With the launch of Fox Movies and Fox Series, Fox International Channels (FIC) is going head-to-head with pan-Arab free-to-air TV juggernaut MBC for a share of the lucrative English-language FTA movie and serial market. Aaron Greenwood spoke to FIC Middle East GM Rohit D’silva about the company’s expansion strategy for the region.
Launching FTA TV channels in a market populated by more than 400 rivals all vying for eyeballs and advertising dollars would seem a risky move given the current economic climate.
But when those channels result from a partnership between the one of the region’s most successful media organisations and one of the world’s biggest media companies outright, the chances of success would seem to increase dramatically.
The launch of Fox Movies last May marked a major signal of intent on behalf of Rotana and News Corporation to aggressively pursue a television broadcasting niche peculiar to the Middle East – the FTA movie channel market.
The once-dormant sector had been dominated to date by Saudi-based pan-Arab broadcaster MBC, whose formula of broadcasting Hollywood feature films 24 hours a day via its MBC 2 channel had proved a major hit with viewers across the region.
It was also one laced with commercial opportunities previously unheralded by a pan-Arab broadcaster.
Following its launch in 2001, the broad multinational appeal of the channel quickly translated into advertising dollars with English and Arabic-language commercials combining relatively seamlessly during programming breaks.
This scenario prompted a dramatic shift in regional TV marketing strategies, which had previously been segmented largely by way of language and cultural boundaries.
Seeing an opportunity to snare their own share of these revenues, Rotana and News Corp, by way of its Fox International Channel subsidiary, settled on leveraging the best of their respective strengths to launch Fox Movies.
“Following an initial round of discussions we both came to the conclusion that our mutual interests would be best served by way of a partnership,” explains FIC Middle East general manager Rohit D’silva.
“Rotana operates a very successful Arabic-language TV portfolio consisting of music, general entertainment and reality channels. The company has been keen to get into the English-language market for some time and saw an opportunity to do so working with us.”
D’silva, who is also responsible for managing Fox’s pay TV portfolio of channels in the region, which includes Fox Sports and Fox News, says the FTA market arguably holds greater long-term commercial opportunities for the company’s planned expansion in the region.
“FTA viewer numbers in the Middle East are massive compared to pay TV, hence the number of satellite television channels vying for attention,” he says.
Given this scenario, D’silva concedes the process of launching the Fox-branded channels in this complex environment has proven “very challenging”.
“In saying that, the key to our success has been teaming with a very strong partner,” he says. “Rotana is one of the biggest media organisations operating in the region and is one of the few to have adopted an international mindset in the way they do business.”
“We are leveraging each other’s strengths – ours lies in our brand, Rotana’s lies in its experience in this market and the sheer scale of its presence.”
This inherent strength extends to Rotana’s ability to snare advertising dollars for its media portfolio, including the Fox-branded FTA channels, D’Silva says.
“It makes it much easier – particularly given these channels are start-ups – when they are part of a major portfolio of channels, in securing advertising dollars,” he explains. “It draws advertisers in from the outset, which is hugely important in the free-to-air market.
“In the past three to four months, the response from advertisers has been very encouraging. We’ve been receiving a lot of interest from new advertisers in particular.
“We are very much on track in terms of our commercial ambitions,” he continues. “We are definitely reaping the benefits of being part of Rotana’s channel bouquet.”
D’silva argues the strength of the Fox brand, which is attached to at least one FTA or pay TV channel property available in more than 80 percent of the world’s developed markets, provides a massive boost to the local operation’s regional profile.
“Globally, we operate 20 channel brands, and we have 95 feeds of these channels in various markets worldwide. There is strength in these numbers, particularly in terms of branding,” he adds.
“As a result, Middle East viewers can easily identify with the Fox brand, which gives us added value in the marketplace.”
The allure of the brand is further enhanced by FIC’s ‘youthful’ marketing approach, D’silva claims.
“From a marketing perspective, the Middle East boasts a very young viewer demographic compared to other markets worldwide,” he says.
“There is a considerable consumer appetite for Hollywood movies and television content in the Middle East. Television consumption in the region is very high, particularly in the GCC countries.
“Yes, there are 400 channels operating here, but we have a distinct advantage over our competitors both in terms of branding and the content we offer. We’re very positive about the future, given the success we’ve achieved in a relatively short period of time.
“The other major point that needs to be made relates to scheduling and branding this content. We have the experience to leverage our content to achieve maximum impact. It’s a sophisticated approach which differs greatly from many other regional broadcasters.”
D’silva also argues that the combined experience offered by the various FIC subsidiaries operating worldwide provides significant advantages when it comes to branding and programming strategies implemented locally.
“We launched Fox Series on December 1 and on the same day Fox Life launched in Greece,” he notes.
“There are new Fox-branded channels launching somewhere in the world every single month. We are competing internally and learning from one another: which scheduling, branding and packaging strategies work best both in individual markets and across the board.
“We are very confident that this collective experience will benefit our business in this region.”
D’silva says the launch of Fox Series last December marked a major step in the implementation of FIC’s regional strategy. The channel is the first dedicated 24-hour US series TV channel operating in the Middle East.
Interestingly, and despite the initial branding rights association with Fox and its various production divisions, D’silva denies FIC and Rotana receive any special privileges to Fox programming or related content.
As if to provide further evidence to this claim, he points to the fact both Fox Movies and Fox Series broadcast content produced by any number of Fox rivals, including NBC Universal, Paramount and American television networks ABC and CBS.
“We have deals with all the major studios, not just 20th Century Fox,” he says. “We do have an output deal with Fox, which comprises of first-run movies and CDs. We managed to secure this deal from a competitor [MBC] when we first launched the [Fox Movies] channel.
“But other than that, we have no other privileges when it comes to Fox-produced content. We still have to compete with all our rivals in the region for content.”
D’silva stresses that despite the current economic slowdown, FIC and Rotana are committed to launching new Fox-branded channels in the region over the next 12 months.
“We do have other channels in the pipeline, some of which we’ll launch this year,” he confirms. “There are a lot of similarities between us and our competitors. Rotana has multiple channels in various markets, as does MBC and LBC. The key lies in differentiating our offering from theirs.
“The Middle East is still an evolving market, so there’s plenty more growth here, for sure.”
Rohit D’silva CV
Rohit D’silva was appointed general manager of Fox International Channels (FIC) Middle East in January 2008.
D’silva’s promotion followed a three-and-a-half year tenure at FIC and its sister company National Geographic Channels in the Middle East & India.
Before joining FIC in 2004, D’silva held marketing and promotional positions with a variety of companies in India including Radio City 91.1FM and Gillette.