Starz officially launches Starz Play Arabia, its subscription online video service across 17 countries in the Middle East, on April 2. The service will carry Starz shows such as Black Sails and Spartacus, as well as other studio and indie content. The platform has been developed and launched in partnership with Swedish media group Parsifal Entertainment, which also worked with HBO to launch its online service in Scandinavia.
Starz chief exec Chris Albrecht first discussed Starz’ potential plans to launch OTT services across different international territories at Mipcom last October under the Starz Play banner. By launching in the Middle East, the premium cable network has stolen a march on others, including Netflix and Amazon, who are also eyeing up the potentially lucrative market. Two thirds of the Arab world’s population of 370 million people is under the age of 30. That youthful market is a hungry consumer of entertainment. While broadband penetration can be patchy across the region, mobile penetration is through the roof. In the U.A.E., for example, there are more mobile phones than there are people.
The Arab world is proliferated by free-to-air TV networks, with more than 500 channels vying for eyeballs and ad dollars across the region. Of those, the vast majority lose money but, given that many are owned by wealthy individuals or political/governmental entities, few, if any, ever shut down. While free-to-air has traditionally been the name of the game, there are some who have tried, generally unsuccessfully, to create a viable pay TV model. One exception is OSN, itself the result of the 2009 merger between Orbit and Showtime Arabia, which has tried to establish itself as the dominant pay TV player in the market. It is no surprise that Starz Play Arabia has tapped former OSN exec Maaz Sheikh as its president and COO.
Ironically, Starz’ entry into the Middle East is rumoured to have been expedited by its dissatisfaction with local SVOD newbie Icflix. That company has spent handsomely marketing its services across the region as the premier SVOD platform in the Arab world and has even begun producing its own original content. It has, however, been dogged by a reputation for late payment – if ever- to content providers and distributors. A number of distributors contacted by Deadline confirmed they would no longer deal with the company and had resorted to legal proceedings to achieve settlements. Initially, Icflix had been set to air a number of Starz series on its platform, only for issues relating to late payments led to Starz execs deciding to go it on their own.
As for Netflix, the SVOD giant confirmed to Deadline that is plans to expand globally in 2016 but had no specific plans to announce beyond that at this time.