BUS 191101 Danny Bates for Gulf News-1572609114592
Danny Bates, Chief Commercial Officer at Starz Play Image Credit:

Dubai: For web TV subscribers in the UAE, all that matters is how soon they get to catch their favourite show or movie. Which app or streaming platform delivers it will be less important.

“There will be a lot more of opt in and opt out by UAE/Gulf subscribers — all they want is watch a series at the same time it airs in the US,” said Danny Bates, Chief Commercial Officer at Starz Play. “If they want the next “Vikings”, they come to us; if they want something else, they head for that OTT (over-the-top) platform.

“It’s a good time to be a consumer of web TV services — they don’t get to be tied to contracts unlike with pay/cable TV. Subscription for video on demand is at Dh30-Dh50 a month … even if a consumer picks up two subscriptions, that’s still way lower than the Dh300-Dh350 a month pay-TV used to cost.”

Based on most estimates, there are some 10 million plus streaming service subscribers in the Gulf and the wider Middle East and North Africa.

Much more to watch

There is going to be a lot to choose from … not just in terms of content, but among competing platforms. Apple’s has gone live with Apple TV+, priced at a super-aggressive $4.99 a month. Between now end May next, more platforms — Disney+ (from $6.99 a month) and HBO Now (at $14.99) — will be out to catch the binge TV addict’s time and wallet. Suddenly, consumers have a lot more besides Netflix, Starz Play and Amazon Prime to pick and choose from.

This is why Bates’ forecasts on likely viewer behaviour matter. Get the viewer hooked onto a show by offering it in the shortest possible time, and don’t fret too much about retaining his subscription month in, month out. (Sure, having the rights to all-time favourites such as “Friends” or “Seinfled” can also help.) “How customers leave need to be as well-managed as their experience during their subscriptions,” said Bates. “Because leaving is not the end of a relationship … at least in this particular relation. A good number of viewers could go out for a few months and then make a return … when the next unmissable show for them airs on another platform.

“We have 36-37 series coming exclusive to Starz Play at the same time as they air in the US. There are a lot of hooks for the consumer throughout the year. We are confident we can keep bringing them back.”

Consistent rates

It is unlikely that all the new entrants coming in at the same time will end up distorting subscription rates. Sure, Apple TV+’s $4.99 lowers the base, but not by all that much. The tech giant is also doing a lot of subsidising of these services, offering it as a free add-on along with Apple hardware purchases.

Amazon earlier this year also came out with a triple play, clubbing its Prime membership with faster delivery times and access to its video and music streaming services. Could this pressure a Netflix or Starz Play, which do not have such add-ons?

BUS 191101 Archana Anand, Chief Business Officer, ZEE5 Global-1572609110328
Archana Anand, Chief Business Officer at ZEE5

Bates reckons not: “I don’t think same-day delivery services matter much to a streaming TV subscriber — his focus is only on the content.”

Archana Anand, Chief Business Officer at ZEE5, the Indian entertainment-focused streaming app, believes that more players will not add up to lower monthly rates. “When we set rates, we had to keep in mind the content piracy taking place around the globe,” she said. “The monthly rates have to be affordable enough to induce a viewer to turn legit … and remain so. These were factored into our rates from Day 1 of launch.

“I don’t think people have a problem staying with a particular platform for content and experience … only they will want to see value.” (It was in October last year that ZEE5 went big on a global reach, with the Middle East proving to be one of its fastest growing territories outside of India.)

Piracy still rears its head

While piracy levels are way down from what the region’s pay/cable TV providers had to endure, it still poses problems. “When a streaming service platform spend tens of millions of dollars on content, and one pirate site can offer all of that for free, it drives me crazy,” said Bates. “Much has been done to cut down piracy in the Gulf, but for further breakthroughs, Saudi Arabia needs to tighten up on IP (intellectual property) rights. It will happen.”

Sports too?

For now, all the streaming apps are betting on entertainment … and more of it. Netflix has built up an enviable library of its own shows — nothing gets bigger than “Stranger Things” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” — while Amazon keeps churning out hit shows.

“Hollywood shows gives streaming providers a real opportunity to monetise that content — there are always enough willing to pay for it,” said Bates. “But adding sports into the programming could be the next big thing for web TV in this region.

“But sourcing that content needs to be done with care — you cannot burn money just to satisfy your ego. A sport like football could burn through a lot of cash without offering the returns. But there are other sports to pick from. The Middle East web-TV market is still far from hitting its true adoption curve.”

As they say in showbiz, keep watching.

Catching Indian viewers’ eye

The fight for web-TV subscribers does not begin — and end — with Netflix, Starz Play or Amazon. And soon to be joined by Apple, Disney, HBO …

There is an equally intense battle for eyeballs targeted at the Indian/wider South Asian audience residing in the Middle East. And it’s only getting started.

“The Middle East has been the single most exciting market for us in terms of the traction we got,” said Archana Anand of ZEE5, which is duking it out with SonyLIV and Hotstar. “The South Asian audience we are chasing here would be about 15 million potential viewers, and more than 50 per cent of that is smartphone-enabled.

“We realise the Hollywood theme is possibly going to be owned by Netflix and Amazon Prime, given the obscene amount of money they have at this point. But we have clearly marked ourselves as the destination for Indian language content. I see ZEE5 standing for something quite different from what the global names stand for.”