The Middle East and North Africa region is witnessing a growing demand for subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) services and over-the-top (OTT) services. UAE’s homegrown digital start-up Starz Play is leading the way with one million subscribers, showcasing a staggering 300 percent year-on-year growth, the company announced at a press meet today.
Starz Play has a market share of 24 percent among online video subscriptions and a market share of 31.5 percent in online video revenues in the MENA region, which outdoes its renowned competitors such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.
“In an increasingly competitive space, we have managed to differentiate our offering to the benefit of the customer, through working closely with partner telecom providers to offer subscribers a payment method that does not rely only on online subscription, as well as by investing in world-class content that people want to watch and watch again,” said Maaz Sheikh, CEO and co-Founder of Starz Play.
Starz Play in the MENA region
For those who aren’t familiar with the brand yet, Starz Play is a subscription video-on-demand service that streams Hollywood movies, TV shows, documentaries, kids’ entertainment, and same-day-as-the-U.S. series. Additionally, it also has dedicated Arabic and Bollywood content available in 20 countries across the Middle East, North Africa, and Pakistan.
Based on mobile-number based subscription, Starz Play provides full HD and 4K content via most internet-enabled devices, smart TVs and game consoles, and is widely available on regional IPTV services. Similar to Netflix, the Starz Play app is also available on iOS and Android, with the possibility of offline downloads and playbacks – and it has already been downloaded on more than three million devices.
Starz Play permits for one account to have logins on five different devices, as well as two concurrent streams. This means that while you watch a TV show, movie or documentary on one device, a friend or a family member can watch something else on another device at the same time.
AMEinfo spoke exclusively to Starz Play CEO Maaz Sheikh on the company and the outlook for the industry.
Q: What makes Starz Play stand out from its competition?
Maaz Sheikh: Our market research has risen and developed to a point where we know exactly what people in the MENA region want to watch. We continue to get surprised by audiences; we continue to connect with the millennials; we continue to learn. For instance, we have noticed that people in the Middle East love comedy, so we have brought excellent options to them.
The most important thing is that we have the shows people want to watch. The more Netflix does its original shows, the more Universal or CBS or others will say that they’re going to push their content exclusively to Starz Play. This exclusivity in content helps us stand out and outdo Netflix in terms of revenues generated. The latest seasons of Vikings, Grey’s Anatomy, for example, are available only on Starz Play but are not on Netflix. On the other hand, Netflix does not have a single episode of Billions or Big Bang Theory but Starz Play has it all. So it’s a combination of the latest seasons of some shows that we have, and some exclusive shows that we have, that Netflix does not.
There is no cable, dish, antenna or set-top box. There is no need for a long-term contract, whether 12-month or 24-month contracts. This is because we have understood the consumer. We give our customer the choice and the flexibility to join us any time they want and leave any time they want.
In terms of payments, there are three points that stand out. One, Starz Play is doing something different in providing the option of paying for the subscription on a weekly basis rather than a month up-front. Second, we have studied the market and have gotten our price points correct for each market, lower than the competition. Third, customers have the option of paying their bills along with their phone bills, instead of adding their credit or debit cards as a mode of payment.
We also have a strong personalization that is not only English-driven but also Arabic driven. Our services read Arabic and French metadata and can recommend and personalize the consumer experience, which other SVOD service providers do not do.
Q: SVOD revenues in MENA are predicted to reach $2.1 billion by 2024, up from $1.5 billion in 2018. Starz Play, which has witnessed its revenue triple year-on-year. What are the prime drivers enabling this revenue growth?
Maaz Sheikh: There are two things that make SVOD and OTT very powerful in the MENA region.
The first is the age demographics. 70 percent of the population in the MENA region is under 30 years. The population demographics are heavily skewed toward younger people and millennials. This behavior of this generation has been conditioned by YouTube and the likes, and they are not used to flipping channels; they have little experience with traditional television. As more millennials move out of their parents’ homes and get their own place to stay, they are moving to OTT and SVOD forms of media and entertainment instead of traditional TV channels. This is an important change in consumer behavior.
The second reason is that in the MENA region, there has always been a strong demand for content – both Bollywood and Arabic. The Arabic content demands have been traditionally met by TV channels such as NBC, Dubai TV, Abu Dhabi TV , which are extremely successful. Hollywood content and Bollywood content on the other hand, although still popular, have been at unaffordable price points for the average person. Therefore, meeting the demand for good content at an affordable price point has helped make SVODs a powerful service in the region.
Q: What are the major trends that we are witnessing in the subscription-VOD platforms?
Maaz Sheikh: On the content side, comedy as a genre has surprised us. We knew that action, thriller, horror as genres work in the region. We have lots of those shows. We have, however, been very pleased by the comedy genre performing very well. Our comedy catalog has been updated with Parks & Recreation, Big Bang Theory, and The Office.
When it comes to methods of payments – a mobile payment that is bundled with a fixed broadband line or your phone bill continues to be the most popular payment method. This is because people want to pay one bill. The convenience of having just one bill – and not having to use a credit card if they don’t want to. Netflix requires a credit or debit card for payment, but we don’t.
We have also plan to have our own original show. We will have serialized dramas and TV shows – seven or eight episodes – that will be made available as a package to our customers.
With all our major telecom providers, we are also hosting our content inside their networks. So what that does is – accessing Starz Play on an Etisalat or Saudi Telecom Company makes the app and the content load very fast. This is part of our partnership with them. We’ve done this with all major networks. Rather than merely relying on public CDN networks only, such as Akamai Level 3, we also host our content inside major telco networks so that consumers don’t face any delays. This shows our concentration on localizing our delivery.
Recommendations and personalizations are also key. These are two different things. In terms of recommendations, for instance, if you watch Vikings, we will recommend Knightfall to you; if you’ve watched Grey’s Anatomy, we will also recommend House. Secondly, we personalize the content specifically for each consumer. This is region-specific- what a person in Saudi Arabia or Algeria is provided is different from what you in the UAE are provided, but it also person-specific – if you like to watch comedies, your home screen on Starz Play will show more comedies for you to have a look at; and if you like action movies, you’ll be given more action movies to choose from.
In the near future, OTT and linear television will co-exist. You have very strong TV channels in the market with very compelling Arabic content. TV viewing in this part of the world continues to be a family experience. Live TV in terms of news, sports also seems to be leaning toward linear television. Meanwhile, OTT is catching up very quickly, but to estimate when the tipping point will come or when that crossover will happen is hard to predict. As millennials and younger generations move into their own homes and become independent, the shift is going to be more pronounced.