Prominent Dubai-based satellite pay-TV and streaming service Orbit Showtime Network (OSN) is launching OSN Plus, a new premium streaming service that replaces its streaming app and marks OSN’s full-fledged entry into the MENA region’s increasingly crowded SVOD landscape.

The move comes after OSN in January re-upped its long-term exclusive partnership with HBO, and expanded its rapport with NBCU to include more premium content from Peacock and Sky Studios. The company also has new deals for premium shows in place with Endeavor Content and All3Media, supplementing existing partnerships with Paramount, Warner Media, Sony, Discovery, MGM and Lionsgate.

However, OSN recently lost the SVOD leverage it had under its exclusive deal with Disney, which will be launching Disney Plus in the region this summer and has rescinded the SVOD aspect of that arrangement.

OSN Plus is being headed by Nick Forward, the former chief content officer at Australian streamer Stan. The rebranding is being spearheaded by OSN Group CEO Sangeeta Desai who stepped into the role in September 2021.

Desai, a former global COO at Fremantle where she was key to building the company’s drama operation, spoke to Variety about her push to take OSN streaming to a new level. Excerpts.

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OSN Plus is the exclusive home of HBO in the MENA region. Courtesy OSN

Simply put, what has prompted this rebranding of OSN’s streaming service?

The Plus strongly communicates to our viewers that we are available as a streaming service, anytime, anywhere, on any device. And importantly, at an accessible price point. I think pay television in general, and certainly OSN with its satellite TV routes, is viewed as expensive and targeting an older demographic. With this [new service], we are very clearly speaking to a younger, youthful demographic. Over 50% of the population is under the age of 25 in the MENA region. It’s a very young market, and OSN Plus is our bold statement: we going out and targeting that demographic and saying: “Look, OSN is for everyone.”

It’s a crowded field. MBC’s Shahid VIP streaming service is gaining traction, as is Starz Play. The beIN-owned TOD service has just launched, and Disney Plus and HBO Max are planning to launch in the coming months. What’s going to make OSN Plus standout?

I see a clear white space where OSN can sit, with a distinct value proposition for the consumer. We are the exclusive home of HBO. We have strong partnerships with Peacock, Sky Studios, and various other international providers. And our very strong offering of international content will be greatly complemented by an offering of local, premium, original Arabic language content. Along with this announcement, we are launching “Suits Arabia” with a star-studded cast, which we produced in Egypt. That is our first OSN Plus original series for the market. We’ll have a feature film called “Yellow Bus” coming later in the year. When you look at our offering compared to others in the marketplace, I think we will distinguish ourselves from the global streamers with that rich local offering. And from the local streamers with our very rich vibrant international content. One more thing I will add is I think I’m right in saying that we are probably the only place in the world where you can get HBO, Paramount Plus, [originals from] Sky Studios and Peacock, all on one streaming service for $10 a month.

OSN had an exclusive deal with Disney for its Disney Plus originals in the region. Now that Disney Plus is set to launch in MENA, where does that leave you?

We obviously have a long and deep partnership with Disney, and we welcome them into the market as Disney Plus. We continue to have a relationship with them on the linear side, but Disney Plus is coming into the marketplace as its own proposition. We’re very comfortable that we can sit alongside the Disney Plus offering with our selection of content from HBO and Peacock and Sky Studios and Paramount Plus.

Just to be clear, Disney Plus content will cease to play on OSN’s streaming service, right?

Yes. It has already.

How many subscribers do you have and what’s your target in terms of subs going forward?

We don’t release our subscriber numbers publicly. But what I will say is we have more subscribers today on our streaming service than we ever had on our DTH service, even when DTH was at its peak. So it’s a sizable subscriber base. We have very big ambitions to grow that subscriber base, but I should just flag very clearly that we are focused on growing a direct subscriber base. We are pursuing subscribers that have direct relationships with us through credit cards, iTunes and Google Store, rather than subscribers grown through partners. Many players in this region have chosen to really focus on subscribers, and the fast and easy way to do that is through telco partnerships. Our view is that [strategy] doesn’t really speak to building a long-term sustainable business.

Talk to me about OSN’s Arabic originals. What types of shows and movies will you be making?

We want what we produce to stand out both creatively and in terms of production values. Much of the content production in this region has been restricted to free-to-air and its constraints. It’s only now that opportunities are opening up with subscription and OTT platforms. So our strategy and approach is to work with leading creatives and say: “We are the home for you to tell your story. We will support you, enable you, fund you. We will bring in all the production expertise and facilities that are needed. And we’ll be a mechanism for you to tell your story in an uninhibited way.” We’ve found that it is a really powerful message. And we’re happy that we’ve got a very robust slate, and confident that we’ll be announcing more projects in the next couple of weeks and months.

What’s in the pipeline? Is it premature to announce new Arabic series and movies?

As you know, original production takes time to build. So it’s first about getting that development slate going, and then commissioning projects into production. That takes time to build. You’ll see some coming this year, and next year we expect more.

Can you give me an indication of the volume of Arabic series and movies that we can be expecting from OSN going forward?

At a steady state, we’re going to be doing 15 to 20 a year of both. And we will be focused completely on scripted series and feature films. This year, I wouldn’t put a number on it because we’re just getting going. Next year we’ll be getting closer to a steady state. And the year after that, we’ll happily be in that 15 to 20 target volume, as it were.

How important is Saudi Arabia for you as a market? Your rival MBC is very active there. 

Saudi Arabia is the top of that list. It’s a large market, a growing market and a very young market. And for that reason alone it’s a key focus of ours, both for building subscribers and for producing and sourcing original content. MBC is very active in the Saudi market, but that by no means prohibits us from getting in.  With the opening up of Saudi Arabia and the embracing of this industry, there is a large group of creative talent coming out of the region, more than any one producer can absorb.