As president and chief operating officer of Starz Play Arabia, a new video-on-demand service targeting the MENA region, Maaz Sheikh is a busy man.
Even so, despite the rigours of launching a start-up operation covering 17 countries, Sheikh admits that he always finds time to watch TV. And with 3000-plus hours of films and series already on Starz Play Arabia’s platform, he has plenty of content to choose from.
Starz Play Arabia is a joint venture between the US entertainment company Starz Inc, and Parsifal Group, a developer of platforms for video-on-demand services.
The new venture launched operations in April, offering a streaming service of mainly Hollywood content to subscribers in 17 countries across the Middle East and North Africa. The company is headquartered in Dubai and has offices in Madrid and Luxembourg.
Starz Play Arabia marks the first attempt by Starz Inc, which is the majority shareholder in the venture, to tap markets outside of the US market. And judging by what Sheikh says, the US company sees plenty of potential for VoD services in the MENA region and Asia.
“Starz Entertainment as a group is the largest premium channel network in the US. They have over 57 million subscribers in the US, more than any other network,” Sheikh says.
“They are really big in the US but have no other venture outside of US. So we have launched this venture with a vision to take the Starz Play platform that we have developed into markets in the Middle East and Africa. We are getting started in MENA and we will eventually expand into Asia.”
Initially, Sheikh sees most potential for the service in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait owing to the popularity of US content and also the well-developed broadband networks and high penetration of tablets and smartphones. “I think the GCC countries will be the initial market adopters,” he says.
However, he is also optimistic about North Africa, with large young populations in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco holding significant potential.
While Starz Play Arabia is not yet present in Asia, Sheikh says that the company is looking to launch in two countries, although it is still in the process of doing research to determine which countries will provide the best opportunity.
“We are looking at two more markets that will perhaps give us access to a large mobile broadband base. We will be finalising those plans in the next few months. We think being based here and with this platform we can launch in additional markets rather rapidly. We are currently analysing several markets but our goal is to focus, after a certain evaluation, on two markets,” Sheikh says.
While the size of the video-consuming population in the MENA region is already large and growing, it is also home to other VoD platforms. Icflix, the first pure VoD platform to launch in the region back in July 2013, offers subscribers across the MENA region a variety of Bollywood, Hollywood and Jazwood content for a monthly fee.
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The service is also trying to lure new users with a limited amount of free content, allowing users to experience the platform before subscribing.
Dubai-based pay-TV broadcaster OSN followed soon after with its own dedicated VoD platform, called Go by OSN, in May 2014. Other platforms such as MyHD and various catch-up TV operations from linear TV providers also present a certain level of competition to the VoD players.
So how does Sheikh view the playing field? Firstly, he insists that Starz Play Arabia has some clear differentiators compared to its direct rivals, with one of the major factors being content.
“We have got almost 1000 movies at launch,” Sheikh says. “We’re starting with about 3,000 hours and by year end we will grow to about 5,000.” He adds that some titles on pay-windows – a period that typically lasts six to nine months – will be moved out when they go free-to-air. As films are moved out, they will be replaced with other movies that are moving from theatrical release into the six month pay window.
“It will be on a rolling basis. Our goal is to, by the end of the year, maintain about a total of about 5,000 hours,” Sheikh says.
One advantage that Starz Play will have over some of its rivals is its relationship with Starz Inc, which will give it a broad base of premium Hollywood content. In the US, Starz Inc has linear channels under the brands Starz and Encore.
It also has a digital platform in the US under the brand Starz Play. The company essentially has two businesses in the US; a premium channel network on cable DTH and online through Starz Play, and a production arm.
“Some of Starz’s famous shows are Spartacus, Vikings, Black Sails and Outliner. They are doing premium series just like their counterparts.”
As well as benefiting from Starz material, the Dubai-based operation also has numerous deals in place to give it a broad catalogue of material.
“The interesting thing with our venture is that even though we are Starz Play we have an exclusive content deal with Showtime. These guys are competitors in US but we are partners here.” The result is that subscribers to Starz Play Arabia can watch premium series from Showtime such as Under the Dome and Penny Dreadful.
“Today we have deals with over 14 different studios and suppliers, we have got really strong partnerships with major studios like Disney, CBS, Sony, Warner, Paramount, and Lionsgate, Shine, MGM – the list goes on,” Sheikh says.
“We have movie output deals with these studios. What that means is that we will have movies in a certain pay window so these movies will be available exclusively on VoD service on our platform. Then on top of that we are focusing on series which we think are a big driver for digital services around the world.”
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Furthermore, with a growing trend of binge viewing, Starz Play Arabia carries the full catalogue of some older serials such as Dexter, a Showtime drama produced between 2006 and 2013.
“We have certain series that are box sets of shows that have aired in the region. For example with Dexter, you can watch the entire box set of seven seasons, and the same thing with Tudors. These are perhaps older shows but you have the entire box set, we have several of those.
“On top of giving some of your favourite shows in a complete box set format, we will have new shows that are completely exclusive, not just on digital but against all forms of exhibition, for example Bloodline, is completely exclusive to our platform,” Sheikh says.
This series, which was produced by Netflix, was released in the MENA region by Starz Play Arabia the day after it was made available in the US. Penny Dreadful from Showtime is another show that is exclusively available on Starz Play Arabia and released at the same time as it was released in the US.
“We are doing a bit of both; box sets of old previous shows as well as betting on about 30 series that are going to be exclusive on our platform going forward,” Sheikh says.
While Starz Play Arabia clearly has some strong content partnerships arranged, including with Netflix, is Sheikh not concerned with that operator’s plan to expand globally? It is, after all, a service that could alter the Middle East’s VoD scene overnight.
Or maybe not. Having experienced first-hand the complexity of launching a VoD platform tailored for the Middle East, Sheikh believes that Starz Play will already have a major advantage in the region if and when a global player such as Netflix decides to dip its toe in the region’s waters.
“Netflix is a powerful brand and it is becoming a global phenomenon, but we also think that we built this service from ground up for this region, so the ability to show dual track in English and Arabic, subtitling and the interface being available in Arabic, and the CDN being optimised for this region,” Sheikh says.
“With the combination of all these things we are delivering a service that is tailor made for this region and we hope to be able to compete on those attributes.”
While some analysts are concerned about the viability of multiple VoD platforms in the region, Sheikh is keen to point out that in other markets including some of the Nordic countries, several VoD platforms have co-existed for a number of years.
The low price point of many VoD services, their convenience, and the broad choice of content are all factors that encourage people to subscribe, even when they have linear TV and possibly even subscribe to a pay-TV network, Sheikh says.
Starz Play Arabia’s platform was developed from scratch by Parsifal Entertainment Group in Madrid, although members of the development team that worked on the project had previously worked on a VoD platform for HBO Nordic.
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Sheikh makes clear that no effort was spared to develop a robust, user friendly platform, from the look and feel of the customer-facing site to the nuts and bolts behind the scenes.
“The technology architecture is built on integration of best of breed components, so we have integrated over 20 different best of breed software components, and each one of these is a leader in its space,” Sheikh says.
“There are four main areas of this platform. At the core we have a video management and video workflow management engine and then we have a DRM [Digital Rights Management] product that essentially manages the security and digital rights aspect of it, and then the other big area is related to subscriber management and billing, and finally there is a whole area for data analytics and network analytics.
It’s very important for us to be able to analyse how the network is performing and how we can optimise the service for the customer,” he adds.
The main focus was “making sure it works” and giving the site an immersive, clean look and feel. “We’ve made it simple, it’s not cluttered,” Sheikh says, adding that all of the content is in HD.
“The way we have set up our platform it is really optimised for three things: for the device you are using, the network bandwidth that is available to you, and finally for the type of network you are on – mobile versus fixed line,” he adds.
Viewers can watch content from the platform on pretty much any device, from a smart TV or a TV connected to an internet-enabled device, or users can watch content directly on their laptop, tablet or smartphone.
The service requires either a regular WiFi or 3G connection and does not need to buffer for more than a few seconds because Starz Play Arabia’s CDN is in the region. Users can also switch languages while watching most of the content, which is all subtitled in Arabic and English.
Viewers can also choose to watch most of the content dubbed in Arabic, and Sheikh confirms that French language content will also start to appear on the platform by the end of the year.
To ensure the platform is extremely reliable, Starz Play Arabia is routing its network traffic on multiple CDNs. This means that if one CDN starts to become congested, the streaming will automatically switch to another CDN, and the content will be delivered seamlessly to the subscriber who will not see any glitch in the service.
“Say you are at an airport in Riyadh and you are watching one of our shows. If that CDN gets congested we will dynamically re-route your traffic while that stream is active to the second CDN, which might be better performing, so we are constantly optimising and balancing the traffic across multiple CDNs and we have a technology platform and algorithm that helps us do that. That is important because we are operating in 17 different countries and so the ability to offer an optimised CDN is extremely important.”
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Sheikh says that once built, it took about three months to optimise and test the platform extensively before the team felt comfortable launching it.
The company has retained a core development and product team in Madrid and also has an office in Luxembourg. “We are also strengthening the technical and the operational resources in the Dubai office and we are quickly running out of space here,” Sheikh says, as he took Digital Broadcast on a tour of the office.
“We developed a platform really for multi – language environment because you need to be able to support subtitles, Arabic characters, and we needed the interface to be in English and Arabic.
As we go into other markets in Asia and Africa we want our interface to be able to be adaptable to that local language, but we will remain headquartered in Dubai because we see from the UAE we can access markets in Africa and Asia,” Sheikh says.
Sheikh is reluctant to give specific targets in terms of subscribers and return on investment. He says that 2015 is really about delivering a stable, quality experience and service to the customers, and listening to their feedback.
“This is a new category and a completely new service in a very technology savvy part of the world. We want to deliver a quality experience, see how customers are consuming content, listen to their feedback and really next year will be when we can start to say ‘based on the trends X, Y and Z this is what we think we can do in 2016’.”
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Residents of Dubai may well be familiar with adverts for Starz Play adorning buildings, lamp posts and bill boards, but there has also been a heavy focus on digital.
“The beauty about digital marketing is that you can test what works and what doesn’t,” Sheikh says. “There is visibility and proper measured feedback as well. For example before I commit a serious investment on one campaign I can test 20 different campaigns and see which is performing the best.”
The marketing team can also drill into the metrics and see which campaigns work best for different serials and films.
“For each campaign we might have several moving attributes so for example we can test between campaigns for Penny, Bloodline and Avengers and see which one of these sticks the most and we can test the messaging between 30-day free trial versus one month and see which one people respond better to,” he adds.
“There might be certain messaging that works for tablets versus another messaging that works for phones, so the digital marketing and its execution really helps you test and analyse before you make big commitments.”
When asked about the development of Starz Play Arabia’s platform, the company’s CTO, Saleem Bhatti, said: “Our primary aim was to create a platform that could service the core tenants of the business - video delivery, customer management, data production, analytics plus integration.
We built an end to end technology stack that services the entire operational needs of the business that scales. Our platform is built on cutting edge video technologies integrated with monetisation and customer management capabilities that scale to service our 17 territories.
The team faced numerous challenges when developing the platform, not least the DRM. “There were a lot of fluctuations in the DRM market with the main browser players jockeying for position in the market place to serve their own DRM technology,” Bhatti says.
“We had to make some late decisions on using the best DRM, ensuring that it was fit for purpose and serviced our launch devices. The decisions proved to be highly successful. Going forward - we’ll continue to roll out multiple DRMs through the year targeting the devices that our subscribers spend their time on.”
The methods of payment aspect of the platform also proved be a challenge. Reaching customers throughout payment methods they are comfortable with is very important. “There is a lack of trust in online credit card payments, and in many areas customers do not have credit cards. We are adding more methods of payments from direct operator billing, prepaid cards and scratch cards to complement existing payment options and give people choice,” Bhatti adds.