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MBC Group Hires Ex-Hulu Exec Johannes Larcher to Boost Streaming (EXCLUSIVE)

Leading Middle Eastern free-to-air satellite network MBC Group is ramping up its streaming platforms, Shahid and Shahid Plus, with the appointment of former Hulu executive Johannes Larcher to head its digital operations and with the launch of a Shahid Originals unit.

MBC’s move, made amid an ongoing boom in streamer subscribers in the Middle East-North Africa region, is part of a five-year growth plan being implemented by the Dubai-based group’s founder and chairman, Waleed Al-Ibrahim of Saudi Arabia. Larcher is the latest U.S. exec to join MBC following the appointment last September of Peter Smith, former president of NBCUniversal International, to head the company’s new production unit, MBC Studios.

A dual U.S.-Austrian national, Larcher worked at Hulu from 2009 to 2013 and served as SVP International. He was responsible for all of Hulu’s activities outside the U.S. Notably, he launched and ran Hulu’s successful unit in Japan.

The OTT subscription market in MENA grew 48% in 2017, according to the most recent figures from IHS Markit, which expects streamers to account for half of all pay-TV subscriptions in the region in 2020 and 67% of the market in 2022.

The region’s top streamer is Netflix, followed by Starz Play and Shahid Plus, according to Digital TV Research. Other players include the growing regional streamer iflix.

In an email interview, Larcher told Variety that his goal is for Shahid to become “the leading VOD service for modern Arab audiences, anytime, anywhere.” He called Shahid a “unique platform in the MENA region” because it has both an a free AVOD layer, the basic Shahid service, and a premium SVOD layer, Shahid Plus.

Larcher declined to disclose the current number of Shahid Plus subscribers, but said it had been growing steadily and had reached a healthy level. His goal is now to “turn up the heat and focus aggressively on accelerated growth,” he said.

He added that MBC “will invest significantly [in] more premium-quality programming, updated technology and wider distribution on all platforms ,” including mobile devices, smart TVs and gaming consoles.

MBC Group CEO Sam Barnett underlined in a statement that MBC reaches “140 million viewers every day across the Middle East, both through our satellite television channels and online.” The Shahid service is available across 23 countries in the region.

“Now our challenge is to boost the volume of premium video content both from MBC Studios and further afield, to upgrade our technology and to extend our distribution,” he said.

On the production side, Shahid Originals will be making its first investments in originally produced, exclusive and cutting-edge content this year, though details are being kept under wraps.

“We believe there’s substantial unmet demand for original, innovative and compelling storytelling in this region through high-quality premium video content,” Larcher said, and that there is a large local talent pool “looking for new and better ways to create, tell and distribute relevant stories that captivate modern Arab audiences.”

Larcher said MBC’s current reach as the region’s top linear player gave the group “a significant advantage in driving viewers to catchup and subscription on Shahid.”

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