MBC plots Netflix-style original content

The free-to-air satellite network MBC aims to strengthen its digital footprint across the Middle East. Above, MBC’s headquarters in Dubai. (AP)
Updated 09 January 2019

MBC plots Netflix-style original content

  • Region’s biggest broadcaster throws down gauntlet to streaming giant Netflix with plans for new-look digital offering
  • Saudi backed-group has hired former Hulu executive Johannes Larcher, who joins as managing director of digital and video on demand

LONDON: MBC Group, the region’s biggest broadcaster, is going head to head with Netflix across the Arab world as it prepares to roll out original shows on demand.
The Saudi backed-group has hired former Hulu executive Johannes Larcher, who joins as managing director of digital and video on demand, with a remit to enhance the group’s entire digital offering.
His focus will be to develop the broadcaster’s “Shahid” and “Shahid Plus” video-on-demand platforms.
It is part of a five-year growth plan for the free-to-air satellite network which aims to strengthen its digital footprint across the Middle East.
But while producing original dramas on a video-on-demand basis draws obvious comparisons with Netflix, Larcher said there were also key differences.
“Netflix is active in the market, but they tend to produce content with global appeal. Shahid will focus on creating originals that are culturally relevant, thus leveraging MBC’s brand equity and long-establish privileged relationships with Arab audiences,” he said in an interview with Arab News.
“It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but we believe we have strong advantages in this area.”


Larcher revealed that there would be a strong focus on Arabic drama soaps in its originally produced content.
With so much free-to-air content available to Arab audiences, paid-for viewing can be more challenging than in other markets. However, the arrival of video-on-demand providers, such as Netflix and Starz Play, is rapidly changing the market.
“While the MENA region has a strong free-to-air TV landscape, led by MBC, and piracy remains an issue, we have found that
with the right offer, large numbers of viewers are willing to subscribe against premium content and special offerings,” said Larcher.
Regional and global broadcasters are being forced to respond to rapidly changing media consumption trends.
Digital news channels are increasingly competing with traditional broadcasters for the attention of audiences who are as likely to get their news from their phones as their televisions.
The Middle East is expected to have 390 million Internet users and six to seven connected devices per household to reach 545 million devices by 2020, primarily from the GCC, according to Deloitte.
“We reach 140 million viewers every day across the Middle East, both through our satellite television channels and online through our video-on-demand service. And as audience habits evolve we are evolving with them,” said MBC Group CEO Sam Barnett.
Netflix, the global number one video-on-demand provider, last February revealed plans for its first Arabic original series, called “Jinn.”


140 million - MBC Group’s estimated regional audience.

Internet a lifeline for Venezuela’s embattled independent media

In this file photo taken on June 13, 2019 A journalist works in one of the newsrooms of the Panorama newspaper in Maracaibo, Venezuela. (AFP)
Updated 17 July 2019

Internet a lifeline for Venezuela’s embattled independent media

  • Regional newspaper Panorama, which served Venezuela’s second city Maracaibo, struggled on until May 14 when “a perfect storm” of massive power cuts finally sounded it’s physical death knell

CARACAS: Starved of advertising revenue and battling a stranglehold on the newspaper industry by the government, Venezuela’s independent media have been decimated by the country’s years-long crisis — with many migrating online to survive.
“It was a course we couldn’t get away from,” Jorge Makriniotis, manager at the 75-year-old El Nacional, told AFP.
The newspaper ran its last physical edition — which had already dropped from 72 to just 16 pages — on December 13 last year.
Like many other former print media, it is only available on the Internet now.
In 2013, Venezuela’s socialist government created a state-run company to control the import and distribution of paper.
Carlos Correa, director of the Espacio Publico non-governmental organization, said the move created “discriminatory dynamics” that saw pro-regime media favored — while others were starved of printing paper, and advertising revenue.
Since then, 58 daily newspapers have ceased circulation, Correa says.
“There’s never been an official response” to the claims from independent media, said Gisela Carmona, the director of El Impulso — one of the papers that has migrated online, requiring an investment of more than a million dollars.
After 100 years in print, the newspaper disappeared from the streets in February 2018, having received no paper for 12 months.

Beyond controlling paper supply, critics accuse the Venezuelan government of oppressing dissenting media voices across the board.
The national union of press workers has denounced a “systematic policy” of asphyxiation as dozens of independent radio and television stations also closed.
“Over the past years, the Government has attempted to impose a communicational hegemony by enforcing its own version of events and creating an environment that curtails independent media,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in a report on Venezuela earlier this month.
One example from 2018 saw El Nacional lose a case brought by Diosdado Cabello, widely regarded as the most powerful regime figure after President Nicolas Maduro, for having published drug-trafficking allegations made against him in the Spanish press.
The economic crisis had a major impact on the media too, as on all businesses.
Five years of recession and rampant hyperinflation — which the International Monetary Fund expects to reach a staggering 10 million percent this year — have decimated advertising revenues.
Carminda Marquez opened a kiosk in Caracas 18 years, selling dozens of newspapers and other publications.
“Now I sell three or four,” said the 80-year-old.
Regional newspaper Panorama, which served Venezuela’s second city Maracaibo, struggled on until May 14 when “a perfect storm” of massive power cuts finally sounded it’s physical death knell, its editorial director Maria Ines Delgado told AFP.
Panorama never had to lay off any journalists as one by one they resigned and left for foreign shores.
“Every time we replaced one, another left,” Delgado said from a near-empty editorial room.
Like El Impulso, Panorama is now fed by banner advertising.

The move online has not solved independent media’s myriad problems, though, least of all the ability to reach readers.
Between frequent power outages, patchy Internet and the second slowest connectivity in Latin America — after landlocked Paraguay — readers have trouble loading pages, especially on smartphones.
“We know nothing any more,” complained Belkis Nava, who used to read Panorama.
Despite the difficulties, some journalists have launched new media directly on the Internet, such as El Pitazo.
Specializing in investigative journalism — it won the prestigious Ortega y Gasset prize awarded by Spanish newspaper El Pais this year — El Pitazo supported itself through a 2017 crowdfunding campaign, director Cesar Batiz told AFP.
However, like other news websites, El Pitazo has come under cyberattack — four times over two years.
Before the first attack in 2017, El Pitazo had 110,000 visits a day. Traffic has since dropped by more than half, and 65 percent of that comes from abroad.
“People aren’t receiving information,” said Melanio Escobar, the director of the Redes Ayuda (Network Help) NGO.