Tarek Mounir, Turner’s VP and general manager for the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, speaks with TV MEA about the company’s portfolio of businesses, its exclusive partnership with beIN Media Group and his outlook for the region’s media sector.
Localization has been a key mantra at Turner as it has built out its global business. The Middle East is no exception, with the company establishing an animation studio in Abu Dhabi to deliver local content and a Cartoon Network-branded destination at Dubai’s IMG Worlds of Adventure. Based at the regional headquarters in Dubai, Mounir is negotiating shifts in the local media ecosystem and driving gains in the still-growing pay-TV segment.
WS: What’s driving Turner’s overall business in the Middle East and North Africa?
MOUNIR: The Dubai office oversees the Middle East and North Africa as well as Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. We have a healthy split between our premium pay-TV services and our free-to-air services. Turner is a subscriber-driven operation globally, and while we operate in free to air in some markets, premium pay-TV affiliates have always been our core business. Being a fan-centered organization, we’re offering our audiences multiple touchpoints. That starts with linear and covers digital, social media, games, apps, console games, mall activities and even AR. All these touchpoints allow us to properly reach our audience and monetize accordingly. In this region, we can say that we’ve been able to establish a big portion of these touchpoints. We also have a licensing and merchandising division, and we are working on localization, on original productions. So with traditional businesses and new businesses, we’re putting our fans at the center, focusing on them and allowing them to enjoy our content in pretty much all [of the] forms that it comes in.
WS: On the pay-TV side, tell us about the importance of your partnership with beIN.
MOUNIR: That’s a key strategic partnership for us. With the shift they made to become not only sports-focused but sports- and general-entertainment-focused, and the acquisition they made in Turkey of Digiturk, they are the leading DTH platform in MENA. It is an anchor deal for us.
WS: And are they helping you roll out the touchpoints you mentioned via their own TV Everywhere initiatives?
MOUNIR: We do a lot of collaborations with beIN. We exist on some of their on-demand services, and we do a lot of marketing initiatives with them. We’re working toward some new services in 2018 and 2019. It’s too early to talk about those, but we’re always looking to expand on and enhance the business relationship between the two entities.
WS: Tell us about your free-to-air business.
MOUNIR: We have Cartoon Network Arabic in MENA and Cartoon Network Turkey as free-to-air operations. Those are strictly advertiser-revenue-driven. Cartoon Network Turkey has been around for ten years now and Cartoon Network Arabic launched in 2010. So they’re pretty established networks. They allowed us to build the brand properly in both markets. Free to air is mass reach—nothing can replace it in terms of brand awareness and brand building. At the same time, having strong advertising revenue behind those two networks has helped us to grow them year on year, invest more into local content and enabled us to be creative with our commercial partnerships, whether it’s sponsorship or promotions. And the exposure that our core brands get eventually leads to licensing and merchandising deals as well.
WS: How important has the theme park in Dubai been for the Cartoon Network brand in the region?
MOUNIR: The presence of the brand on the ground with the theme park has given us a serious competitive edge. IMG Worlds of Adventure is the size of 28 football fields—it is gigantic—and it’s the largest indoor theme park on the planet, so people can visit throughout the whole year. UAE visitors, as well as tourists from Turkey and the GCC, get exposed to Cartoon Network [at a level] that no other brand enjoys in the region.
WS: What have been some of your original programming initiatives?
MOUNIR: We’ve been focused on kids’ entertainment when it comes to original programming. Cartoon Network Arabic launched with a slate of shows that were produced in the Arab world. We also commissioned our own shows like Skatoony and the Ben 10 live game shows where fans get to come with their parents and compete against other teams. Those were pretty successful in terms of driving ratings and eyeballs to the networks. We have a key flagship property we delivered in the UAE called Mansour, a high-value animation produced in our studios in Abu Dhabi now in its fifth season. In Turkey, we also have a flagship IP called Kral Sakir, which is delivering great results on the network.
WS: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the media ecosystem in MENA over the last one to two years?
MOUNIR: The shift in viewing from linear to OTT hasn’t been as strong as other markets. The region has begun the adoption of on-demand and OTT, but linear still dominates by far. We’re noticing some migration, but we still feel that the runway for linear is much longer than it is in European and American territories. There have been some shifts, advertising shifts, revenues going to Google and Facebook. Most notably, I would say YouTube grew phenomenally in Saudi Arabia. Social media, in general, is capturing a big portion of the audience. But this is not necessarily a move from linear to on-demand. This is more a diversification of options for the viewers. I wouldn’t say there’s cord-cutting like there is in other markets.
WS: The OTT space is becoming more crowded. How do you see that sector expanding over the next 12 to 18 months?
MOUNIR: The global platforms have launched in this region. Our current affiliates, the partners we have on the ground, are getting into that space in some shape or form. We’re trying to fuel those partnerships, while we remain open to all sorts of commercial and editorial relationships that make sense for our brand and that continue to put our fans at the center. Backing our partners and allowing them to grow with us, as well as reaching more eyeballs through their expansion into that space, is the strategic line that we’re taking.
WS: What are your other priorities in the year ahead?
MOUNIR: The region did not enjoy the greatest economic era in 2016 and 2017; it’s been a little bit challenged. We’re starting to see a more positive vibe and consumer confidence is building up. The retail market is picking up, which means that advertising is going to pick up. Pay TV hasn’t slowed down—that remains one of the biggest opportunities for us to expand. We are expanding our portfolio in general—we’re not going to remain only in kids and news, we are spreading our wings a little more into general entertainment and gaming and other areas that Turner is tackling globally. We’ll continue to pursue our audiences wherever they go and find commercial and editorial partnerships that make sense for us in the places that are opening up.