Middle East Broadcasting’s (MBC) CEO Sam Barnett says that his region is already home to about 1000 channels, many of them small and serving local audiences, but that it could absorb “several thousands more”. He said 100 were launched last year, about 43 in Kurdish alone. “There are lots more to come,” he added.
Indeed, MBC has now adding to that total having won a 10-year deal to cover the extremely important Saudi Arabian soccer league. “We launched four FTA sports channels in early August which is a major departure for us. Saudi TV has part of the second division, but our rights cover Division 1, so our focus is on making sure that we can deliver the high-level international quality that MBC is famous for. We think this should work well for us. Saudis, like Arabs everywhere, are soccer mad, really passionate about their teams. King Abdullah is building 11 new stadiums across the country, so the focus is going to be huge, and a wonderful buzz about the efforts.”
MBC beams out almost all of its channels in HD, which it puts behind a soft-encryption wall to protect copyrights and Hollywood sensitivities about piracy. “We are absolutely not about pay-TV,” stressed Barnett. “We are free. But behind a pay-environment.”
Asked whether these Saudi rights could be extended, and Barnett said his Chairman had expressed the view that wider [sports] investment were possible. “But we, for the moment, just want to concentrate on the quality and coverage throughout MBC’s MENA region.”
Of course, the Egyptian football league is currently under discussion and MBC has a channel (MBC Masr) wholly concentrating on the huge Egyptian TV market. “Egyptian soccer is looked upon passionately by viewers. And MBC Masr is obviously interested in what’s available in that region. MBC Masr is very much an Egyptian channel. We have some 500 people working in Egypt, and they’ve been there for a very long time. We have an aspiration to provide the best content that would appeal to Egyptians.”
MBC’s drama output is also performing well. “We are hugely excited by our new drama series. For many years we were importing drama, and dubbing. Turkish output resonated well with our audiences. But now we have found a way to produce at a high quality the output we need, and at prices that are manageable. Our experiences is that we can create local drama with issues and topics and themes that are of interest to the region, and this will always dominate imported material. It isn’t always easy, and our new studio in Dubai as well as our existing facility in Cairo means we are well placed for the future. Our historical dramas, such as Omar, which was a hit show for us during Ramadan, have been of interest internationally. The quality of the production, as well as the very real creativity we have in the region, are coming together and will be of interest to buyers internationally.”
Barnett admitted that the political upheavals have created some headaches for production. “At a high level any political uncertainty is not helpful to a business. We, like many others, especially as an event moves from uncertainty to real trauma, then our employees are affected. We have continued operating in almost every country affected. The fact that we have some 65 different nationalities working for us helps. Pick a country, and we have a highly-skilled number of staff who know the local environment. We are not seen as outsiders, but part of the community. It helps. We continue to operate from Beirut, from Cairo, from Riyadh, from Syria and of course the Emirates.”
With new sport and drama currently being digested MBC could be excused for taking a breather. Not so. “Shahid.net has been part of the operation for some time, and was our VOD and ‘catch-up’ service. We spent some time fine-tuning and revamping the site, and earlier this year made a real breakthrough. It is now easier to use, with far improved buffering, and we have aggregated a much wider portfolio of content. And it is working. In Ramadan, it was some 200 per cent busier than in 2013 and it continues to move forward every month. People had to get into the habit but we’re now the premium site for on-line video. Seventy per cent of the access to Shahid is from mobile phones, and this is coming from everywhere. The brand is becoming well known.”
“As far as Ultra-HD is concerned I sense a huge enthusiasm from the 5000 engineers here at IBC, and that enthusiasm is shared by my engineers back in Dubai,” admitted Barnett. “We were not late with HD, but right on time for when the audience were ready. I intend to be right on time for when we can make 4K pay. This does tend to be slightly after the engineers are perhaps ready. Like HDTV I suspect that 4K will need some sort of pay-premium. The challenge for us is that we can do this fancy stuff, and make the screen better, but where is the money? We will have to find a business model where we can extract some benefit to replay those costs, which will be large. What’s exciting though is that Ultra-HD seems to have the biggest impact on sport. We were not players, but now we are. If perhaps we were to bring Ultra-HD to the Saudi league then this would be in tune with the quality that the MBC brand is known for. This not an announcement but could be an aspiration!”
“About 92-93 per cent of that huge audience view us on satellite, and we enjoy a 48 per cent market share. Our viewership is growing. Our current numbers are about 350 million, all speaking more or less the same language. About 55 million view us free-to-air. Our youth viewing is up 5 per cent.”
Barnett explained that MBC was active – and successful – in some of the world’s most closed markets, where today some countries still banned satellite reception. “The authorities in some cases still exert control at the borders and equipment can be banned. The authorities can license a broadcaster for an encrypted service and then use the threat of a cancelled license to exert pressure.”
“We decided to stay free-to-air and allow the market to bring in its own boxes and receivers. Under Saddam Hussein, satellite TV was completely banned. When the regime changed, any driver with a workable pick-up truck was driving out of Iraq to bring in every scrap of satellite equipment he could buy, such was the demand for our exciting new viewing options. Iraq now has better than 90 per cent access to satellite TV.”
“However, the downside of this somewhat anarchic distribution model is that it is extremely difficult to bring in the sort of on-line and other ‘Red Button’-type services on the hundreds of different set-top box versions. In other words free-to-air still dominates viewing. When a Palestinian contestant won last year’s Arab Idol show we had an audience of 92 million. Average viewing in Saudi Arabia is 6 hours 50 minutes. Its population is young, 50 per cent under age 25, and their viewing is up 5 per cent.