the default OTT service provider for most of the people in the region. And they are stacking other apps on top of that.”

Mathew highlighted that while it took Zee some time to evolve from their focus on linear television, its entry into the OTT market happened with the agenda to create content that can make business sense irrespective of the medium it is running on. 

“Today, the quality of content on linear TV is far superior to what it used to be five years ago. They are forced to make that change because a customer will subscribe only if they like the content,” he remarked. 

Streamers are betting big on local flavour to win over users to their platforms. For Bates, the biggest contributor to the success of Starzplay Arabia has been its unequivocal focus on Arabic content which is created and aggregated specifically for the region. “We don’t come from a linear heritage and that’s why we can be very focused on our products. We don’t have to run channels or put set-top boxes. This is a big advantage for us as we can focus on our content offerings. This has also simplified the monetisation process for us, in a region where credit card usage is on the lower end.”

In terms of content, he added that staying limited to the region has been a strategic decision that has helped them in creating cutting-edge entertainment. 

Zahra echoed the sentiment, noting that it is wiser to focus on one core competency and experiment with the production side, since MENA is a very fragmented market and it is quite difficult to serve each segment of the audience. “What might work in UAE might not work in KSA and vice versa. In the UAE, around 56 per cent of the population is South Asian, whereas in KSA, Arabic is mainstream. We cannot operate without Arabic because that is the genetic makeup of the area. We need to compel people to pay the subscription fee at the end of the month. We are still taking baby steps when it comes to production.”

She added that OSN will diversify their openings in the future, but the focus will remain on the core audience set. 

Partnerships are a good way to monetise content, especially with licensers operating in other regions, said Bates. “We will probably look to a license window, maybe with some FTA players. We are also looking for collaborations for our content and not just Arabic. One of our shareholders is Lionsgate – a content creator itself. We are starting to have conversations where, potentially, we will sublicense some of our popular series from stars or Lionsgate to some of the free-to-air players in the region.” 

Meanwhile, ZeeL is focusing on creating good regional content that international players would like to license further, shared Mathew.  “They like crisper content, more high-points in a lesser number of episodes of shorter lengths. So, we make those decisions on a script level, if we can create 10 episodes of 30 minutes each or it can be a 90-minute long feature.” 

From a studio-level, their focus is now to create feature films that can have grand OTT or linear openings, concluded Mathew.

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