tab Global TV hit, Vikings, returns to STARZ PLAY on November 29th
Bring it on... Watching what's on in web streaming has become a habit for a growing number of UAE and Gulf residents. Currently, 10% of the UAE population are estimated as subscribers to OTT platforms. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: UAE and Gulf residents are not letting go of the one habit they picked up during the COVID-19 phase – watching more of web-streamed TV.

Yes, there’s been a drop from the peak viewing in April last year, but not by much going by January 2021 numbers, is how the CEO of Starzplay, Maaz Sheikh, sees it.

In Saudi Arabia, for instance, “We average 6.5 million minutes a day in April, and now it’s at around 4.5-4.6 million minutes,” said Sheikh. “But that’s still way over the 2.8 million minutes a day of January 2020.

“But what’s more important is that we are seeing a 40 per cent increase in subscriber numbers in these 12 months. And that’s paid subscribers (as opposed to those who take a free one-month trial and leave).

“So, the web streaming industry is still building on the pandemic gains.”

Currently, Starzplay reaches 1.8 million paying subscribers and is installed on more than six million devices.

Adding to the numbers
Starzplay, which will soon complete five years, raised $125 million at the time of its launch. That was from STARZ, a Lionsgate company, and State Street Global Advisors, among others.
The Ruya investment marks the first time that Starzplay secured debt financing from a regional investor.

Another burst

With Gulf states now coming up with more measures to reinforce their campaign against the COVID-19 spread, the OTT (Over-the-Top) industry is expecting another spike in viewing… and subscriber numbers. Less heading out to the multiplexes and malls, in other words, frees up more time for stories and movies to unfold on smart-screens.

Maaz Sheikh, Starzplay
Maaz Sheikh of Starzplay: "COVID-19 has made the web streaming industry a high-growth one... and that makes our equity quite valuable." Image Credit: Supplied

Raise Arabic profile

Starzplay – which is the home for the latest ‘Vikings’ seasons - has just tapped its first “independent” debt financing, raising Dh92 million from Abu Dhabi based Ruya Partners, which will be used for expanding its Arabic language content.

“The next [growth] opportunity for us is to enter more actively into Arabic content, both licensed and our own produced content,” said Sheikh. “Currently, we are at about 2,500 hours of Arabic content, much of which built in the last 18 months. Our plan is to double this volume in 2021-22.”

No equity

The Dh92 million debt will not convert into fresh equity in favour of Ruya at the end of the loan tenor.

“We are at that stage where our equity is quite valuable, and since Starzplay is heading towards clear targets on profitability, we are confident we can pay back the loans,” the CEO added. “So, there’s no need to dilute our equity part right now.”

The last time Starzplay brought in a new shareholder was in 2018, when it concluded a Series C funding round and which brought in Delta Partners.

On whether there’s a chance for Starzplay to tap more debts, “There’s lots more debt and equity available because we are in a high growth sector, especially after COVID-19,” said Sheikh. “We also have to be responsible how we use this capital and how much we need.

“The Dh92 million we collected gives us plenty of head room for our immediate growth needs.”