On demand, in demand

Reim El Houni discusses her ambition to create a vibrant online channel for Dubai
Reim El Houni, CEO and founder of Dubai-based production company Ti22 Films
Reim El Houni, CEO and founder of Dubai-based production company Ti22 Films
Rigging up a car for a shoot in Dubai.
Rigging up a car for a shoot in Dubai.
Dalia Dogmoch will present a regular cooking show on Dubai On Demand.
Dalia Dogmoch will present a regular cooking show on Dubai On Demand.

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Video on demand is often portrayed as a harbinger of doom for mainstream TV channels, eroding advertising revenues, leaching viewers and in the process reducing the ability of channels to provide quality local content.

But increasingly, video on demand platforms appear to be doing precisely the opposite, and can in fact pick up the slack where linear TV models are unable to deliver the goods. Dubai On Demand, the soon-to-be-launched online channel catering to niche segments of Dubai’s population, is one case in point.

The online channel, which is the brainchild of Reim El Houni, CEO and founder of Dubai-based production company Ti22 Films, is set to launch later this year and will feature regular programmes from nine popular locally-based presenters.

El Houni came up with the idea for the channel after Dubai One, one of the only English language channels in the UAE that carried local content, closed down local production in late 2014. Shortly after, Ti22 – the parent company of Dubai On Demand announced its plan to launch an online channel with presenters including fashion de-signer Tamara Al Gabbani, food writer and presenter Dalia Dogmoch, and presenter Tom Urquhart. A number of these presenters had also worked on local production at Dubai One.

“It’s very exciting because it’s building a lot of momentum, El Houni says. “All nine of our presenters are committed and are still on board. We’ve been filming with them regularly and really this year has been very much about us having a soft launch.”

Indeed, as many viewers have already seen, Dubai on Demand has already aired a significant amount of content on its home, YouTube, giving a taste of what the channel will feel like once it is officially launched. The content offers a varied mix catering to diverse but niche interests, from eating out, makeup and fashion to extreme sports, the content reaches out to a broad spectrum of the population.

The soft launch has also given El Houny and her team an opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t, with viewer comments on YouTube and social media offering valuable guidance.

“We’ve been testing the content that we have, offering tasters for each presenter and their niche sector, seeing what’s working or not working and tweaking it along the way.”

El Houni admits that this process is vastly different to generating new content for a mainstream TV channel, where a pilot programme would be assessed more rigorously internally before being aired in public. “For us it is all valuable feedback. Our content sits on Youtube but we share it across all social media channels as well. We sit down and assess on a monthly basis which videos have far exceeded what our expectations would have been and which ones maybe fell short of the mark for whatever reason. We look at factors which could have contributed to the success or failure and then make tweaks to the next videos we do. It’s been a good learning experience and we have made some great fun content, and fans seem to be enjoying it, which is great.”

When the channel launches, El Houni says that there will be greater consistency in terms of the programmes from each presenter. “If you’ve been on the channel in the last year what you will have seen is us showcasing each of our presenters in short clips. We haven’t really been able to develop the consistency for any one show Once we launch, viewers will be able to watch their favourite presenter, whether it’s Aishwarya Ajit or Tom Urquhart, consistently on a weekly basis, whereas currently we have been rotating between our presenters and between the content. Until now it has literally been just a flavour but also about building a portfolio of our content to showcase.”

At this stage, El Houni and her team are still deciding on the precise details of the programming schedules for the official launch, and may opt for a phased approach. “We do know that the makeup with Aishwarya is likely to be the first, along with potentially Faraz Javed who has been doing a show for crossfit which has built a lot of momentum.”

In terms of the type of content that the shows are focusing on, El Houni says that the idea was to focus on niche content. She holds the crossfit show up as a prime example of this. “Crossfit is a show that is focused on the crossfit community, but we have taken that specific niche and audience and are giving them something that they can watch on a weekly basis. Similarly Aish is very focused on makeup. Each presenter has a very specific niche. With us it is almost a channel of niches and I think that is a good thing because hopefully over time we will develop enough shows where there will be something for everybody.

“We’re not trying to cater to everyone all at once so I don’t expect you to watch everything on it but if you happen to be a fan of food then Dalia has got some interesting cooking tips on there and Tom has been visiting some interesting restaurants. Perhaps those are the only two that you’ll watch and that’s fine, so it’s providing something that viewers are interested in consistently,” she says.

El Houni and the team settled on this niche approach after studying what type of local content works best in other parts of the world. “I did a market research study last year to see what people are watching online and I am a big believer in presenters working on topics that they are naturally passionate about. It was really just looking at their interests and focusing on that content first.”

Furthermore, Dubai On Demand also intends to engage with its viewers through social media. “I am big believer in niche networking, it’s not about reaching everybody but it’s about having a high level of engagement with the fans that you are talking to.”

El Houni points out that the channel is already gathering momentum on social networking channels. “Currently on our Facebook page our engagement is at 46% which is incredibly high for a Facebook page.” El Houni adds that while the actual numbers of ‘likes’ could be higher she is not too concerned because the level of engagement is high, indicating that the followers are genuine fans.

While a loyal following is important, this also has to be converted into revenues and profit if the channel is to survive and thrive. El Houni views sponsorship from brands as holding significant potential. “At the moment what has been beneficial for brands has been getting involved with sponsorship for some of the content that we have, so whether it’s integrated into some of the existing shows or potentially customising a show specifically for where a brand can fit in,” El Houni says.

One example where this has already taken place is the crossfit show, which already has Fitness First as a partner. This has also brought the advantage of giving the show additional exposure through the brand’s own customers and fan base of social media.

El Houni is convinced that this type of sponsorship will be instrumental in making the channel a commercial success without compromising the content in any way. “The goal is still to make sure that we are producing good content that viewers want to watch, and whatever brand is involved is integrated in a more subliminal, natural way. But that seems to be our strongest revenue model at the moment.

“There are so many brands out there and I know from my experience with Ti22 that a lot of my existing clients are looking for new ways to reach consumers. They are look-ing for new ways to have interesting content that doesn’t quite sell them but can communicate who they are and what they do in a subtle way.

“Over time, especially as the awareness of our channel grows, people will start to see that it is a good fit and a possible route of tapping an audience who are all on their phones and all watching content online,” she adds.

In terms of resources for running and developing Dubai On Demand, the venture has benefitted from existing resources at Ti22 and support from another company called Digitally Studios, which has helped with crew and kit. El Houni says that one producer from Ti22 is dedicated to working solely on Dubai On Demand.

“We have been fortunate that with the partners and collaborators we are leaning on their existing resources to support us where we have a need,” El Houni says, adding that Dubai On Demand’s social media has been managed by a company called Digital Nexa.

But with the official launch imminent, Dubai On Demand will require more resources and investment, and with it, access to funds. El Houni is looking at various options “I’ve spent a big part of this year looking at investment options and funding options. I’ve been down all roads.” El Houni has looked at the merits of venture capital, angel investors and even crowd funding. “I think that crowd funding is good and would be relevant to what we are trying to do with Dubai On Demand, because we are trying to build that fan base and get people involved, so I haven’t ruled that out. I’m considering a combination of funding as well,” she adds.

And for El Houni, engagement with viewers and fans of the channel will be key to its success. She points to the online collaborative channel, Hitrecord, as an example of the power of collaboration. “They have people collaborating from all over the world to produce content which is then used in the channel I like that because I like interactivity.

“From our perspective we want to reach a point where the local community are engaged, send us content, and become part of our episodes. I think that is the benchmark for me.”

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