Dubai-based MBC Group CEO Sam Barnett is navigating what he calls the “difficult transition” of going from being the MENA region’s top satellite free-to-air player to also being its top premium streamer.
At the start of the holy month of Ramadan, which is marathon TV time in the region after iftar (breaking fast), Barnett spoke to Variety about how the Saudi-owned broadcaster is managing this feat. Edited excerpts.
MBC is now operating in both the linear TV and the streaming space. How’s the streaming side going?
We are celebrating this month because we just got data in that [MBC’s streaming service] Shahid VIP has become the market leader in streaming in MENA. We’ve pulled ahead of Netflix and the others.
Terrific, what are your numbers?
If I compare ourselves to the competition, in terms of subs, we hit the two million figure last year. We got there towards Ramadan, and then it dipped. Then we got back there. We are now at 2,250,000 and we are expecting to be towards three million by the end of Ramadan. It’s mostly business-to-consumer subs; mostly people who have activated the service with their own money.
The SVOD market in MENA is heating up. OSN is ramping up. Disney Plus will soon launch. Can Shahid continue to lead going forward?
There aren’t many regions where the local player is beating Netflix. And there are very few regions where the legacy free-to-air TV player has launched an SVOD platform and is beating Netflix. We are in a good position. It clearly is a difficult transition to go from satellite free-to-air broadcaster to being a subscription VOD player. But we’re doing it, and it’s working. I’m sure it will get more competitive. But we have the same approach as we’ve always had. When we were in the [linear] TV market we were competing with 1,400 other channels and we still managed to get a 51% market share in Saudi and still managed to dominate. We remain convinced that it’s the Arabic content that will still decide who wins this market.
There is interest in international content. But if you want to get that mass market – the 140 million that were watching our [linear] TV channels – you’ve got to have something compelling in the local language. We’ve built on our local legacy to do that.
Talk to me about your Ramadan shows, are they Shahid VIP drivers?
Ramadan is of course traditionally a TV month. And we’ve got good quality content on Shahid. The proposition for Shahid is: ‘Whatever you want to watch, we’ve pretty much got it.’ That said, during Ramadan people’s viewing habits are pretty traditional. They want to watch the 30-episode dramas, sitting down with the family. In terms of viewing habits, it’s kind of set. So clearly Ramadan is very important and last year went extremely well; we won lots of subs. But if you look at what was driving subs last year, is was not necessarily crucial. We did drive a lot of subs in Ramadan, but we also drove a lot of subs outside Ramadan as well. Especially with particular titles like “Rashash” [created by Britain’s Tony Jordan and based on the true story of a 1980s Saudi Arabian drug trafficker convicted of murder].
Why was “Rashash” such a hit?
It’s the first Saudi crime drama that’s a world class production and challenged taboos. It had a degree of reality about it. The characters were nuanced: you could see corruption of the national guard, drugs; topics that are difficult, which we carried off well. It was huge for the Saudi audience and it drove lots of subs.
There was also a variety of other titles. I think for SVOD, which is where these edgy high-quality titles work, they don’t tend to be 30 episodes. They tend to be six-to-10 episodes, so necessarily those won’t be in Ramadan. We place those around the year. And that’s why our subs have this inexorable push upwards.
Talk to me about a key MBC Ramadan show
I think the most controversial one is the third season of “Al Asuf” [starring Saudi megastar Nasser Al-Qasabi]. It’s the life of Saudi Arabia through the prism of the lead character. It’s set in a period during the early ‘80s when things got closed down, after the invasion of the Grand Mosque, when society became more conservative; cinemas closed, entertainment ended, and music stopped playing. It shows the protagonist going through that period. It’s interesting because clearly over the last few years Saudi has come out of that period. So now it’s reflecting about what happened when things closed down. This is a drama that will navigate this introspection and enable people to question what happened and why.