Streaming services battle Netflix for Arab audiences

Co-founder and Ceo of Starz Play Maaz Sheikh poses in his office in Dubai April 23, 2019. ― AFP pic
Co-founder and Ceo of Starz Play Maaz Sheikh poses in his office in Dubai April 23, 2019. ― AFP pic

DUBAI, May 31 ― Streaming services in the Middle East are competing for Arab audiences with US giant Netflix set to release its first Arabic production in June, chasing a slice of a potentially lucrative market.

Streaming platforms Starz Play and Wavo have emerged in recent years as local competitors to Netflix, while giant Saudi-owned TV powerhouse MBC Group announced plans for original productions as well as the acquisition of international content to boost its streaming services Shahid and Shahid Plus.

These platforms are locked in a battle to attract millions of Arab viewers throughout the year, with a special focus during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, the premier entertainment season in a region where traditional television still dominates.

Viewing spikes during the month as families traditionally settle down with soap operas after breaking their fast at sunset with the iftar meal, or during the Sahur, the pre-dawn meal.

One episode a day

Netflix has been showing four Arabic-language dramas during this year’s holy month, three being Gulf productions and one Syrian-Lebanese show.

Each has 30 episodes for the 30 days of Ramadan, and unlike the usual binge-worthy Netflix fare, tantalisingly only one episode is released each night.

“Adding these shows to our roster of licensed content during Ramadan gives our audiences the flexibility to watch the shows they want, when they want,” Artanc Savas, Netflix’s communications manager for the Middle East, Turkey and Africa, told AFP, referring to the usual fixed times of traditional TV shows.

Its closest competitor Starz Play is streaming three series ― also Arabic-language productions ― but does not see its role as taking on traditional TV.

“Competing with traditional television in Ramadan is not our strategy,” Maaz Sheikh, co-founder and CEO of Starz Play Arabia, told AFP.

“What we are trying to do is bring more and more relevant Arabic content during Ramadan to our consumers.”

An estimated 85 per cent to 90 per cent of people across the Middle East watch television, while between 25 per cent and 30 per cent watch streaming video online with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, according to Mukul Krishna, head of digital media at US-based research firm Frost & Sullivan.

Intrigue, adventure

After Ramadan, Netflix will debut on June 13 Jinn its first production in Arabic.

Filmed in Jordan, the show is a supernatural drama that follows a group of teenagers who encounter two jinns ― or supernatural figures ― during a field trip to the historic city of Petra.

It will be full of intrigue and adventure, the company promises.

Jinn is Netflix’s first Middle Eastern original series which will bring Middle Eastern folklore to the modern world,” Savas said.

“We are very excited to see it come to life.”

Netflix declined to disclose the number of subscribers it has in the region.

But, according to Savas, the streaming giant has “ramped up our focus on the Middle East”.

Netflix has announced plans for a second Middle Eastern original series, Al Rawabi School for Girls but it remains unclear when the show will be released.

“Written and directed by Jordanian screenwriter and director Tima Shomali, the show tells the story of a bullied high school girl,” said Savas.

The company also announced in May a third Arabic original production called Paranormal based on novels bearing the same title by Egyptian writer Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq.

Netflix originals in languages other than English, such as Money Heist in Spanish, have proved popular with international audiences.

“It is great to not only invest in local Middle Eastern content, but also to create a global audience for local language shows,” Savas said.

Next step

Several streaming platforms offer production in Arabic like OSN Play of the OSN television network and Wavo which is backed by OSN. But Starz Play remains the main competitor for Netflix in this region with its one million subscribers.

Starz Play is trying to make streaming more relevant and convenient to viewers, said Sheikh from his Dubai office.

“We specialise in Hollywood content, but over time we have added Arabic content and Bollywood content to our service,” he said.

Starz Play is showing a number of popular series currently unavailable on Netflix in the Gulf region including The Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anatomy and the Marvel superheroes shows, attracting large audiences.

Producing original Arabic content is the “next step,” said Sheikh, adding the “UAE and Saudi Arabia are our two biggest markets, followed by Morocco”. ― AFP

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