Earlier this week, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri announced that he will be temporarily shutting down his family-owned TV station, Future TV, after being on air for 26 years.
“It is with great regret I announce today a decision to suspend the work of Future TV and payment of dues to the channel’s employees. This is due to the same financial reasons that led to the closure of the newspaper Al-Mustaqbal,” said Hariri in a statement.
Hariri explained that it is essential that “the people of Future TV, all the Lebanese public, and the Arab brothers know that the channel will not be shut down and the decision is not to suspend its work permanently and turn it into a part of the past. The channel is rather announcing the end of a period of its journey to be able to address the accumulated financial burdens.”
According to Middle East Monitor, “Future TV employees have been on strike since early August over unpaid wages, a crisis that has continued for years but has aggravated in recent months.”
AMEinfo also heard of this first-hand from a disgruntled employee working for the station. He is one of about 300 employees and freelancers working for the troubled station.
An ailing media sector
The station had been suffering from financial woes for many years, a trend reflected by the majority of the media industry, be it TV, magazines, or newspapers.
Lebanese newspapers Al-Mustaqbal and Assafir have all shut down in recent years following competition from digital media outlets. These newspapers have had to forego their print versions to go online. ‘If you can’t beat them, join them,’ goes the saying after all.
PM Hariri said: “The channel is preparing for a new phase in which it looks forward to resuming its work in the upcoming months, in a way that shines on Lebanon and the Arabs with a media and news version that matches the available capabilities and emulates the Lebanese people in their national, economic, social, and development interests.”
Given international trends and major moves by some big names, digital is certainly the way to go.
Customer expectations have changed
Today, customer expectations have changed. If we look at the meteoric rise of Netflix and other streaming services, viewers no longer want to be tied down by broadcasting schedules, nor bombarded by ads. They want to view content at their own pace, at their desired time, and want to be able to stop midway and pick up where they left off an hour, day or even a month later. Naturally, TV’s rigid structure doesn’t allow this.
With the switch to online, advertisers have had to redirect their attention. Unsurprisingly, and according to data firm Zenith, worldwide online advertising spend surpassed TV ad spend for the first time in 2017.
Around the world, TV channels are finding ways to fulfill these changing expectations. US-based HBO, of Game of Thrones fame, traditionally offers a subscription service to watch its content on TV. Keeping with the times, HBO identified that users wanted more from HBO’s service. They wanted to watch their shows at their own convenience, and HBO noticed.
Enter HBO Go, the company’s streaming service and answer to new-age competitors such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.
British national television station and broadcasting group the BBC has also tweaked its business model in previous years. It launched its streaming service, iPlayer, in 2007, anticipating a change in consumer watching habits. Prior to the service’s launch, the BBC had expected half a million users to tune in to the service within the first 6 months. However, a mere 3 weeks after launch, 3.5 million programmes had been streamed or downloaded already. The BBC was clearly onto something.
Regionally, some TV stations have similarly anticipated the change in consumer viewing habits. Saudi-owned MBC Group debuted its own Video On Demand (VOD) platform in 2010, Shahid.net, to allow viewers in the Middle East to catch up on previously aired content and view exclusive online content. This allowed Arab users a degree of convenience unavailable to them before. Previously, MBC Group had launched Shahid’s precursor, MBC Shahid Online, in 2007, which only provided previously-aired content to users.
It’s not only TV stations that are investing in online video services
Today, many companies from different industries are dabbling with VOD platforms.
Social media giant Facebook is trying to push towards a VOD platform that can rival the biggest names in the industry. Their Facebook Watch service, which is integrated into the main Facebook offering, combines original premium content with user-generated material.
“Three months since our global launch [in 2018], there are already more than 400 million people monthly and 75 million people daily who spend at least one minute on Watch — and on average, these 75 million daily visitors spend more than 20 minutes in Watch,” Facebook revealed at the of last year in a blog post.
This week, Facebook launched some hardware to bolster its video offerings, The device is called Portal TV.
YouTube, already a massive video platform, engaged in something similar, dubbing it YouTube Premium. Premium allows users to watch all YouTube content with no ads, as well as providing them with original content akin to Netflix-produced shows or Facebook Watch-exclusive content.
E-commerce giant Amazon has dabbled in VOD too, also opting for a video platform of their own, known as Amazon Prime Video. It hosts unique shows such as Grand Tour.
Is the death of TV looming?
All these non-TV brands entering the already competitive video streaming market will create even more friction for traditional TV stations. Could we see TV go extinct entirely in coming years?
It’s quite possible. After all, Zenith predicted last year that we will spend more time daily on the internet in 2019 than watching TV, which is a historic first. Similarly, advertisers are expected to spend $60 billion more on internet than TV advertising in 2019 globally.
“The consumption of online video is growing rapidly, and the average person will spend half as much time viewing online video as they spend viewing conventional television this year,” said Jonathan Barnard, Head of Forecasting at Zenith. “This fast-expanding supply of audiences is fuelling rapid growth in demand from advertisers, making online video the fastest-growing digital channel by advertising expenditure.”
With improving internet speeds in the Middle East, online viewership will sooner or later parallel international trends. The question is whether traditional TV stations will be able to adapt fast enough before the Arab World mirrors the international norm.