Stock - Maaz Sheikh, CEO and co-founder of Starzplay
Maaz Sheikh, CEO and co-founder of Starzplay, says the majority acquisition by e& and ADQ will be wrapped up in the next two months. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: The Netflix situation with lost subscribers doesn’t apply to the Middle East’s streaming platforms. And that’s according to the CEO of Starzplay Arabia, one of the biggest names in the space across the MENA markets.

“Netflix may have reached saturation in the markets they serve because they are only serving customers with credit cards,” said Maaz Sheikh. “Now, that’s a category that could have reached saturation.

“In the Middle East and North Africa and whole swathes of Asia, the credit card penetration levels are not as high as in the US, the UK or the UAE. There, streaming platforms need to align with the telcos to get their content viewed by audiences there. There are parts of Asia and Africa where credit card penetration is less than 5 per cent.”

Netflix’s operating model came to investor attention last week after the US streaming giant reported that it had lost subscribers over a quarter for the first time in more than 10 years. Plus, it was planning to bring about changes on the bundles and cut down on password sharing. Even consider bringing in ad-supported packages for subscribers – now, that’s unthinkable for a streaming platform that had always harped on no ads.

Different way to dial growth

“Strazplay Arabia has reached out for telecom alliances in all the markets that we serve in the region. And this territory is doing just fine on subscribers and watching.”

Sheiikh sure can say that. Starzplay Arabia recently saw Abu Dhabi based heavyweights e& (formerly Etisalat Group) and ADQ take up stakes in it. So much so, evision – which is the entertainment arm of e& - will be the majority shareholder in Starzplay.

“e& had a stake in our company right from 2017 – we launched operations in April 2015. That’s now grown to a majority holding.”

Stock - Billions
A shot from one of the biggest hits streaming on Starzplay - 'Billions'. The OTT platform has also been expanding on its sports and Arabic language content.

Telco support

On the operating side, Starzplay has ongoing partnerships with all of the major regional telcos. This way, viewers who sign up for a smartphone subscription – post-paid or pre-paid doesn’t matter – gets access to the Starzplay library as well. Whether they have a credit card or not, the payments get made, because it is part of the bouquet for the smartphone subscription.

“There will be changes in the viewership patterns and even on subscriptions – that doesn’t mean growth is stalling for streaming services in MENA,” said Sheikh. “I don’t buy the ‘saturation’ argument – it’s a very US-centric point of view, but doesn’t match what’s happening in the rest of the world in the business of streaming.”

  1. The Starzplay recipe to grow the Middle East subscriber base include:
  2. Arabic language programming represents 25% of the content and there will be more coming.
  3. Anime - "We are the home of anime in the region and that's a big win," says Maaz Sheikh.
  4. More Turkish series
  5. Gaming will be another area to try and grow. "We are trying to unravel that piece of the streaming puzzle," says Sheikh. "We haven't monetised it yet."

The sporting push

Of late, Starzplay has been adding live sporting events to its platform, including the FIFA Club World Cup as well as high-stakes T20 cricket games. “Adding sports content is always a risk for broadcasters – and sports packages on their own won’t be profitable. For us, getting those viewers in through the sports offerings raises the chances of them viewing the entertainment options we have. And where they end up watching Billions or The Office – that’s where we score.”

When it comes to sporting events, it also helps that Starzplay will share the cost of getting the rights with Abu Dhabi Media and evision. “Monetising these rights across multiple platforms lowers the costs and the risks for all,” said Sheikh. “This is what economies of scale can do to the business. We are not necessarily going for only the biggest sports brands. There is huge appetite for localized sports – we will be there too.”