Marc Antoine d’Halluin in December was appointed CEO of leading Middle Eastern free-to-air satellite network MBC Group, which also operates the region’s top SVOD service. Its recently rebranded and reconceived Shahid VIP platform since January has seen its subscriber growth skyrocket. A combination of the coronavirus pandemic, Ramadan, and MBC’s stepped-up efforts to produce high-end Arabic originals prompted a quantum leap that in May saw MBC enter the pantheon of top 10 media companies worldwide in terms of video view metrics, according to U.S company Tubular Labs that tracks cross-platform Internet video viewing and engagement.

In his first interview since taking the MBC reins, D’Halluin – who began his career at Sony Pictures Entertainment but has plenty of experience in the Middle East – spoke to Variety exclusively about his main challenges and goals and why Hollywood shows do not play a big part of the plan. Edited excerpts from the conversation.

MBC is coming off a great Ramadan run, with Shahid VIP now firmly in place as the MENA region’s SVOD leader. As we both know what drives subscribers is content. But also perhaps in this case it’s been a combination of elements aligning.

Of course, it’s all about content. You are the first journalist I speak to in these initial five months of my tenure as CEO of MBC Group. I feel like I became the CEO of this company two years ago. But it’s only (been) five months. We’ve all gone through some crazy ups and downs with all this (coronavirus) confinement…

Shahid VIP, which is the (new) name of our SVOD service, has gone through a crazy increase in subscribers. I say crazy because I have no other word. Over the last three months…we went through a growth, which was essentially driven by content, that has been 14-fold…We relaunched on Jan. 15 with a new SVOD service that is extremely similar to other SVOD streamers around the world. And that explains why we went from 100,000 to 1.4 million (subs) in such a short time period.

That, and I guess the pandemic and Ramadan, which sort of overlapped.

Of course we got a little bit lucky; it’s difficult to say that, because it’s not the right word. We don’t like saying that Covid helped us. But I think all streamers around the world found themselves in that pretty unique dimension of having people locked in their homes and consuming a lot more content…In our case it’s not only Covid, because it’s Covid and then it’s Ramadan just after. And then, after Ramadan it’s still Covid. So to a large degree – and also with the summer coming, and people not traveling around the world that much – there is sort of a unique window of maybe six months for what I call first-timers to come and discover SVOD.

Do you have a specific set or type of subscribers?

In this region of course there is a super-young population that embraces technologies and new ways of watching videos. And 70% of what is watched on Shahid VIP is watched through mobile devices. That’s a very unique set of contacts for us, compared to other markets.

In terms of content there are several shows that stand out in my mind: “Kingdoms of Fire,” “Umm Haroun,” which sparked debate on ‘normalization’ between Saudi and Israel, and “Blood Oath,” written by Britain’s Tony Jordan. What do you consider to be MBC’s most significant shows?

Umm Haroun” was a real phenomenon…a bit of a cultural revolution in itself”… “Blood Oath” is a very good example of an original adaptation which we produced in Lebanon and was among the most watched shows on the platform…In terms of movies there is “Born a King” which was exclusive out of theaters on Shahid VIP…and of course because of the story of the early life of a prince (Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia) who later became a king has met with lot of attention and success on Shahid VIP.

I would like to add that we’ve created an entity called MBC Studios. And with MBC Studios, inside Saudi we have produced many shows that are very successful. One of these is the first ever Arabic soap opera, called “Inheritance,” which we launched at the beginning of March in access primetime on (free TV channel) MBC-1 and is doing extremely well.

Talk to me about prominent MBC projects in the pipeline

We also have a lineup of projects in development that are now coming into production…One of them – which is a little early to discuss, but is in production – is the story of an extremely prominent crime story in the Saudi of the 80s and it’s produced with the required high-end budget that will really make a difference in this region to the audience that haven’t really discovered the high-end shows that you see on the streamers all over the world. They will, through these MBC Studio productions…and this is only the beginning. We have a lot of really good shows that will come from that in-house unit on top of the increasing volume that we are commissioning from outside…whether in Saudi, in Egypt or in Lebanon, or in the UAE. That said, I feel that our own local “House of Cards” will come from inside MBC Studios…and I’m glad that we will be able to speak about it in the coming months.

Regarding ramping up local production, more or less when Saudi decided to enter the media market, a decision was made not to air Turkish soaps on MBC. However MBC still owns Turkey-based 03 Medya which continues to make them. Am I right?

We are only a minority shareholder in 03. But that’s true. We are not broadcasting Turkish series for a combination of reasons…First of all, as you know, and this was well explained, there was a bit of a cultural aspect to having almost a revival of the Ottoman invasion from a cultural relationship perspective, which I can only relate – being French – to: it’s as if I was asked to watch only German series in France…I would probably not feel very good having only those (shows) on my television channels, just as an analogy. 

I think what has happened since then is an interesting evolution by which the knowledge, the know-how to produce series of a similar quality and as long-lasting, with as many as 50 or 60 episodes, this has now been accomplished in the region. We are now at the forefront of that…and we have an effort underway with MBC Studios where we see a future of extremely good quality shows from the region. It’s the same everywhere: people want to see shows that they relate to. 

Speaking of Saudi, very simply put: what exactly are MBC’s ownership ties to Saudi? 

As you know MBC has always been a Saudi-owned media company. For many years it had essentially one main shareholder (Waleed bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim), who is today the chairman of our company. And I would say he is a very, very involved chairman. Very active, with an excellent programming sense who is really behind the fact that MBC became the leader in the region. He is a shareholder together with a Saudi holding company, which belongs to the Saudi government. And the vice-chairman of our board is the Assistant Minister of Finance for Technical and Financial Affairs in Saudi (Hindi bin Abdullah Al-Suhaimi). So that’s completely clean and clear…I have a relationship with them which I find extremely productive. There are two sides getting on really, really well…What I have is people who understand the long-term perspective of Shahid VIP and the need to invest in a very significant way…Also the need to support us in creating a good ecosystem for our business I will give you an example: digital piracy has been a big plague in the region forever. We have seen an incredible amount of support in making sure that in the Saudi market there is the proper effort to make sure that these pirate websites where so many of our IPs are stolen (are taken down).

I’ve heard that you will be moving your base of operations from Dubai to Riyadh. Can you confirm?

We have said that we are going to be increasing our presence in Riyadh, which is a very natural thing to do. We already have a natural base in Riyadh. We are already producing shows in Riyadh and will be producing more there, because the market is opening up incredibly. It is very lively and dynamic…there are plenty of shows, both non scripted and scripted that we want to produce there to be closer to our audience. A big chunk of our audience is based in the Saudi market.

To have headquarters – or co-headquarters – there due to our natural presence in Riyadh, and Riyadh becoming the bigger one over time in a multi-point business as we are is only natural. But just to be clear: we are not transferring Dubai to Riyadh.

What can you tell me about your financials?

What I can tell you is the following: we are the free-to-air media group leader in the region, for sure. And we are a commercial enterprise. Again, the shareholders that we have only want us to operate on this commercial basis…We monetize our content because we are a production platform in two ways: we have our channels mainly and now, all of a sudden, very fast, the OTT aspect. So in some way we are now working on two (different) legs that are very complementary. It’s relatively rare to see a free-to-air traditional (TV) group crossing over to the digital side in a quick and successful way….In terms of investment to make this OTT dimension – we don’t disclose numbers – but we are investing, just to be clear, hundreds of millions of dollars in content and technology and human capital…

I cannot really disclose more…but what I can say is we have an interesting period ahead of us, despite this Covid hit. We think that we are well-equipped to grow the business and we are well-supported to do so by our shareholders.

What’s your rapport with the Hollywood studios, and how important is Hollywood content for MBC?

I will start from the end. It’s very clearly measured on Shahid VIP: the most watched shows, by a distance, are the Arabic language ones. We are clearly catering to the core of the market. The masses are on that side of the market…

We decided (on Shahid VIP) to add some Western content alongside our Arabic content offering, because as part of the MBC Group we feature Western content in our lineup of free-to-air channels. We have some dedicated Western movie channels and they do really well and we have no intention to change that. And it’s a natural evolution that that content sort of transitions naturally to Shahid VIP.

So that’s what we are doing…and we’ll do more of it. But at the end of the day this (Hollywood shows) is not supposed to become – and will not become – a large part of our offering. We are investing the bulk of our programming budget on Arabic content, most of it for fresh content.

Every studio out there in Hollywood is going through shock therapy…a disrupting life and some endangering transitions. With the likes of the big streamers having already taken them, by and large, by surprise. Netflix has definitely traumatized these guys in a large way. Some, like Disney, have decided to adjust with Disney Plus and they rolling it out around the world extremely successfully. They have an understanding of the end consumer which no other studio has…

The other guys (studios) are also transitioning into becoming streamers and we all know that there is not going to be space for six global streamers…from a global perspective, there is probably going to be room for just two or three and we will see who survives.

Meantime a lot of content that they were selling to pay-TV players around the world is being redeployed to their streaming efforts. We will not be impacted by that because we do not depend on their content…Some others will; but it’s not a major concern to us.