Age of Discovery

How Discovery Communications is seizing the potential of the MENA region
Amanda Turnbull, VP and country manager, MENA, Discovery Communications.
Amanda Turnbull, VP and country manager, MENA, Discovery Communications.

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From its founding in 1985 as a single channel venture in the US, Discovery Communications has, as its name suggests, had a firm focus on instilling a sense of wonder and broadening horizons for its viewers. While Discovery Communications has grown to become a multifaceted broadcaster with channels covering everything from lifestyle to sports, the company’s ethos of enlightening its viewers remains as clear as ever – and this is especially true in the Middle East and North Africa.

Indeed, while the MENA region remains relatively small in terms of revenue generation for Discovery Communications, it is viewed as a region with huge potential. Importantly, Discovery does not just see the region as having potential for generating revenue growth. As a region that is home to diverse cultures, rich heritage, dramatic landscapes and fast growing economies, it is also viewed as a potential gold mine for the creation of content with a global audience.

For Amanda Turnbull, who joined Discovery Communications as vice president, country manager for MENA region in May 2014, this potential is hugely exciting, particularly given the relatively low penetration of Pay-TV services in the region. “We are still quite small compared to huge markets like Germany, the Netherlands and Poland and so on. What we’re recognised for in this region is the high growth potential. In some of those Pay-TV environments the market is maxed out, while here there are still lots of opportunities. When you look at the demographics and metrics such as the smartphone penetration, everything sort of comes together in a perfect storm. We are seen as a high growth, high opportunity, high potential area,” Turnbull says.

Discovery Communications has had a presence on the region’s screens for about 17 years, but for the majority of that time, the regional offering was managed under an export model from London, with little in the way of local production and engagement. All this changed in early 2013 when Discovery acquired Takhayal Entertainment, then owner of the free-to-air food channel and website Fatafeat, and its production units in Cairo and Dubai.

As Turnbull points out, the acquisition was transformative in that it brought Discovery an experienced local production team. “This local team with its know-how and production capabilities acted as a kind of springboard, allowing us to become more deeply connected to the market, and now we manage everything from here [Dubai],” Turnbull says. “We have got people working for us who have been in television all the time and so it’s a virtuous circle if you like. We’re fortunate to have great corporate central support while also being embedded in our local market with the local workforce, so we have the best of both worlds.”

Discovery made the bold decision to convert Fatafeat to a Pay-TV channel in 2015 and moved the channel to beIN’s platform as part of a bouquet of six channels in early 2016. This opened up more funds for investment such as bringing in top Arab chefs. “We’re proud of Fatafeat. Moving it to pay was a big decision; we disappointed a lot of people but the ad market made it difficult for us to keep investing in the channel. What’s exciting for us now with the pay model is that we can invest in famous local chefs such as Manal Alalem. The focus is much more exclusive Arabic chefs who really know their audiences and bring a big digital following for us.”

Fatafeat now produces about 150-200 linear long form hours annually in addition to producing short form content for digital platforms such as Facebook, where videos typically garner tens of thousands of views within weeks. “With Fatafeat digitally we are so far advanced compared to some of the other markets,” Turnbull adds. “We are seen as very innovative in terms of digital as well.”

Adapting to an increasing demand for short form content proved to be an interesting learning experience for the Fatafeat team. But far from being a distraction, the generation of short form content has already proved its worth by catering to a distinct audience, helping to promote the long form content, and even being adapted into a long form format. “We had to take people used to producing long form linear and get then comfortable with the short. We now have about 1,700 pieces of short form content created in about the last 9 months. This has driven the digital uptake with the audience because obviously digital is now where we have the mass audience with Fatafeat, while linear is the premium product,” Turnbull says.

Moreover, Turnbull and her team hope to adapt these learnings to other channels and niche audiences. “Digital development is where we see the opportunities going forward. We’re looking at how we can digitally improve what we know about in the Fatafeat space, we’re very focused on that. We’re looking at collaboration and acquisitions,” Turnbull says.

Discovery has also invested heavily in expanding the Fatafeat brand through additional touch points such as events, licensing agreements and even an academy. “That’s important because you’ve got to keep it in front of consumers. Every six weeks we’re in a shopping mall with a chef doing a demo. We had a huge event as part of Dubai Food Festival this year in Festival City. In terms of licensing, we’re looking at restaurant partnerships, counter-top products, white goods like blenders and mixers, which could be Fatafeat branded,” Turnbull says.

While Fatafeat is the flagship channel for Discovery’s partnership with beIN, the other five channels in the bouquet are also very important. They are DKids, DLife and DMAX, DTX and Animal Planet, all in HD. Of these channels, DMax, DLife, and DKids are bespoke for MENA, created by Turnbull’s team in the UAE. “DKids is our first real genuine kids’ product in the region. It’s the number one product for Discovery in Latin America and Asia Pacific so it is exciting for us to get into the kids’ space in a meaningful way, especially as it’s how you grow the future audience.”

Another major milestone in Discovery’s development in the region was the launch of Quest Arabiya, a free-to-air pan-Arab channel launched in partnership with Abu Dhabi’s ImageNation in 2015. The channel is a localised version of Discovery’s popular Quest channel. “One of the reasons for our relationship with ImageNation and Quest was because we wanted to make more content and also have a platform to put it on to. We work with lots of people, it’s horses for courses,” Turnbull says.

Quest Arabiya has a mission to create and deliver original content from and for the MENA region, where it is available in 45 million homes in 22 countries. It features content focusing on the main genres of extreme outdoor sports, turbo, engineering, nature and wildlife, science and space, and people and places. The channel features content produced locally with ImageNation as well as international content from Quest, adapted for the region with dubbing and Arabic graphics.

Discovery Channel itself, along with IDX, Discovery Science, Discovery Family and TLC are all available in HD on OSN. While these channels are adapted versions of their US counterparts, Turnbull is keen to stress the importance of local production, especially with there being so many fascinating stories to tell in the region. “If you think about this part of the world there is so much incredible stuff being built. There are so many stories, it’s really cool. The point to make for Discovery content is that we don’t make it purely for MENA. If we’re going to make it here, it doesn’t matter where it’s made, it has to be good enough to go anywhere. If it’s a good story it should go everywhere.”

lOCALISED PLAYOUT

Bassem Maher, head of operations, Discovery Networks MENA, tells DS about the localised playout project for Discovery and TLC, which went live from Dubai on April 17th.

DS: What was the key purpose of the project and what were the main challenges from your side?

The key purpose of the project was to move the playout of two of our flagship channels (Discovery Channel & TLC) from London to Dubai as part of a wider localisation project we are currently implementing across the business.

The main challenges were; upgrading Samacom’s technology to be aligned with the technological standards of our London operation; handing over all work streams from London to Dubai; and ensuring the same playout function and standard ran in Dubai as in London. The entire project took almost six months to complete and involved the support of around 50 people.

DS: Was it very complicated?

It was very complicated as Samacom had to invest a lot of money to upgrade their current infrastructure to align with Discovery’s technical requirements in London. My role was leading this project from Discovery’s perspective and to ensure that the new technology Samacom implemented ran smoothly and aligned with our needs.

I also had to make sure all the technical functions worked properly, specifically new additions that were added as part of Samacom’s enhancement – this included automation, clarity, Dolby and subtitles.

DS: What do you think the key benefits will be?

The key benefit has been bringing both channels under the management and distribution of the local team here in Dubai. With a wealth of experience within our team, in terms of knowledge of local viewing habits, we can now offer MENA audiences two international channels tailored to suit local tastes. The process has also given our team the opportunity to learn and increase our technical expertise, bringing the Dubai-based playout service up to the standards expected by Discovery’s global audience.

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