“I hope we’ll have less quantity and better quality. We have too many choices nowadays, especially with television shows,” says Khaled Benchouche, head of content at Starzplay. Communicate sat down with Benchouce to understand the ethos of good content and what the Arab region is hungry for today.
What do you define as good content?
A unique story. If you have a unique story, something that will be different, then it’s good content. After that, you add all the production elements; directors, actors, producers, the production value of it, etc.
What are the demands of the region when it comes to content preferences?
This region is really into action but they also love comedy. US comedy resonates really well here. Friends is a [given] but also shows like The Big Bang Theory, The Office, Parks and Recreations, Fraiser, etc were also really successful. The third would be drama. The beauty of Starzplay is that we’re across 20 countries. We have key markets such as UAE and Saudi Arabia but we also have an audience in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, etc and this audience doesn’t watch the same thing. So we’re able to offer content depending on the tastes of that country.
Can you give me an example of this?
In North Africa, they want to watch content dubbed in French. We’re aware of it because we’re based here and we were able to talk with our partners and tell them to provide us with the French dubbed version of our content. The market in Egypt loves local Arabic produced content so we invest more in it. In the UAE, they love comedy, despite the language. In GCC, they want established action franchises such as Fast and Furious on the movie side and Marvel and DC shows on the television side. Greys Anatomy is also widely popular in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
During our interview with Maaz Sheikh, he mentioned that Starzplay is trying to figure out how to create pan-regional content that appeals to everyone. How far have you gotten in finding a solution?
We believe that the original production that we’re working on right now, which is set to launch at the end of this year will be a pan-regional content that will appeal to key territories.
– What are the characteristics of pan-regional content?
You have so many differences between the Levants, the people living in the Levants, the expats from Levant living in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, people from Egypt, Saudi, and Morocco. There’s a difference in terms of culture and story, so you need to create something that would speak to each one of those cultures. They’re all Arabs, they all speak one language but they’re also all attached to their own culture – that’s the difference.
How did you structure your content offering in terms of genres? For example, you’re the only platform offering anime. Based on what do you make such decisions?
We created three categories; movies, television series, and kids’ content. On the movies side, we decided to work with Seven Studios, since they have good traction in the region. Based on the budget, we select a certain number of movies. You have the recent movies and then based on the remainder of the budget, we ask ourselves, ‘Can we buy more or not?’ and then you have the library category. Within this library, you need to have the right mix of action, comedy but also a little bit of drama, a little bit of what you call evergreen titles. Here’s an example of an evergreen title: take Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop 1, is it going to perform? We don’t know, because this a movie from the 80s. So you put it on the platform, market it on social media and see whether the new generation is interested in it or not?
With respect to television series, you have what you call a first-run category, which means first time premiering in the region. This is your unique selling point. For example, if subscribers want to watch a show like Billions, there’s only one place to watch it in the Middle East and that’s Starzplay.
The second-run category is what you call a second window. It’s after OSN or Bein. We believe that the content on those two Pay-TV platforms, has a limited audience and we can bring it to a bigger audience. For example – the TV series Flash goes first on OSN but the OSN audience is quite limited and offers so much content, that the show doesn’t manage to stand out. But with us, it can stand out because we are offering it to a different audience.
Then you have the box-sets. The box-sets include content that resonates really well with the audience such as Grey’s Anatomy, Lost, The Walking Dead, The Good Doctor.
For kids’ content, we work with different partners such as Disney, Nickelodeon, and E-Junior, the channel created by E-vision. E-junior probably has one of the best offerings for kids’ content in the region. We cover a lot of age-groups from pre-school to the 12-13-year-old range and provide them a lot of popular franchises.
There is a demand for Anime in the region. People are eager to watch original Japanese Anime productions with Arabic subtitles. We wanted to offer something different and the titles we selected, resonated with our audience. My Hero Academia, Attack on Titan, Tokyo Ghoul are a few respectively. Tokyo Ghoul is not mainstream but manages to tailgate the millennial audience, especially in the 15-25 age group.
What is the process behind greenlighting a new original production on Starzplay?
Story! We hear a lot of pitches and concepts that people pitch us during meetings. Based on that we ask the questions: what is unique? what we should develop more? and then we ask if they have a treatment, which most of the time they do. Post that we decide to make a decision, to either move forward or move on to another project. Bring a unique story and you will immediately go to the next phase. Of course, the treatment has to be original. And that’s when you begin to work on what’s known as the Bible i.e. the explanation of all the episodes, the characters, their journey, the story arc, where do you see the show going, etc.
How much of a role does data play in selecting a new content piece to stream on the platform and retaining existing ones?
We have five years of data with us and it [plays a huge role] in working to make key decisions. For eg- we launched Friends exactly one year before Netflix. We saw the results and wondered what else could we have. When we got the opportunity to be the only platform in the region to license The Big Bang Theory with all the seasons including the latest one, we gave it a thumbs up.
Another eg – We stream Greys Anatomy through a partnership with one of our distributors, because we saw that it resonates well in UAE, Saudi Arabia and most parts of the MENA region. So, based on the data we received and timing, we got the opportunity to license the exclusive rights to The Good Doctor.
How did you see the demand for Greys Anatomy before taking the rights to stream it?
We followed what the millennials are using these days. We also have access from time to time to what is the most pirated content. As Starzplay, we need to offer an alternative to those private websites. If you can offer better quality, zero pop-up ads and Arabic subtitles- it induces people to subscribe.
How do you get access to that data?
That’s our secret. [But it involves] a lot of conversation, partnership and common goals with the partners who are giving that data.
Where do you see content heading in the next 5 years?
I hope we’ll have less quantity and better quality. We have too many choices nowadays, especially with television shows. How many shows can you follow?. Unfortunately, some of them end up becoming mediocre because of the [excess quantity.] and I don’t think the demand is here for all that many shows.
What are the advantages/challenges of each format in terms of duration (long-form, short-form, etc.)?
Nowadays, in the SVOD (Subscription video on demand) space, it doesn’t matter. Because- if it’s a 20-minute episode, a one-hour episode or a two and a half hour movie, as long as you like it and press play, you’re going to watch it. Since we’re not a TV channel, which has slots to fill based on the advertising revenue they need to make, shows on cable are 42 minutes long. But on cable, our shows can be 55 minutes long because we don’t have advertising, so people can feel the entire one hour time allocated. US network comedy is 22 minutes with 8-minute slots for advertising. But on SVOD and cable, comedies can be 26-35 minutes as long as the story is [engaging]. These days, you find the comedy genre which is usually 30 minutes made into a one hour format. And the one hour format is produced as a 30-minute episode instead. For eg – Jane the Virgin is one hour but its a comedy. Atlanta, Entourage and Ballers are under the 30-minute duration but they’re not comedies. They come under Drama.