In a sign of the changing landscape of pan-Arab TV, leading indie distributor Front Row Entertainment has inked a five-year first-run output deal for the Middle East and North Africa with Qatar’s beIN Media. Titles to come through the deal include Oliver Stone’s Snowden, Mel Gibson’s thriller Blood Father, Cannes winner Deephan and Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, which Martin Scorsese is exec producing.
The move will come as a worry to incumbent pay TV player OSN. The deep-pocketed beIN’s entry into the general entertainment pay TV pan-Arab market, first revealed by Deadline in July, could be a game-changer. While the Arab TV market has always had at least one major pay TV platform — previously the likes of ART and Orbit, currently OSN — there has arguably never been a company quite as well-financed or ambitious to take on the more than 500 free-to-air satellite channels that currently dominate the airwaves. Quite simply, the resources at beIN Media’s disposal ease the burden of needing to find a financially viable model of return.
The pay TV landscape is changing rapidly across the Arab world. Starz launched Starz Play Arabia, its subscription online video service, across 17 countries in the Middle East on April 2 this year. Netflix is also expected to launch its own OTT service in Q1 2016. 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 UAE, for example, there are more mobile phones than there are people.
“As we launch our entertainment portfolio, it is imperative that we align with independent content aggregators,” said Yousef Al-Obaidly, Deputy CEO of beIN. “We feel that Front Row is a great fit for beIN. Their enthusiasm, love and knowledge of the film industry is remarkable. We are confident that this partnership will be a major asset to the network’s expansion.”
“This venture is probably one of the biggest deals in Front Row’s history,” said Front Row founder and managing director Gianluca Chakra. “This output deal is only the beginning of a long-term relationship based on mutual trust and benefit which will spawn many more ventures that are already being planned with beIN. We understand beIN’s ambition to position itself as the leading regional entertainment platform and we are committed to collaborating with beIN on this journey.”
Hisham Al-Ghanim, GM of the Kuwait National Cinema Company and active partner in Front Row, added, “We are sure it’s going to be only a matter of time before beIN becomes leader in the pay TV sector. We are honored to contribute towards the achievement of this vision.”
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, 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.
The less controversial, non-political arm of Qatar’s Al-Jazeera Media Network, beIN Media is already the dominant sports broadcaster in the Arab world and increasingly beyond after its successful re-branding from Al Jazeera Sports in 2014. The platform operates across the Middle East and North Africa, France, the U.S., Canada, Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Philippines and Australia. In the summer it closed a deal with Major League Soccer to broadcast its games across Southeast Asia and Australia.
In an even more significant move, the company also confirmed in July its long-in-the-works acquisition for Turkey’s biggest pay TV network Digiturk, for a figure believed to be in excess of $1 billion. That purchase was as much political as it was commercial given Turkey’s geographical and cultural proximity to the Arab world. Dubbed Turkish dramas have dominated Arab TV grids for close to a decade and offering content across both Turkish and MENA territories will potentially give beIN execs a scope and scale rarely seen in the region before.