Mideast battle heating up

Sony joins Par aboard Gulf DTH sat platform

HOLLYWOOD — Competition between the key satellite channel providers in the Middle East is heating up.

Sony Pictures Entertainment has formed a strategic partnership with Paramount TV Group and United Broadcasting Co. (UBC), a wholly owned subsidiary of Kuwait Investment Projects Co. (KIPCO), by joining their nine-channel Showtime/Gulf DTH platform in the Middle East.

The year-old Gulf DTH platform, which is indirectly backed by the Kuwaiti royal family, competes for subscribers with Orbit, a 4-year-old Rome-based satcaster backed indirectly by the Saudi royal family.

Orbit, like Gulf DTH, beams a substantial quantity of U.S. product into the region. Warners and Disney have licensing arrangements with Orbit; Sony is essentially changing partners by joining Paramount in the Gulf DTH platform. No current subscriber figures are available for either service, though both are aimed at upscale viewers who speak English as well as Arabic.

SPE’s alliance with Gulf/DTH will include a multiyear licensing agreement for Columbia TriStar movies and TV shows, and an equity investment in the Movie Channel, a premium subscription movie channel created especially for Middle Eastern viewers. SPE will also license programming to a number of other channels distributed by Showtime/Gulf DTH in the region, including TV Land, Style and the Paramount Channel.

Jack Waterman, president of Paramount Worldwide Pay TV Group, told Daily Variety that the platform is currently wooing other major Hollywood players to come aboard.

Sony Entertainment Television (SET), SPE’s Hindi-language entertainment TV channel in India, will also be distributed by Showtime/Gulf DTH in the region at no extra cost to subscribers. SET will join the Showtime bouquet in February 1998.

AXN, Sony’s newly minted international action channel, will not as yet be part of the Showtime platform. “We are considering a role for AXN (on the platform),” said Lauren Cole, senior VP of international networks for CTIT in London.

The deal with Sony was announced jointly Wednesday by Waterman; Michael Grindon, president of SPE’s Columbia TriStar Intl. Television division; and Peter Einstein, president and CEO of Showtime/Gulf DTH on behalf of UBC. Viacom and KIPCO are partners in the Gulf DTH platform, which is marketed under the Showtime brand in the Middle East.

Movie titles from Columbia TriStar such as “Cliffhanger,” “Jumanji” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” and TV series such as “Seinfeld,” “Mad About You” and “The Young and the Restless” will be available to the platform.

Showtime was launched by Gulf DTH in September 1996 throughout the region of 19 million TV households. By the end of its third year of operation, 1999, the platform projects it will have 150,000-200,000 subscribers. Breakeven for most such channel providers usually comes at the earliest three years after launch.

Showtime’s channel lineup includes the Movie Channel, MTV Europe, VH1, TV Land, the Paramount Channel, Nickelodeon, Discovery, Bloomberg TV and Style.

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