Digital Studio talks to one of the UAE’s new generation of DIY broadcasters, who are using the internet to sidestep the media behemoths of old.
In recent months online TV, IPTV, second screens, OTT and all the other acronyms describing TV received through something other than a box in the corner of the living room have become ever more a part of the mainstream media environment.
IBC, NAB and our own ITP Broadcast conference were dominated by the emergence of new ways of distributing and consuming content, and major local broadcasters like MBC and OSN have been quick to develop their own platforms to maximize the viewer experience.
We’ve also heard recently from the likes of Google (owner of YouTube) and Yahoo! Maktoob, both of whom have launched concerted efforts to bring about a marked increase in both the production and broadcast of local content through these new online media.
It’s not just the big regional and international brands that are keen to ride the wave however, as we learned when we met one local entrepreneur and would-be media guru who is already at the forefront of the region’s nascent independent online broadcasting community.
Sadiece Holland is the Abu Dhabi-based creative force behind The Flex, an online TV channel that seeks to give a platform to the region’s underground talent, especially that which hasn’t yet reached a sufficiently popular level for the big broadcasters to take notice.
The channel’s first season began last October and was, according to Holland, a “bit of a test” to see if the appetite for such a platform was out there.
Episodes included music sessions with name artists like Hamdan Al Abri and Melisa Le Rue, while the channel’s Minute to Kill it slot, giving 60 seconds air time to undiscovered talents also proved a big hit.
It appears the appetite was indeed out there. Holland has now launched season two of the channel, which features more content and is also set to run for longer than last year’s experiment.
“The first season went really well,” she explains. “We gained 1,000 fans in our first week, which was a real surprise as we did no real advertising beyond word of mouth and Facebook.
Now it’s proved successful, I’m hoping to do more marketing for season two and make better and more use of social media like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and all the other sites.”
Talking to Holland, it’s clear that the Flex is very much a passion rather than an outright corporate venture, although she maintains that professional output is key to the channel’s success, but I wonder, in the brave new world of DIY internet TV, how easy is it to put together a good quality show? The internet may have eased barriers to broadcasting, but production equipment still doesn’t come cheap, surely?
“We use a pretty basic set up,” explains Holland. “I work with some cameramen that have their own equipment, and when they’re not available I hire it out. We use 5Ds and full lens kits, plus focus pullers too for the more popular shows like The Flex Sessions. For these shows we usually have three 5Ds, two tripod set ups and a focus puller getting the accent shots.
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“Likewise, the audio equipment is pretty basic as I like to keep the show with a raw feel. Guests use acoustic instruments and I don’t allow any amps or plug ins. We’ve had a double bass, acoustic guitars, even some beatboxers, but I always try and avoid anything electronic.”
The concept of using 5Ds to achieve value-for-money professional results is well documented, but watching The Flex’s output, the sets too have a high end appearance.
It’s no surprise to find Holland has used her initiative here too, rather than investing in multi-million dirham purpose-built facilities: “We’ve teamed up with various clubs like Yas Viceroy and Sublime in Ibis at Dubai World Trade Centre. I go scouting and visit various hotels or just drive around looking for good spots.
We filmed some of Minute to Kill It from the roof of the trade centre hotel apartments and we had great views of the skyline and Emirates Towers.
We tried to keep it all on private property for the first series as we didn’t really have the resources to apply for permits and so on. This season we have some brands that are keen to come on board and support us, such as Red Bull, so we’re hoping to be able to use that to gain some leverage for things like permissions.”
With big brands potentially waiting in the wings, it sounds like the Flex is already growing as a financial concern as well as a creative one, though Holland notes the brands are mostly keen to support the project with things it needs rather than as an out-and-out economic transaction: “It’s currently a not-for-profit venture, and I’m doing it because I have a real passion for the project.
I grew up and went to school in Abu Dhabi, and as an aspiring artist myself there was no platform for me to express myself beyond singing and rapping in the playground or organizing a school talent show, then it wouldn’t go any further, so after a few years in the UK and US at uni and living, I came back six years later to the same situation and thought someone had to do it.
“There is talent here, but it’s early days and I’m pleased to be able to offer a platform and hopefully a whole scene and independent labels and infrastructure can develop around it. This place can look like it’s been here for ever, but you have to step back sometimes and remember it’s a new country and things like independent music and arts or royalties collection are probably low on the list of priorities.”
Despite this, Holland has long term plans beyond the DIY ‘doing it for the love’ ethic: “We use YouTube as our main broadcasting platform at the moment. We do have a web site, but it’s mainly a holding page showing the latest editions of our shows.
We considered buying loads of bandwidth and loading it all into our own server, but we really didn’t feel we’re at that stage yet. There’s so much scope with YouTube now and it lets me track my audience, number of views, age group and demographics.
Plus, of course it can get to a point where YouTube starts paying and we can get a revenue stream going there. It’s currently all pro-bono or out of my own pocket, but although I’m happy doing this for passion I do have a long-term plan for it to be self-funding.
At the moment I do so much single-handedly. I have a cameraman and an editor but there’s no team for marketing or research or any of those things. Again, with season two we’re trying to build the team, both in Abu Dhabi and Dubai to save me running back and forth all the time, but of course it’s a slow process.”
She continues: “We’re also keen to talk to other broadcasters. I watch MTV Arabia a lot, and some of our shows are very much like the kind of stuff they show on there, but a lot of that is from overseas while we’re doing it here.
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For season two we have a new show called Behind the Music where we follow people for three days on tour, in the studio, whatever, and just get a look at their life whatever they’re doing and produce a show around that.
“Another thought is that some of our shows could work really well on a channel like MBC Action, where they often show short filler items between films – our longest show is 10 minutes, so it’d be ideal for that. These are all things we’re looking into, although I honestly do think online is the future in the long term.”
It would be somehow remiss to discuss the notion of online TV in the region without mentioning the sometimes unpredictable nature of internet connections, but Holland says she’s not had too many problems here: “We’ve had fairly smooth running so far.
The uploading and broadcasting side is really simple as YouTube does it all for us. The biggest issue is watching in HD.
It takes a long time to buffer and load up, and some people can’t watch it in HD at all, but we’re determined to make it high quality anyway. We want it to be like watching TV not a laptop.”
You can judge for yourself as season two is already screening with the successful Flex Sessions and Minute to Kill it joined by three new shows - Behind the Music, a poetry segment called Wordplay which reflects the solidly-growing poetry scene in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and Flex Ciphers.
The shows alternate bi weekly, with the exception of Minute to Kill it which airs a new show every week and Flex Ciphers which airs two shows a season – one before Ramadan and one after the channel takes a Ramadan break.
With season two running from February to December, there’s still plenty of time to check out what the UAE’s fledgling producers and broadcasters, not to mention musicians and poets, have to offer, so look them up at YouTube.com/HowWeFlex