Going for gold

Rotana Media Group's quest to raise the standard of arabic content
Turki Al Shabanah is keen to raise the standard of content in the Middle East and maximise its value.
Turki Al Shabanah is keen to raise the standard of content in the Middle East and maximise its value.

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With 13 TV channels, radio stations across the region and a vast library of films, TV and movies, Rotana Media Group is well positioned as the region’s biggest media company. Digital Studio caught up with Turki Al Shabanah, the company’s CEO, to discover how the company is progressing a fast-changing broadcast landscape.

For a man who originally trained as a lawyer and slipped into the media industry almost by accident, Turki Al Shabanah is certainly passionate about film and TV. And this is probably just as well given that Rotana, which is majority-owned by the Saudi Arabia’s Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, sits on a gold-mine of content and continues to invest in productions on an ongoing basis.

“We have the largest collection of Arabic films, around 1,600-plus films,” Al Shabanah says, referring to the company’s catalogue of Arabic films, which is worth about $170 million and continues to grow.

The company owns about 70% of Arab film heritage and takes this responsibility seriously. Indeed, Rotana is in the latter stages of a project to restore and digitise its catalogue of Arabic films to their full glory.

Rotana has been preserving its film assets since 2004 but the latest phase of the project – to clean, scan in 4K and digitally restore the film archive in HD started in 2014 and involved some 200 people at its peak.

“The restoration of a particular movie took about 4,000 hours,” Al Shabanah says. “Now they look like brand new movies. Some of the movies had deteriorated, so we are being very careful with them. Some of those movies have never been out of their case since the 1930s or 40s. They were shown once or twice in the cinema and never seen again. We are revisiting this and treating them like jewels. It is a huge project. It’s a great project and will open new doors in terms of how we can capitalise on such content.”

The comparison with jewels is apt, particularly given that HD broadcasting and new on-demand platforms allow content to be monetised in various ways. Among Rotana’s 13 TV channels are three dedicated to movies, which benefit from the firm’s enormous film catalogue and production capabilities.

While the restoration project has been a landmark initiative for Rotana, it is just one side of the company’s content strategy. Indeed, Rotana is continually producing new TV and radio shows and films, mainly in Egypt and the Gulf, through its production partners. Rotana Studios produces about 25 new titles a year.

Al Shabanah says that while the vast majority of films produced in the region are from Egypt, with smaller amounts of production taking place in other countries in North Africa and the Levant, he is optimistic that the Gulf can also develop its production industry and start to increase its contribution to the industry. Rotana was an early pioneer in Gulf film production producing some of the first films in the country, he adds.

In the past three to four years Rotana has made about three films in Saudi Arabia, including Wadjda, which tells the simple tale of a girl who dreams of owning a bicycle. The film was shortlisted for an Oscar and was a hit in the Arab world and with Western audiences. “It’s a pure Saudi movie and was shortlisted for the Oscars. It won more than 17 prizes, from Japan to North America. It’s full of insights into Saudi society,” Al Shabanah says.

While Saudi Arabia does not yet have any cinemas, Al Shabanah is optimistic that this could change in the near future, potentially pumping fresh oxygen into the Gulf region’s film industry. “Today if you produce a Saudi movie you have very few areas to show it in the Gulf. Then mostly it doesn’t make business sense. The minute you can show it to Saudi people at theatre then we will see a variety of films, we will see a challenge, competition, quality and then it will make sense financially,” he says.

Such a development would also bring immense cultural benefits. “A lot of great stories can definitely introduce our culture to the world. There will also be an interest from outside the region to what we are doing, but we need to succeed locally first and then spin off that success so the rest of the world can see,” Al Shabanah adds.

Rotana produces most of its film and TV content mainly by working with production partners which include the top producers in Egypt. Al Shabanah adds that Rotana has a healthy pipeline of productions lined up. “Over 70 movies were signed last year until 2020. Mostly every movie that comes from Egypt is through Rotana or with Rotana,” he says.

He adds that Rotana also produces series for its various channels each year, in addition to acquiring content. “We are very focused on producing channel-by-channel. We will produce around four or five series for Rotana Khalijia, some for Rotana Egypt and some for LBC.

In terms of the latest trends in content, Al Shabanah says that “all the balls are in the air” with social media changing people’s habits. However, some patterns are clear. “Drama and social talk shows are important. Good quality production is an important issue because viewers are exposed to major productions from the US, so you either meet that standard and quality or you don’t do it.”

Rotana has a “very active daily production” in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Lebanon producing an average of around 28 hours’ of fresh material every day.

Besides content for its bouquet of TV channels, Rotana also manages its music business through Rotana Audio, looking after artist management and music production. Indeed, Rotana’s music library has around 14,000 songs and 1,300 music video clips.

The company also supplies movies to other Pay TV companies and bouquets, as well as on-demand platforms.

Content delivery

Rotana has 13 TV channels, which are a combination of Pay TV, and free-to-air and some of its content is also on distribution channels in Europe, the US and some parts of Asia. All of the channels are HD although Rotana also broadcasts in SD for viewers who require it.

The channels are best described as general entertainment channels, and include Rotana Khalijia, a family channel focusing on KSA and the Gulf. Rotana Egypt focuses on general entertainment, while LBC is a pan-Arab channel with a Lebanese flavour to its programming. The third area, Al Shabanah says, is the music channels – a bouquet of channels that broadcasts music events, live concerts and music videos.

Rotana also has a major radio chain in different countries, including Lebanon, Jordan and the UAE, but mainly focused on Saudi where it is present in about 20 cities.

While 2016 was another tough year for the broadcast industry, Rotana – buoyed by its broad portfolio of channels and content – succeeded in reaching breakeven, which was viewed as a significant milestone for the company. “2016 was a milestone as the company reached breakeven, which was very tough to do as a private owned company. The tough economic climate forced us to be even more focused and determined to set all the international standards in operating. For 2016-17, the company will move into the black,” he adds.

This level of focus is key, especially as Rotana is competing in the media industry with large state-owned companies which do not face the same degree of commercial pressure. “We successfully proved ourselves by improving day-by-day. Breakeven was very challenging to achieve but it was a great moment for the future of the company,” Al Shabanah says.

For Al Shabanah, setting the right priorities was one of the keys to achieving breakeven in 2016. “As a TV company, the topmost priority is the screen and not the other things around. It’s all about the screen and what we can do there; how we can provide our viewers with the best content. That’s how we actually focus. I don’t waste time, money and energy in things that are not relevant to our core business.”

In terms of key challenges, Al Shabanah points to the fact that Rotana competes with other regional broadcasters that are backed by governments but which still sell advertising. Another challenge is the lack of a reliable audience measurement system. “The advertising industry is very fluid and the reason is there is no up-to-date system to measure the viewing of the broadcasts, which makes the market reliant on guess work. This is immediately impacting the revenue.

“Also, having major government-owned broadcasters that can compete with the private sector for the advertising dollars makes it very tough, because they are not financially driven broadcast entities. They give huge discounts and that’s messing up our markets,” he adds.

Al Shabanah adds that he would like to see a law in the GCC, similar to laws in Europe, which restrict the ability of state-backed broadcasters to accept advertising.

Another challenge for Rotana, and all linear broadcasters, is the rise of on-demand and OTT content. However, Al Shabanah also views social media as an opportunity to reach and engage with viewers. “Social media definitely brings advantages. Rotana had 11 billion minutes viewed on YouTube in 2016. That means that if viewers don’t watch something on screen then they watch it somewhere else,” he says.

Al Shabanah is optimistic about Rotana especially given the region’s large population and common language. “It is very important that we are talking about 22 countries with 150 million viewers speaking the same language, who can laugh at the same joke. It has huge potential, particularly when it comes to movie market.

“If we join with international production companies to produce something with the highest possible standards we could create something amazing that appeals to a broad audience in the Middle East and beyond. It does not need to be expensive, but it should have a high quality script and production standards: then you will have 350 million potential viewers plus huge potential for spin off in other languages.”

Clearly, Al Shabanah sees greater value in locally produced content than many of his peers. When asked what he sees as the biggest opportunities in 2017-18, he says: “For Rotana we are sitting on a gold mine; we have the most content and digital is the future. Content is definitely undervalued at the moment in the Middle East. Our content is priceless and will pay off in time,” he says.

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