The unprecedented rise of streaming services and online video content in 2020 is no surprise. From Netflix to StarzPlay, all companies have reported a rise in content consumption and time spent on their platforms.
But StarzPlay, which reached a massive 1.8 million subscribers mid-2020, waited until September to announce the numbers.
“You hear of streaming companies making claims, but very few companies have ever come out and shared the data,” said StarzPlay CEO Maaz Sheikh.
“We took that step even further. Not only are we are sharing the data publicly, but we’re also making the data available to a third-party research firm (PSB) to validate the data and the findings.”
The Dubai-based company saw strong growth in users, peaking at 141 percent in April 2020, with a 50 percent increase in streaming hours per unique user during the lockdown period.
During this time, StarzPlay’s top market Saudi Arabia outpaced the average growth in hours per user, while the UAE emerged as a top growth market in the region, nearly doubling both hours and unique users.
But as lockdowns eased, many services saw new users dropping off. A US study found that the overall “churn rate” — the number of subscribers who canceled their subscription — jumped to 41 percent in the first quarter of 2020, up 6 percentage points from the same period in 2019.
Danny Bates, chief commercial officer of StarzPlay, told Arab News that the company saw a “large organic influx” of new customers from March to June, followed by some losses in July and August.
He would not give specific numbers but said: “Now when I look at our position, our churn has gone back to its normal levels. We don’t have a particularly high number of new customers, but when I look at our position from closing numbers on Dec. 31, 2019 to our numbers in September, we’ve grown by almost 600,000 customers so far year-to-date.”
That is a significant achievement for the local player, which dominated 29 percent of the subscriber market, ahead of Netflix, and 24 percent market share in terms of revenue, at par with Netflix, in 2019, according to IHS Markit.
Much of StarzPlay’s success is based on its content strategy, which so far has largely been based on acquisitions.
But as the appetite for Arabic content increases, streaming services are stepping in to not only make more Arabic content available, but also to produce some themselves.
For instance, last month Netflix signed a five-year exclusive partnership with Saudi animation studio Myrkott to produce Saudi-focused shows and films, along with a similar period first-look option on the company’s upcoming projects.
StarzPlay is also looking to increase its Arabic content offering through original productions. Earlier this year, it featured its first original show, “Baghdad Central,” which has become one if its top-watched Arabic shows this year.
It is also working with an Abu Dhabi-based production company on a pan-Arab series that was delayed due to COVID-19 but is expected to be out by the second quarter of 2021.
The biggest change to come, Bates said, is the aggregation of other channels or services on the StarzPlay platform.
“There are many international players that are looking to come into the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, but don’t necessarily want to come in and do the marketing directly, or go through the pain of localizing in 26 countries with payment methods, user interface and applications,” he added.
“So one of the things you’ll see more and more from us is we’re going to start to aggregate other services on our platform.”
The first of these services is Discovery Channel, which will be made available as “D-play” at the end of October, with more announcements to come toward the end of the year.
There is no doubt that streaming services are one of the few service categories to emerge successful in 2020 — a success that was, at least in part, magnified by the closure of cinemas.
“We’ve never seen a correlation between people’s cinema activity and OTT services,” Bates said. But the fact is that several productions, including Jon Stewart’s “Irresistible,” Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” and Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island,” have opted for digital instead of theatrical releases.
“I think there’s always an opportunity. Now that cinemas are open, it makes perfect sense for the movie to launch in a cinema first,” Bates added.
“We always look at how we can shorten that window between something being in the cinema and appearing on services like ours,” he added.
“I definitely think there’s another monetization window that they (large content providers) can take advantage of.
“As we look at our strategy moving forward, potentially doing transactional VOD (video on demand) releases on our platform is potentially something we’d consider in 2021. It’s definitely something we’re thinking of, and definitely something we’re talking to our partners about.”