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INTERVIEW: “I don’t see the launch of Disney+ as an existential threat” for regional streaming services

DUBAI: This month, E-Vision, a subsidiary of UAE firm e&, and ADQ, an Abu Dhabi-based investment and holding company, signed a joint agreement to acquire a 57% majority stake in the regional streaming platform StarzPlay Arabia.

Maaz Sheikh, CEO and co-founder of StarzPlay, told Arab News that the deal was an “organic evolution” that made “industrial sense for both parties”.

The streaming service already had a seven-year relationship with e&, formerly known as Etisalat Group, which was the first telecommunications company it partnered with at launch. The telco then became a minority shareholder in 2017 and now, as part of a consortium with the ADQ, is a majority shareholder. The benefits of this for StarzPlay Arabia are clear, according to Sheikh.

“The business and industry are becoming increasingly competitive, so we needed a strategic partner who could bring us the economies of scale and the strategic reach and distribution of a telecom operator like e&, which operates in all of the key markets in which we operate,” he said.

Meanwhile, e& was looking for a digital company to invest in.

Maaz Sheikh, CEO and co-founder of StarzPlay

“Given that racing is already very competitive, it’s too late to launch a new over-the-top or streaming brand in the region,” Sheikh said. An OTT media service is a service offered directly to online viewers, bypassing traditional broadcast platforms.

He added that unless you are an established brand such as “Disney and think you can launch your own service in the area”, it is too late to build a brand from scratch so you have to. through mergers and acquisitions.

The recently announced upcoming launch of Disney+ in the Middle East, along with OSN’s recent rebranding, MBC and Shahid’s dominance and Netflix’s regional investments mean the local streaming industry is increasingly competitive. Sheikh isn’t too concerned about the arrival of a new player though.

“I don’t see the launch of Disney+ in the market as an existential threat to an OTT player in the market,” he said. “It’s a fairly complex market where you have to travel to 21 countries and credit card penetration varies from country to country. So local players have a certain advantage.

Time will tell if this advantage is sustainable or not, added Sheikh, but he remains resolute in his belief that localizing content and distribution will continue to provide a strong advantage to regional players.

In 2021, StarzPlay Arabia, Netflix and Shahid VIP were the local market leaders, together responsible for more than 60% of subscriber share, according to market research firm Dataxis.

Going forward, analysts expect Shahid VIP to lead the pack, followed by Netflix and then StarzPlay Arabia. The first two are expected to hold a market share of more than 20% by 2026, as StarzPlay’s growth projections slow. Sheikh, however, remains optimistic.

“Today we are partnered with 21 mobile operators in the region, and Netflix has not yet integrated the first one,” he said. He admitted that Shahid has been “doing well with mobile integrations and mobile payment plans”, as has StarzPlay.

Hollywood content has been StarzPlay’s greatest strength thus far and it has also made recent inroads into Arabic and Turkish content and anime. With e& and ADQ now on board, the company will look to expand further into sports content and Arabic originals.

“Those are maybe the two things we could have done on our own but not on the scale we can do now,” Sheikh said.

In February, StarzPlay reported a fivefold increase in monthly subscribers, driven by the addition of new sports content, and a 30% increase in average revenue per user.

In fact, the cricket match between India and Pakistan in the 2021 ICC Men’s T20 World Cup saw the platform register the highest number of viewers in its history.

The service’s second-best day, in terms of new users and consumption, was when the United Arab Emirates played Lebanon in last year’s AFC Asian World Cup qualifier, Sheikh said. . StarzPlay Arabia was the most downloaded app that day in the UAE across all categories.

Access to both sporting events was made possible through StarzPlay’s partnerships with e& and Abu Dhabi Media.

“These are two examples of what this strategic collaboration can do for consumers and in the future you will see more of them,” Sheikh said.

In terms of original content, StarzPlay released its original series “Baghdad Central” in 2020. This year, it worked with Discovery+ to launch a regional version of the bridal fashion reality show “Say Yes to the Dress”, which was filmed and produced in the UNITED ARAB EMIRATES.

The platform is gearing up to release its next Arabic original, “Urban Legends,” after Ramadan. It will also air six shows during Ramadan, in partnership with Abu Dhabi Media.

“The new strategic investment allows us to bring in those economies of scale when it comes to original Arabic (programming) and sports. And those two, in addition to our cast, will be our strengths,” said Sheikh.