Improving platforms and a hungry audience have created a market for mobile video services. Now the race is on for service operators to source the content required to feed this appetite. Digital Broadcast speaks to key stakeholders as they look to monetise mobile TV.
With ever increasing competition for eyeballs thanks in part to the swelling number of FTA channels in the region and the glut of video available on the internet – both legally and illegally – broadcasters are keen to find new ways to reach their audience.
For news services in particular mobile video creates the perfect opportunity for short, snappy and immediate delivery.
“We’re hoping within the next three months we’ll have an expanded range of offerings. SMS, MMS, catch-up and 3G services,” says Steven Hall, CEO, CNBC Arabia.
“Currently, the content providers get a very small piece of the revenue pie and clearly, an adjustment has to be made in this regard. I think we need an altogether new business model to generate increased traffic and access to content. This will require a partnership between the telcos, content owners and the regulators,” claims Hall.
The terms of this new partnership will determine the relative success for each party. Hall is under no illusions about which direction the balance of power needs to swing for mobile video services to succeed.
“The existing revenue model doesn’t encourage content owners and providers to create tailored services for mobile. It sounds like a tired phrase, but content is king. You can have the best delivery system in the world, but without rich content viewers won’t be interested,” says Hall who goes on to say that broadcasters and telcos need to find common ground to benefit from each other’s strengths.
“There are things that we do best, and there are things that they do best. Telecoms operators are not producers. In the instances where telcos have gone into production it has been with very mixed success,” points out Hall.
One advantage CNBC Arabia has is that it is already producing all its content in Arabic. With a shortage in this area across all new media formats, the opportunity for Arabic language TV broadcasters across many of these platforms is obvious.
“It does give us an advantage to be producing entirely in Arabic,” says Hall. “We have a loyal and growing audience for the TV channel and I believe that this will transfer to our new media enterprises as well. Our content provides depth and analysis entirely in Arabic and there is a real demand for that across the Middle East.”
Content acquisition is obviously not the problem for producers such as CNBC. Those from outside the production business have more trouble and depend on aggregators or in-house efforts.
Production and distribution company A2 Avalon recently launched operations in the Middle East. With a library of 11,000 hours of material, A2 Avalon is in a position to offer vast swathes of programming to operators. There are often complications in the Middle East with the rights for stocks of content often split among several buyers across different platforms.
“Owning the rights on all formats was the deal breaker, I didn’t want the library under any other conditions,” says A2 Avalon CEO, Talaat Captan.
“That is the only way to exploit content today. We are discovering a new market [online] and the internet is here to stay. We have the rights for the library for the next ten years so we will ease into web distribution,” explains Talaat.
In addition to the internet, Captan also expects mobile TV operators to take an interest in the A2 Avalon library.
“The telcos will prove significant customers for us and we will be offering the entire library to mobile network operators. The attention span for mobile video is only a few minutes. Music will be a popular option for mobile content, this works very well on a handset. Not many people are going to be watching full-length movies on a mobile phone,” predicts Captan.
This is a view shared by Basher Dahabra, founder and CEO of Info2Cell, a value added service provider and content aggregator for mobiles.
“There will be an opportunity for condensed versions of regular programming and also for mini-series produced specifically for mobiles,” says Dahabra, pointing out that TV series tailored for mobile would have to be produced differently to account for limited handset screen size.
“MBC has pioneered the idea of ‘mobisodes’ offering these for the previous two seasons of Ramadan musalsals. Last year, we saw the series Noor achieve immense popularity. It takes a lot of commitment to be at home at the same time every night for a series of that length. This is where mobile catch-up services could excel.”
Info2Cell and its competitors see as little as one percent of their revenues from video services at present by Dahabra’s own admission, but he is confident that this figure could grow to as much as 20 percent. One of the company’s initiatives to help it reach this target is a 3G-based push video service in Saudi Arabia.
“The ground has been laid. Subscribers are growing accustomed to using 3G services. We have reached the time to launch the next generation of mobile services, which will of course include video,” says Dahabra.
Info2Cell’s push video service allows subscribers to sign up for regular alerts such as video news bulletins and sports highlights. At a pre-determined time each day the user’s phone will ring as normal and the operator will deliver the video in the form of a regular 3G video call.
“Our lives have changed, people are busier. We no longer have the luxury of scheduling time to read the paper in the morning and the sports headlines in the afternoon and so on. I am confident users will jump at the opportunity to subscribe to a service that will ‘push’ video to them at a specific time without having to interact repeatedly with the platform,” claims Dahabra.
Many mobile TV and video services in developed markets are aimed largely at commuters. For this reason, some observers can not see an opportunity for consumers in the Middle East to exploit mobile video. Dahabra believes there is a substitute for commuter culture in the Arab world.
“In this region we have the coffee shop culture. Young people in the Arab world spend significant amounts of their free time in coffee shops and much of that time is spent consuming content on their mobiles,” states Dahabra.
Regardless of the delivery method, 3G on demand, 3G push or broadcast services and in spite of the specific culture, one consideration remains paramount above all others.
“The challenge is the content,” says Dahabra. “There will be four successful categories of content in this region. There will be lots of news services. BBC Arabic has positioned itself at the forefront with its one minute news summaries. We will see sports content in the form of highlights packages and post-game analysis. Islamic content such as Koran interpretations, messages and advice for fasting during Ramadan are in high demand. And lastly there is entertainment. This could be movie trailers or reviews or music content from an organisation like Rotana. It has a huge opportunity given the number of artists under its umbrella.”
Another rich potential source for mobile video could be user generated content (UGC).
Online video has been defined by UGC in recent years with YouTube in particular leading the way.
Professionally produced content in the meantime has only found large-scale distribution channels on the internet very recently.
“UGC is a bit tricky in this region,” says Dahabra. “Unlike on YouTube it will be necessary to filter this material. We will be launching a UGC platform designed for mobiles in the near future, hopefully in time for Ramadan.”
Dahabra is confident that the as-of-yet unnamed service will find a market.
“There is already a large amount of creative Arab video producers uploading clips to YouTube. A dedicated Arabic UGC mobile platform however, represents untested waters.”
The service will allow users to shoot videos on their mobile and upload them direct from the handset to the platform developed by Info2Cell.
But it is not only amateur producers that Dahabra would like to see becoming more involved in mobile content creation.
“The message I would send to all the video production houses in the region is that now is the time to produce content for mobiles. The platform is in place. At present most production is done specifically for TV. We want content creators to start thinking about the opportunities in producing explicitly for mobiles,” says Dahabra.
“There is an opportunity for people to produce content that is relevant to the Middle East, but in short clips that we can then leverage on our platforms. We can only provide the infrastructure. The creativity and the imagination has to come from the organisations that have the experience and the facilities to produce such content,” explains Dahabra.
In addition to creating new revenue streams for existing producers, Dahabra also believes this could help to diversify the geographical spread of content production in the Middle East.
“We still view video production as something that originates from Lebanon, UAE or Egypt with Syria and Jordan also contributing. I hope that mobile video services will see content production diversify across the region allowing us to enjoy programming from different cultures and countries, not just these main hubs. In particular, I would like to see more from Saudi Arabia. There are 23 million people and a lot of talent, but they lack the platform to get their productions on the air.”
Dahabra believes the opportunity for the one-man production house to offer video blogs or specialised news alerts could open the door for new content creators.
“I hope the advancements in technology will bring a more even geographic spread of video production and that we will see all sorts of new talent emerge. Hopefully people will take advantage of the opportunities and rise to the challenge.”