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Almost 900,000 people in the UAE have subscribe d to one or more streaming services Image Credit: Getty Images

Dubai: If you thought watching web TV was all about the smartphone or a tablet, think again. In the UAE, 65 per cent of all such content is being watched on a smart TV, a percentage more or less similar to what it is in the US these days.

That’s 65 per cent of a near 900,000 strong audience who have subscribed to one or the other streaming app out there - StarzPlay (the first one to launch in the local market), Netflix, Vuclip, Wavo, or the Arabic language focussed Shahid from MBC.

And they spend 45 minutes on average a month glued to whatever they like best – be it the latest instalment of “The Vikings”, “Narcos”, “Game of Thrones”, or some Hollywood movie or the other. (On weekends, those numbers tend to shoot up further, which is when binge watching tends to take place.)


time UAE viewers spend a month watching their favourite shows

Subscriber based video-on-demand – or web TV in other words - in the wider Mena region is expected to touch $1.2 billion by 2024.

So, is web TV getting to be less about watching it on the go and more of spending time on the couch staring at the big screen in the living room? According to a top official at StarzPlay, it has helped that TV have gotten smarter.


revenues that web TV in the wide Mena region will touch by 2024

“Say three years ago, smart TVs were seen as a bit of a gimmick… that’s no longer so,” said Danny Bates, co-founder and Chief Commercial Officer at StarzPlay. “(Web TV) apps pre-loaded now on smart TVs are starting to replace the set-top box and that’s why the audiences are growing for viewing on the large screen.”

Now, the big names in the streaming business have their apps pre-loaded onto smart TV. StarzPlay for instance, is there on Samsung’s models sold in the Middle East and North Africa territory. Plus, there are tie-ins with PlayStation, LG and others.

“I don’t think subscriber numbers in the UAE have plateaued out for web TV… we are currently in the third wave of growth and it’s increasingly becoming part of the mainstream in how entertainment content is consumed.” (The way Bates sees it, the first wave was when StarzPlay launched four year and that brought on board the early-adopters. Then came Netflix’s global rollout early in 2016, and that “set off the second wave of subscriber growth for all players”.)

In the other Gulf territories, growth is still at the first or second wave stage. Bates does not foresee audiences in Saudi Arabia starting to favour a trip to the multiplex over web TV, now that cinemas are trending again in the kingdom.

“Those are two different experiences and can live together,” he added. “It’s not about cannibalizing one set of audiences. In fact, we’ve been working with cinema operators – there was a tie-up with VOX to do a premiere of the latest Vikings a full 24 hours before the release. We can do stuff together.”


StarzPlay subscribers in UAE, with 1 million in region and Pakistan

Starz currently counts 1 million subscribers from the region and from Pakistan. In the UAE, it has well over 300,000 subscribers tuning in. Since inception in 2014, the business has secured $125 million in three rounds of funding, with major investors including Starz/Lionsgate (40 per cent), SSGA (40 per cent), and SEQ Investors, Delta Partners and the founders themselves (20 per cent).

There are no plans to call in additional funds – “What we have right now can be capitalized for the current growth phase,” said Bates. “At some point, we will move into new territories – sure, India is one such option.”

Piracy is a headache for web TV apps as well

All through these years, pay-TV providers in the region have mounted endless series of campaigns against content piracy. Now, web TV apps are doing the same.

“There are online platforms that are offering non-licensed content and which do pose problems in how content is accessed,” said Danny Bates at StarzPlay. “That means these audiences are not even willing to pay the Dh40 or so a month for their subscriptions, let alone $80 for pay-TV.”