Carving a niche

Maaz Sheikh discusses the content production trends among the regional VoD providers
Maaz Sheikh
Maaz Sheikh

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Digital Studio caught up with Maaz Sheikh, CEO of Starz Play Arabia, to ask about the latest developments at the video-on-demand provider, including plans to create local content.

DS: How was last year for StarzPlay and how is the service growing?

We continue to expand and grow. We crossed a million downloads of our apps and by the end of 2016. From a presence point of view, we have been constantly among the top 20 websites in UAE and in terms of web traffic ranking, we have been outperforming Netflix in the UAE as well as in Saudi.

DS: What are some of the biggest challenges you face in the region?

One of the biggest challenges in this part of the world when it comes to e-commerce is online payment, as credit card penetration is relatively low. Trust with credit cards online is still emerging and is not quite established. So we offer our customers the ability to pay through Du and Etisalat in UAE, and with Saudi Telecom in Saudi. We now work with twelve regional telecom operators.

DS: What proportion of your business is through the telecom operators?

It’s half-and-half, and it’s sizeable. And we are also available on IPTV services including Etisalat’s eLife platform. So if there is an eLife set-top box, you can get Starz Play and get the big screen experience and not necessarily watch it through the mobile or the web browser. This made a big difference for us because eLife has 700,000 customers in the UAE which is over 90% penetration of the UAE households. You can do chromecast and that’s the final piece that’s working for us.

DS: Can you tell us about the partnership Starz Play has with Samsung?

We will be expanding on more and more screens and devices. Our partnership with Samsung has been very successful. The deal is that if you buy a Samsung TV in UAE, depending on the size of the TV, the customer will get a free subscription of Starz Play for a certain number of months, subsidised by Samsung. On-the-ground executions and marketing has helped us tremendously by showing our partnership deal in markets.

DS: What content is proving popular at the moment?

It’s always a combination. Vikings was doing well in its season finale. We recently launched Taboo, a Tom Hardy show and we are showing it exclusively in the region, showing episodes as they’re released in the US and UK. Some of the top performing shows are Tyrant, Empire, The Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead, Flash, and Friends. Friends is a perfect example of a show that is old but still performing. It’s still one of the top five shows. We had a million views for Vikings’ season finale.

DS: How are series performing compared with movies?

We have 900 movies in our library but we are seeing more and more consumption on TV shows rather than movies. There is a growing binge watching trend which is good for us.

DS: Do you have any plans to make local Arabic content?

We definitely are planning. For us it’s a step-by-step approach. We started with seeing an opportunity in premium Hollywood content because we felt that the Hollywood content in this part of the world has existed on two extremes: either on free-to-air channels with loads of commercials or on Pay-TV platforms with lots of content but at a price point that is too expensive for most people. So we started with Hollywood because there was a clear gap. Then in April 2016 we launched our selection of Arabic series. We showed four Arabic TV shows during Ramadan we showed another four later in 2016 that we day and date with the US broadcast; we worked with a few producers on that. So we have a mix of Gulf as well as Levant. We have a Lebanese show, an Egyptian show, and Gulf shows, which are predominantly Kuwaiti. We have worked with the Arab Telemedia on one series, Malik bin Al Rayb, which is like the Vikings of the Arab World. This show did really well for us during Ramadan and after. It’s of a very high quality and very well produced.

Launching Arabic content was step two for us. Now we are reading the data on what our consumers are watching. We are less than two years old as a company and 2016 was our first full year in existence. Now that we have a sizeable customer base we are watching their trends and what people are consuming. This will help us to understand what to produce and what to invest in, otherwise we would be essentially shooting in the dark not knowing what customers are looking for. Arabic original production is a challenging space to enter because there are many dominant free-to-air broadcasters that are doing extremely well providing good original content. It’s a tough space to enter and carve out your niche. The digital consumer is still evolving so we need a little more time to understand who is watching what until we get to the point where we can do our own shows.

DS: Do you have any firm production plans?

We are aiming to commission or at least co-produce an Arabic series in early 2018. We are looking at all options and hopefully engaging with our parent companies Starz and Lionsgate. Maybe we will look at a Lionsgate format and Arabise it, or just do a completely local production. Hopefully by then we would have gathered more intelligence on what the consumer wants because that’s the challenging part.

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