Even a cursory glance over recent news headlines about the broadcast industry give a fairly clear taste of the changes rocking the sector. In the past few months we’ve seen telecoms players increasingly looking to move into the content game, led by AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, which continued to inch towards regulatory approval over the summer.
Looking at the international stage, this type of deal makes sense, especially from the point of view of telecom operators that are seeing their main connectivity revenues eroded. In this case, having a share of the content that gets delivered via their network makes a lot of sense. But in the Middle East, while there has been some convergence between the telecoms and media industries, there is also another big issue at play, and that’s the push to create original Arabic content. Indeed, while broadcasters and telecom operators scramble to acquire production capability and rights in the west, the situation in the Middle East is different because content production is limited compared to markets with more developed media industries such as the US, Europe and India. Sure, Egypt is a huge hub for production, but not everything that comes out of Egypt works across the region.
But change is coming, and there is a growing desire from broadcasters and OTT streaming providers to produce a lot more of their own Arabic content.
Last month I caught up with Carlos Tibi, CEO of Icflix, who told me about his company’s ambitious content plans. As the region’s first SVOD, exclusive content has never been more important for Icflix than it is now. The company faces increased competition in the SVOD space with Starz Play, Netflix and iflix all joining the fray. But speaking to Tibi reminded me just how nuanced and complex the MENA market is, and no one factor alone, such as having the lowest price or the best access to Hollywood content, offers a guarantee of success. But having the biggest catalogue of exclusive Arabic content, in a market of 400 plus million Arabs, does appear to be a well-reasoned strategy. Interestingly, as Digital Broadcast went to press, Martin Stewart, CEO of OSN, told media that OSN would massively ramp up its Arabic production and aim to expand its subscriber based several-fold. His plans may sound ambitious, but given the very low base of pay-TV, why not set the bar high? One of the barriers holding back the pay-TV industry in the region has almost certainly been the lack of quality Arabic content. Hopefully, we are about to start seeing some real change.