End of the adverts?
The culture of how television is viewed has hugely changed over the last decade and it seems, at last, this part of the world is catching up. Subscription video on demand (SVOD) has created a huge paradigm shift in how people – especially younger people – are watching television. With the launch of Starz Play, this region can now begin to move into the SVOD era and watch series and films when they want, on a range of devices and advert-interruption free. Other companies are reportedly on the way.
The opening salvo from Starz also seems reasonable, initially offering around 3,000 movies and a wide selection of TV series for $13.99-a-month (Dhs51), a 30-day free trial, and no monthly contractual obligations. The SVOD service will be available on PCs and Macs, iPhones, iPads, and Android devices as well as Xbox360 and PS4.
Starz Play Arabia will debut in 17 countries and territories throughout the region including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE. Other countries where the service is available include Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories and Tunisia.
Maaz Sheikh, President of Starz Play and former COO of OSN, spoke to Esquire and started by denying that this will be a hard to sell for a region where free-to-air has been the dominant model for so long. “We think at this price point it’s a very affordable service, especially since it’s on demand, so you can access the content at any point on any device. And look at the content we are offering with the partnership with the studios that we have – we’re partnered with all the major studios including CBS/Showtime, Disney, Lionsgate, MGM, Paramount, Shine, Sony, and Warner Bros.”
He’s also up against the fact that so many people in this region currently VPN software to access services such as Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, 4OD and many more might make it a harder sell, while many others simply use a BitTorrent peer-to-peer service to download televisions shows the morning after they are broadcast in the US or UK and films as soon as they come out on DVD.
This, however, is a global issue not just a regional one and the cry from those using BitTorrent to download series has long been “well give us an affordable alternative”. Sheikh believes at Dhs51 per month this will be the affordable alternative, albeit one with limitations.
Films will appear on the service in what the industry refers to as a pay window. “Depending on how well the film has done in a cinema, we will get the film anything from a year to 18 months later, and after DVD release,” he explains. For many expats, however, the biggest barrier may well be the ongoing regional issue of censorship.
Sheikh had previously said that “Our content will be presented in a culturally sensitive way” which will set off alarm bells for those of us who recall episodes of The Sopranos where so much was cut out, the broadcaster used bits from other episodes to fill the gap. For a Starz original series like Spartacus – with full-frontal nudity and sex scenes – are we going to see the censor’s scalpel wielded again?
“There are parts of Spartacus that will be edited,” He admits “and we are living within the norms of what has been acceptable in the region, so there are certain aspects of our service that we will edit out following the guidelines of the region but in general it will be unedited. We have 3,000 movies and shows and Spartacus is just part of that, generally speaking, the content won’t be edited.”
He assures us that the censorship will be more in line of an existing pay TV channel rather than a free-to-air station. It’ll be a case of caveat emptor. For upcoming original Starz series like Blunt Talk, Flesh And Bone and The One Percent, they be available to watch at the same time as the US and whether to show things uncut will be a case-by-case basis.
This launch is likely to be the first of a wave of SVOD services in the region with giant Netflix, reportedly planning to expand globally in 2016, but Starz are confident that they would be able to compete if they come to this region.
Right now, the Starz Play service will probably stand or fall on whether people are happy to pay a bit more than the price of a pint each month to access around a catalogue of films and TV series. They may not be the latest films and the TV series are not all “must see” or uncensored but it’s a pretty reasonable price to have advert-free on-demand TV. It’s also the first serious step for the region into the modern way of consuming media.