ADMC EPL strategy: On the ball

ADMC executives reveal details behind EPL distribution plans.
Al Riyadiya, EPL, Karim Sarkis, Ricky Ghai, Analysis, Broadcast Business
Al Riyadiya, EPL, Karim Sarkis, Ricky Ghai, Analysis, Broadcast Business

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ADMC executives discuss tactics for the upcoming EPL distribution including online, mobile and 3D plans as well as answering the big question, can they turn a profit? John Parnell reports.

The announcement of ADMC’s victory in the auction for the exclusive broadcast rights to the EPL triggered a deluge of questions. Will the games be offered on a free to air (FTA) basis? Will they be leased to existing pay TV operators? Will ADMC match OSN’s commitment to show all 380 matches?

The line of questioning has meandered as information trickled out of ADMC towers during early 2010.

The network would not be “sub-letting” the EPL to another broadcaster – FTA or otherwise – and the questions turned to what will it cost? Will I need another set top box? How will ADMC make a profit from the $300 million price-tag of the rights?

The broadcaster has been working flat out to address all of these issues and now (most) of these questions can finally be answered.

“Our key position is to make premium content – in this case the EPL – available to the widest number of consumers on all platforms,” says Ricky Ghai, executive director digital media, ADMC. “The intention is to create uniformity, consistency and a simple consumer experience on any platform.”

The company announced in February that it would be offering access to all 380 matches through three methods; online streaming; an encrypted satellite signal and via IPTV where possible.
This announcement triggered a number of questions all of its own.

“The real value we are providing is the flexibility of choice and the convenience of accessibility on top of what had previously been a very limited direct to home offering,” says Ghai.

The online streaming service attracted a lot of attention with sceptics pointing out that the region’s limited broadband infrastructure and high prices have limited take-up. So does the Middle East have enough high speed internet users to create a mass market for ADMC’s EPL streaming service?

“If you had asked me this a year ago I would have said that it would be a big challenge to make this work. But now, if you look at the number of press releases and announcements in the past three months on the anticipated increases in broadband growth and the progress the operators are making… STC has announced that it has achieved speeds of 100Mb/s for example. All the signs are right and the stimulus of this momentum is always going to be the availability of content,” says Ghai.

Despite this, ADMC is well aware that the quality of connection varies greatly throughout the territory that it possesses the rights for, and will be doing what it can to offer a sufficient service within for all users regardless of bandwidth.

“Although broadband capacity and uptake are improving, we are going to do all that we can to provide the most sophisticated form of delivery in the last mile. The streaming will use an adaptive bit rate. That allows anyone including those with the slower speeds to at least see a clean, consistent stream. The quality of that stream is dependant on your service provider relationship and your pipeline but we can stop buffering and other problems.”

Distributing the content online is only the first part of the process however. Ghai says another challenge posed by the streaming service is finding an appropriate and secure means for online payment.

“There is a lack of e-commerce in this region. ADMC is addressing that and there are a number of forms of online payment coming up. These will be available for third-parties to use and will stimulate the online sector generally, not necessarily just those selling premium content,” explains Ghai.

“We have a great opportunity to stimulate the uptake of broadband and the demand for upgrades to high-speed services. The EPL is just one premium stream of content and others will follow,” claims Ghai.

ADMC will partner with UK-based company The Perform Group, which specialises in broadcasting sports content on new media platforms.

“Perform is the official partner of the EPL in the mobile and online form. They have a tremendous amount of experience in delivering sport on these platforms including the England vs Ukraine World Cup qualifier that was shown exclusively online.”

So could this relationship mean mobile services based around the EPL are on the way?

“The premium nature of the content and of the market that we are operating in with almost 200 percent mobile penetration in some markets, means that clearly this will play a very important role. This could stretch from handset-friendly web TV clips or otherwise to a full streaming or broadcast platform. We are part of the DVB-H consortium in the UAE and that will play a large role in how we deliver a service to a handset,” says Ghai.

ADMC’s executive director of broadcast Karim Sarkis agrees.

“ADMC owns the mobile rights and we are in ongoing discussions with mobile operators about some form of offering; these have not been finalised but it will be part of the service and we hope to have a mobile offering in time for our first season,” says Sarkis.

The second component of ADMC’s triple-pronged distribution strategy will see its Abu Dhabi Al Riyadiya sports bouquet offered via IPTV platforms in partnership with telcos.

The UAE’s du and Etisalat were the first two services to announce that they had struck a deal.

“These agreements are standardised benchmark deals of wholesale supply and partnership. There is common ground to stimulate markets and make premium content accessible and maintain the consistency across territories, so it’s a tighter partnership than an old fashioned cable carriage agreement,” says Ghai.

“There has to be a degree of wholesale retail flexibility to allow the telcos and service providers to create the value-added distinctions that they need to create to attract customers. So while there are wholesale and retail pricing parameters to maintain consistency, there may be some movement within those depending on the creative offer that each service provider takes to market,” says Ghai.

Essentially this means that upper and lower limits on the prices telcos can charge for their EPL bundles are in place. Until all the telco partners are in place however, ADMC cannot reveal what these prices are.

“It’s expected that the telcos will offer the EPL as part of certain bundles. There is also the opportunity to offer extensive VOD services through IPTV but that would depend on the EPL rights usage guidelines,” says Ghai.

The final piece of the jigsaw is the creation of an encrypted satellite channel.

ADMC has tied with STB manufacturer Humax to roll-out HD boxes that will be packaged along with annual subscriptions and made available through a number of outlets.

“The boxes will be sold through the usual retail channels, satellite equipment specialists, hypermarkets and electronics stores,” says Sarkis.

Sarkis says the box is one of the most widely available HD boxes in the market already, which could save some customers from having to purchase an additional box. The company has claimed that its streaming application will help promote the adoption of broadband, so does hope to do the same for HD TV?

“I wouldn’t claim that we were the only entity pushing HD adoption in the Middle East. HD take-up is already happening in this region, but the EPL will help. Our motivation to offer all 380 matches in HD was more about providing something new for viewers,” says Sarkis.

“This will be the first time that ADMC has done full HD and tapeless broadcasting and if I am not mistaken it will be the first time in the region. It is a change for the company and the systems have been upgraded during the last three years but the completion of the move to a tapeless workflow was the icing on the cake. There are new studios, the network infrastructure is upgraded, new servers, encoding equipment for encryption – which is of course something new for ADMC as are subscriber management systems. Basically everything has been upgraded to support full HD,” says Sarkis.

The project’s scope is broad with Ghai joking that it has sometimes felt like all of the company’s near 2200 employees have been working on the EPL.

“It would be very difficult to quantify how many people have been contributing. A lot of people in the broadcast and technology divisions have been working on it and half of my digital division have been too. There are also a number of external partners. There have been some tremendous efforts, time and resources applied to ensure that we can deliver something respectable,” says Ghai.

The project is also an example of what future converged media and telecoms projects could look like.

“Convergence is something that we have been shouting about at ADMC since our digital division was formed,” says Ghai.

“Digital [media] is often an afterthought or is merely a limb attached to the parent company. The EPL is an example of a converged output from production to delivery to distribution through to all of the commercial aspects wrapped around it. If it succeeds with the EPL then it should work with all kinds of content, news, entertainment and music.”

One of the challenges both Ghai and Sarkis identify is the tight schedule imposed on ADMC to fulfil all of its ambitions. The company is breaking new ground with several aspects of its intended initial services and could take this pioneering attitude further once its coverage begins with 3D – one goal it has in its sights.

“BSkyB supply a large portion of the live coverage of the competition to the EPL itself but the 3D productions is something it has been doing for itself,” says Sarkis.

“It is not yet clear if 3D is part of the package of rights. We are waiting to hear from the Premier League,” adds Sarkis. “It is definitely something we are interested in.”

In the UK, BSkyB has shown 3D coverage of matches in commercial premises and in special cinema screens to negate the lack of 3D TV sets in homes, a strategy Sarkis says he would replicate at ADMC given the chance.

“The price of 3D TVs is falling and the technology will come to the home much faster than HD did. In the short-term however – say the upcoming season – it is far more practical to talk about commercial screenings than broadcasting 3D to the home.

“The set top boxes that we will be offering to viewers wishing to access the satellite feed of the EPL are 3D compliant but the adoption of the format is dependant on consumers purchasing 3D-enabled TV sets,” says Sarkis.

Although ADMC is state-owned, it does have a commercial remit, something many questioned when they paid a reported $300 million for the three-year contract for the EPL rights.

“Monetisation is a clear component but it’s a long-term strategy; we’re certainly not going to realise profitability in year one, two or three,” says Ghai. “I think it’s the first step towards developing the infrastructure, partnerships and ecosystems around the various content services.

“The halo effect of a superbrand like the EPL is already tangible. ADMC is in talks with some very interesting brand partners, some very excited telco partners and ISPs, it has drawn attention to us. And we are happy to share this attention with everyone because there are more beneficiaries in this project than just ADMC.”

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