Digital Pioneer: Intigral’s Tony Saab on how Jawwy TV can change the MENA OTT landscape

After launching the Jawwy TV app, Intigral is poised to launch a Jawwy TV OTT integrated set top box in KSA. Can Intigral’s Homebox disrupt the MENA entertainment landscape?
Tony Saab believes the experience of TV is changing: young viewers watch more online media
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Tony Saab believes the experience of TV is changing: young viewers watch more online media

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Tony Saab, VP of Products and Content at Intigral is at the helm of a major new project set to hit the regional broadcast & OTT market over the coming months. Jawwy TV is their newly launched digital platform, with which they want to make a huge impact in the way media and entertainment is consumed in the region.

Intigral’s business model is based on working with the entire M&E ecosystem: broadcasters, telcos, content producers and media rights owners. Intigral represents a new kind of media aggregator with plans to make JawwyTV the ultimate OTT entertainment service in the region – a sort of Entertainment as a Service platform for the digital consumer.

In April, Intigral launched the Jawwy TV app as their first standalone application. The Jawwy TV mobile app was launched in KSA, Bahrain and Kuwait in time for the Ramadan period, with a free one month trial period to help users try out the streaming video service.

In the next stage of the JawwyTV plan, Intigral is gearing up to roll out a Set Top Box (STB) product this month. The Jawwy TV Homebox which has an integrated OTT element, will feature all of their premium content including the Saudi Football League. Last February, Saudi Telecom Company (STC) secured the exclusive broadcast rights to the Saudi Premier League for the next ten years. Intigral which started out as a joint venture to provide content aggreagation is now a wholly owned subsidiary of STC. STC took a majority share in the company 18 months ago, in order to establish Intigral as the media and technology arm of the Middle East’s largest telecom operator.

Setting sights on OTT

The initial launch of the Homebox is limited to Saudi Arabia, with Kuwait and Bahrain coming soon after, and the rest of MENA planned in the coming months. For a monthly subscription fee of $8, Jawwy TV offers live TV as well as more than 7,000 video assets, thanks to partnerships with a wide range of content owners and broadcasters.

Saab is leading the execution of an ambitious plan to build an OTT product that aggregates the best of live TV and video-on-demand content in a single platform for the Middle East and eventually Arabic speaking viewers around the world. Saab stresses multiple times during the interview on the fact that Intigral has lofty ambitions. The aim is to be number one - or at least among the biggest OTT players in the MENA region.

Payment for the app is presently limited to direct carrier billing, though other options are set to be added soon. “Our app is in three countries now – Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. We are finalizing now more payment methods, so it will be available soon as a B2C product as well – so any consumer in the region can subscribe,” he says.

“Our roadmap is very very intense, and we are trying to develop a product in order to match all the major OTT players in the world, but it will be dedicated for MENA content.”

To that end they continue to explore agreements with numerous players, in addition to creating original content and acquiring Arabic content.

Saab explains: “What we are doing is also we have started creating our own original content to be positioned as our USP on our app. As you know, for now very few OTT players have both live TV and SVOD content.”

This differentiates Intigral’s product and other video on demand services in the market. The Homebox will have both free-to-air and encrypted TV channels. A basic bouquet will be available and subscribers can upgrade based on their requirement. Saab emphasizes the fact that streaming live linear television is a big part of Jawwy TV service model.

“Some partners only have a lite version on JawwyTV, and we have 40% fewer linear channels than the box. And you have 7,000-plus assets as VOD. So today the OTT product has both linear TV and SVOD content, whether it is the set top box or the digital app.”

Saab tells us that JawwyTV is soon set to expand across the region. “We are aiming to be in the whole of MENA as soon as possible. Our USP is our original Arabic content and the Saudi Premier League. We have our own drama productions, will have almost 1,000 exclusive assets, and we are also buying first window rights to some content. We aim to start our own productions and co-productions, starting July,” he adds.

“Recently as you know we acquired the Saudi premier league rights so we are planning to roll out a DTH platform for the Saudi Premier League. We are working with partners or we will do it ourselves – soon enough we will know.”

Another streaming app built by Intigral called Dawri Plus, helps STC activate its digital sports rights with an innovative OTT solution tailored around the passion of its customers for football. The platform enables customers to watch games while enjoying a second screen experience with inbuilt fantasy gaming and social media interactivity. Saab has big expectations of user growth via the sports app and believes sports content will really drive subscriber adoption.

“On Dawri Plus, our sports app we will broadcast the SPL - This will give a big push in the region especially in KSA. Soon enough we will be among the number one player in the region.”

Owning the technology

Saab explains why Intigral’s OTT platform is well positioned for such an ambitious growth plan: “What also gives us leverage in the market is that we operate an end to end ecosystem, and we have designed a business model that covers the acquisition (as a content aggregator), production, delivery, and on the technology side we from ingest to delivery. So we own the full ecosystem including our own CDN.”

This ownership of the entire broadcast chain is a crucial advantage for Intigral he believes. “This is something very few OTT players have,” says Saab.

Intigral has over the last nine years invested in developing its own end-to-end video solution for OTT/IPTV players, telcos and pay-tv operators alike. Operating out of their Dubai Studio City offices and having invested in regional data centers, they have established an enterprise level full service, turnkey solution for state-of-the-art video delivery.

This allows them to be in control of Jawwy TV’s end-to-end ecosystem, from buying the rights and receiving the material to ingesting it, securing it through its DRM, and delivering the VOD and streaming services through its own in-house CDN to multiple countries in the MENA region.

“This puts us in control of the service end to end. We also have deals through our rights to peer with multiple telcos in the international hub exchange, and this will enhance the user experience and avoid buffering,” Saab adds.

When Tony shows us how the Jawwy TV mobile app works on his mobile device, the viewing experience seems quite seamless - a zero latency live TV viewing experience that’s on par with DTH.

With the technology in place to deliver a great user experience, Intigral has focused their efforts on creating an offering that can compete with the leaders in terms of the breadth and quality of content on offer.

“The JawwyTV Homebox is a platform that can serve everybody without competing – because we created a platform with the reach and the billing system so everybody can benefit. Everybody can benefit including Intigral,” adds Saab.

“This is why you can find that StarzPlay is with us, Wide Khaleeji, Blu TV, and OSN, among others. Now we are talking to other major players in the world to have their content integrated in our offering. We are working on the integration with MBC Shahid and we have YouTube also.”

“So I believe at a point of time it (Jawwy TV) will be a one stop shop for content in the region.”

Acquiring Reach: premium content + user experience

Having a large appealing content library is imperative for success in the OTT space. With content acquisition such an important part of the strategy, how does Intigral approaches content partnerships?

“It depends,” he says. “With some of them it is a revenue share and some of them have a branded area model – where we brand the area as their product. We have a revenue agreement with them over promotion – it’s a percentage revenue share in most cases. But we are looking more for a branded area so the content supplier will have their brand promoted in our platform and we benefit from the good products on our platform.”

Saab is optimistic they can strike deals with world wide VOD leaders like Netflix. “To be honest we approached them 2 years back before we launched Jawwy TV. We reinitiated the discussion recently but at this point we don’t know what will happen, but I feel positive about it,” he says.

Saab says that integrating content from partners be tricky in some cases. “Some players have very rigid rules and we need to see how we can handle them. Sometimes they have requirements that need to be studied, because we don’t want to add something that hurts the product on the technology side.

For Ramadan, Intigral acquired exclusive digital rights to several Ramadan series including Haroun al Rasheed and Warda el Shamiah. Saab expects the original and exclusive content on the platform to gather pace in the next six months and really take off next year.

“We are in agreement with the major studios in Hollywood, Bollywood and Arabic films. We have also Turkish content on the platform. I believe in Q3 and Q4 there will be more focus on our original content and exclusive window one original content – as we adopt our strategy and where we want to be. Hopefully by next year we will be offering multiple series which are first window exclusive on our platform.”

He adds that  we are in an era where viewers look for premium content on demand. “All the blockbusters you see in the theatre will be on our platform. Some of the big studios grants us such rights. However in the future studios will come more and more on the OTT side of things – today they are afraid of piracy, but if everyone is moving towards OTT then the studios also have to move there. Everybody is coming (to OTT), studios like Disney and Fox they are all moving there. So we will be able to secure all the content we need for our platform.”

Considering how well the Jawwy TV app launch has gone, Saab is optimistic about the growth of the service: “The first months we did very impressive numbers and now we are starting to convert to paid users. Because we offered one month free during Ramadan we had very good numbers. It was a hockey stick like adoption.”

Saab believes eventually as Intigral start working hand in hand with STC on the box rollout, there will be even bigger adoption numbers. “Because we are intending to also have a migration plan for the existing STC Invision IPTV subscribers.”

“Now we are putting all the efforts to retain our customers. Put more content, improve the features of the app, every month. We are introducing in-app payment – you can download the app and pay through the app store or through the Google wallet or even a credit card. Hopefully next few weeks it will be on the market. This will give us a new footprint penetration and cover more subscribers. We are very optimistic to be honest.”

How quickly does he feel will investment in sports rights such as the Saudi football league deliver ROI? “Look, the sports is a difficult game because we invested a lot on the rights but we are on the right track. Because now we are monetizing on the digital platforms and on the DTH platform, this will be encrypted.

Users may shift from one platform to the other. But based on the appeal of the SPL, I think we are on the right track. Sports in KSA is the number one activity. On Dawry Plus we have 1.6 million users – although now we need to see the conversion to paid. I think we will be in a good place,” Saab states.

Win-win partnerships

“Our strategy on the OTT level we want to be among the big players in the region and hopefully after few years we will also be present internationally. Like today on the Saudi league we have international exposure – because people in the US or UK can watch it,” says Saab.

“For now we are working towards a MENA structure now to make sure that we launch, we learn and then we fix. And then eventually with the experience and subscriber base that we have, we can expand more or we can do partnerships. Today you see someone like Netflix, they are working with everyone. We are doing the same – except some political matters we are working with everyone.”

“It’s also to have the reach and our main market is Saudi – we have a big reach through our parent company STC. So once you have the big base of users then you can explore introducing more original content and not just original but appealing content.”

“The experience of TV is changing – people want to watch what they want on any device and at their convenience. Definitely broadcasters on DTH will always be there. We have to (work with broadcasters) because we are now in the DTH play as well for the SPL – or we will partner with someone solid enough for the DTH.”

This is why he says, Intigral has adopted an agnostic strategy: “We are agnostic to technology partners because we need to be working with everyone. We have a strategy and we want to achieve it. Everybody that wants to be with us – we are opening up the platform to everybody. If we find a partner that can help and it’s a win-win situation for everybody, then we will reach an agreement.”

Dealing with piracy issues

“We are working with the regulators - as you know we invested a lot of money on the sports. I believe all the broadcaster are concerned about this,” Saab says. “We work with YouTube - we have disabled lots of content on YouTube, and we served a lot of cease and desist letters to lots of pirates,” he adds. Intigral works with legal partners and solution providers he adds.

However he recognizes it is an issue that needs a long term solution. “We need to educate people on the rights of content owners. For example in regions like North Africa - It’s very hard to control this. Especially when you investing in content owned by these countries.”

“It will be hard for us to do it alone. Eventually what is helping also is that the pricing is going down on average. People can afford it – if you look at OSN, StarzPlay, Netflix and others - the package is affordable. If the consumer can get all you want to eat on a small fee – then it’s good to have it. And it’s on the go – you can watch it everywhere.”

“Pirates are pirates – nobody can stop them. Countries can try to stop them but they will always find a way. I think if all the content suppliers are hand in hand working towards this – they can cause a significant reduction in piracy.”

“This is also where the technology like DRM and encryption and watermarking, everything comes into place,” feels Saab.

Investing in OTT delivery

At an IABM organised event in Dubai last month on OTT delivery quality, Tony outlined the main reasons for starting their OTT service as a platform which will allow content from various providers to be streamed on their service. Tony explained the decisions behind the solution chosen by Intigral and the business model they will apply to generate revenue.

He pointed out that generational differences between the viewers of traditional broadcast services and the viewers of OTT services are a big reason to shift to OTT. Young viewers are watching more media on the internet than on conventional broadcast TV and most of these viewers don’t even own televisions.

Saab discusses working with ARRIS as the STB provider for HomeBox: “We have worked with them for 2 years now. We are also looking to add more technology partners to our platform. Today is only Arris but tomorrow we will look to add more. But they are one of the worldwide pioneers in STB manufacturing. We are in the middle of preparing a new RFP for a new set top box – hopefully Arris can fulfil our requirement or otherwise we have to see what the best solution is for us.”

STB’s maybe the current platform on which they are rolling out Jawwy TV, but Saab sees other devices delivering OTT services in the future: “We prefer to manage one STB provider - but definitely in the future – we may go for alternative devices – as TV everywhere comes in.”

“The STB is a burden on the OTT players, he explains. “In the future we will support Smart TVs – when you have a large OTT market it will be more plug and play – but when we integrate with telcos the STB might be needed.”

Speaking about the technology investments done by Intigral he says they have invested “a lot in our data centres. “

“We do also live censorship and offline censorship,” he points out. “We are always in the renewal phase for our equipment – some of it is 5-6 years old, so we are always in the process of renewing. This is where we are always enhancing our technology arm – as you know the phones and devices are evolving very fast. You cannot have an old system and service the iPhone X - you need to be compatible with the latest devices.”

In terms of monitoring and data analytics as well, they have partnered with several solution providers. “We have lots of monitoring tools now because we operate end to end. We know the usage minute by minute and we have a lot of reporting from the app coming to us, so we can also do our analytics internally, from the CTM level to the app itself, and to the back end. We have lots of partners than can create a very comprehensive dashboard for us. Also we have our customer care reports.”

Saab says the HomeBox rollout will be announced soon: “Everything is almost done – it’s now about the marketing and field operations for delivery of the STB’s. It’s a big job, but it can be done and hopefully we will have a good experience!

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