20 June 2017
Dedicated for Arabia, a Netflix-like video on demand (VOD) service that features popular and exclusive Arabic and Western TV shows and series, sees in the growing tech-savvy young population of the Middle East a market opportunity that should not be missed.

Starz Play launched in the Middle East in 2015, one year before VOD giant Netflix launches in the region. The company streams thousands of movies, TV shows and series to 19 countries in the Middle East via mobile apps and TV, according to the company’s website. It partnered last April with NBCUniversal, one of the world’s biggest media companies, to offer its subscribers TV box-sets, famous American TV series and top rated films, such as TV show Mr. Robot, drama thriller Bates Motel and sci-fi series 12 Monkeys.

Besides U.S.-based Netflix, the world’s leading VOD provider that was established in 1997, Starz Play’s competitors include local broadcasters MBC and OSN, which were the first to propel the VOD service into the region through MBC’s Shahid and OSN’s Go platforms, launched in 2011 and 2014, respectively.

“There are three areas where we are different from any other competition,” the company’s CEO Maaz Sheikh told Zawya in an interview in April at the company’s headquarters in Dubai.

“We have a much bigger variety of shows and we have more shows and more movies that are relevant to the region, the Middle East, to all of the Middle East. We offer exclusive content that you won’t find anywhere else and we found a way for customers to pay without having to use their credit cards,” he said, adding that Netflix accepts payments through credit cards only.

Recognising the region’s low credit card infiltration, Sheikh said Starz Play aligned with several telecom operators, such as Etisalat in the UAE, Vodafone in Egypt and Maroc Telecom in Morocco, to provide customers with an option to pay for the service through their phone bills. The Middle East has a high rate of mobile penetration.

“What others saw as challenge, we saw as opportunity,” Sheikh said. “We merged with the system, we realised that people trust the telecom operators in their markets… When they see us associated with their telecom company, they become confident to pay,” he added.

Starz Play is part of the Starz global media and entertainment, which has 24.3 million subscribers in the United States as of December 2016, according to the company’s website. Starz Play has over 700,000 subscribers in the Middle East, Sheikh said, adding that the VOD market in the region currently compromises of around 2 to 3 million subscribers.

Global market leader Netflix is approaching a 100 million worldwide subscribers’ figure, after adding 5 million new joiners in the first quarter of 2017, its biggest ever number of subscribers in one quarter, according to a report by CNN. Netflix is available in 50 countries and has 94 million global subscribers.

Sheikh said so far around 1.5 million people have downloaded the Starz Play app, and around 1,500 to 2,000 people sign up for the app every day.

Lowest price point

Sheikh said his company offers the lowest subscription price in the Middle East region, where it focuses on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a prime market. It is also targeting future expansion in Egypt and other North African Arab states.

“Local TV networks like OSN offer set up boxes that allow users a certain package that cost between 300 to 400 Egyptian pound ($16.54 - $22) a month. Our price is 4 U.S. dollars which is 50 to 60 Egyptian pounds per month where you can consume all our content at no additional cost,” Sheikh said. Netflix’s basic package starts at $7.99 a month.

Sheikh said the company is also growing “rapidly” in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and currently has customers from all the Middle East, “from Muscat to Marrakesh,” he said. “We serve in three languages: English, Arabic and for Maghreb, we have French content as well,” he added. Sheikh did not disclose details about the number of subscribers in the GCC region or in any specific country. 

He said Starz Play was the 16th and 31st most visited website last March in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, respectively. In terms of the network’s most popular shows in the region, Sheikh said British TV drama show Taboo and American thriller TV series Mr Robot were popular in Egypt, while the popular American TV series Friends, which is over a decade off the air, is the most watched show across the Middle East.

Starz Play announced in May it will feature seven popular Ramadan Arabic TV shows, including the Egyptian light comedy series Carmel and the Qasr Al Oshaq (Palace of Lovers) drama show, bestowing TV audiences in the Middle East with a diverse range of shows that cater to the tastes of Arab viewers, in a bid to position itself as more a regional player, compared to its international heavyweight rivals.

© Zawya 2017