The age of narrowcast is upon us: How streaming is changing the Middle East’s media landscape
Streaming wars: How the age of the narrowcast is changing our media landscape: In Egypt and abroad, the pandemic has accelerated the shift to streaming content. Content being, of course, the stream of information and entertainment that beams out at you from your digital devices (phone, TV, tablet, gaming console, you name it).
Gone are the days of broadcast: “We are no longer in the era of broadcast, we are in the era of narrowcast, where different genres are made for different people. Nothing caters to everyone,” Ergo, Media Ventures Investment Manager Gamal Guemeih tells us. Which means that, the more you watch, the more tailored your options will be — and the less likely you are to stumble upon media outside of your comfort zone. While digital technologies are making it easier to make and distribute films, many films are not being seen because they are buried under heaps of titles that your favorite streaming platform pushes to its viewers. Just because algorithms say so.
The surge and subsequent slowdown altered global trends in streaming. Globally, Netflix gained a record 37 mn subscribers in 2020 as social distancing kept people indoors and screen-bound — a trend that slowed down in 1Q2021 when the streaming giant added a mere four mn new subscribers (two thirds of its projections). Coupled by growing demand for content, the slowdown in the growth of streaming platforms has resulted in a number of newfound trends emerging in the industry, including an increase in intellectual property content, the consolidation of streaming services, and streaming services expanding their offerings to include video games and live sports. Other trends include acquiring rights for hybrid or early releases of movies, shifting to weekly rather than binge content drops and introducing more international content to the platforms.
Video-on-demand streaming is surging in MENA, with projections that the regional streaming industry will “spike” by 2026. Prominent regional players include MBC Group’s Shahid VIP, OSN, Amazon (in the UAE), StarzPlay, WATCHiT, and soon to launch in MENA this year, Disney+. Meanwhile, Shahid VIP, which launched in 2008, gained 1.4 mn subscribers by the end of Ramadan 2021 — a 43% y-o-y increase from the same period in 2020 (most of which is attributed to its North America launch in November of that year). This in spite of the dearth of local content on streaming platforms and limited relevant digital regulations.
Local, regional and international players are looking to build out their original content portfolios. In addition to bringing international catalogs to Egyptian audiences, streaming platforms are increasingly producing local and regional content. Netflix already has two Egyptian productions under its belt, and the release of Egyptian, Lebanese, Emirati collaboration Perfect Strangers earlier this year marked the streaming giant’s first foray into Arabic film. Meanwhile, Shahid VIP has churned out tens of titles over the past three years — largely to meet demand from users who are spending more hours watching streaming services than before.
Even PE firms are going long on content. The industry has drawn interest from private equity firms like Apollo and Blackstone looking to capitalize on the boom by investing in and buying up Hollywood production houses as they try to get a slice of the USD 115 bn streaming pie — even as bottom lines are squeezed by plateauing subscriber growth and streaming companies struggle to balance the USD 100 bn outlay on content.
On the flipside, with cinema hard-hit, it makes sense for filmmakers to seek out OTT opportunities. As movie theaters continue to decline in popularity (not to mention, affordability) more filmmakers have turned to over the top video (OTT) to ensure that their films are seen in both Egypt and the US, where filmmakers are increasingly embracing the opportunity to make films at all. In a first for Arabic film, Shahid VIP launched its first pre-theatrical film release of drama Saheb El Makam (The Enriched Saint) in time for Eid El-Adha in July 2020, and last month, filmmaker Amr Salama dropped his first series on Shahid VIP, Bimbo.
Movie theaters and TV can complement — or compete — with one another. “Cinemas and streaming are complementing in some respects and competing in others,” explains Guemeih, who notes that short films and documentaries have become increasingly visible thanks to the rise of streaming platforms, even if feature-length films have become less so.
Digital revenues for entertainment are on the rise. A PricewaterhouseCoopers report found that digital revenue rose to make up 42% of total entertainment and media revenue in the region in 2020 — up from 37% the previous year — with projections that it will reach 46% by 2024. The digital content transition in the entertainment and media landscape is fueled largely by the region’s bulging youth population, with an estimated 60% of the population under the age of 25.
Digital infrastructure and financial exclusion remain barriers for the industry. The latest figures by Data Reportal found that 2020 was a year of rapid digitization, recording a 2.9% y-o-y increase in mobile connections and a 8.1% y-o-y increase in internet usage. This in spite of average download speeds rising by only 31.5% y-o-y from 2019 — a challenge that the ongoing EGP 37 bn high-speed fiber optic network project promises to address. And with a mere 3.5% of the population aged 15+ paying bills or making purchases online, it has made it doubly challenging for streaming platforms to roll out their subscription services, opting instead to rely on advertising-based or hybrid advertising and subscription-based models, according to PWC.