Tom Keaveny, the managing director of beIN MENA, tells World Screen about the threat that the piracy platform beoutQ poses to the global media and entertainment industry.
Since it first popped up in the Middle East in 2017, beoutQ has emerged as one of the most prolific, extensive piracy platforms in the world today. For an annual subscription price of about $100 (varying by market and often cheaper), the beoutQ box offers up, over a mix of satellite and live streaming, virtually every major channel across the globe—broadcast, basic cable and premium—live sports events, 10,000-plus on-demand movies and more than 35,000 TV episodes. The content rights holders certainly aren’t being compensated; indeed, beIN Media Group labels it as “industrial-scale theft of world sports and entertainment.” beIN Media Group was beoutQ’s first target, but the Qatar-based company is sending a message to the global media economy that it’s not the only one being affected—and that it can’t fight the battle on its own.
“There are two big misconceptions,” says Keaveny. “One is that it’s a Middle Eastern problem; it’s not. The IPTV element to the box is everywhere and has every single channel you can think of, sports and entertainment. And the second misconception is that it’s political, Saudis against Qatar. It had its roots in that dispute but is now affecting rights holders across the world. It’s pure and simple commercial theft of content. So when anyone says to us now, from a rights holders perspective, Oh we don’t want to get involved in politics. We say to them, that’s not acceptable, this is theft.”
The beoutQ story began in the months following the blockade against Qatar by a group of Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia. Once the embargo started, viewers in Saudi Arabia no longer had access to beIN Media’s channels, with the broadcaster kicked out of the country overnight. At the same time, news emerged that Saudi Arabia was launching a new sports service, PBS Sports. That platform never came to fruition. “What did materialize was beoutQ, basically a hybrid, in logo form, of beIN and PBS Sports,” Keaveny says. “beoutQ was launched as a streaming website and quickly morphed into an encrypted, ten-channel, satellite pirate TV operation. Those ten channels were taking the live feeds of beIN and other broadcasters. There’s a seven-second delay. In those seven seconds, beoutQ’s logo is imprinted on top of ours in the top right-hand corner. Occasionally their own commentary is inserted. They have their own advertising breaks. They sell that space. If we make an announcement about beoutQ during intervals, they’ll cut to something else. Every major sports event for the past two years has been stolen—from the Super Bowl to NBA games to FIFA, UEFA, every single game of the World Cup, the Asian Cup, Wimbledon, Roland-Garros, Formula 1. Every sport you can think of has been distributed on the ten live encrypted channels, which in turn are distributed over Arabsat, a regional Saudi-headquartered and owned satellite provider.” For its part, Arabsat has publicly denied that its frequencies are being used by beoutQ, despite, beIN says, “beoutQ openly advertising on its Facebook and other social channels the specific Arabsat frequencies to receive its service.”
Soon, beoutQ was selling its own branded set-top boxes featuring the ten pirated channels plus what Keaveny describes as a “bespoke app store” that serves as a gateway to the global content landscape. “You can access everything from HBO to FOX, every entertainment channel you can think of, Netflix, all the sports channels, the latest blockbuster films, almost the day they are in the cinemas.” The boxes are available across the Middle East and North Africa, but, Keaveny notes, they are spreading further afield. “These boxes are appearing in Florida, in Geneva, in London, any major city—it’s a contagion.”
The extent of the offering is shocking, with channels organized by country (U.S., U.K., France, Turkey, the Netherlands, etc.) and even multiple feeds of premium channel bouquets like HBO and Starz (East and West Coast versions), per a video demonstration of the box supplied to World Screen by beIN.
beIN is using a variety of approaches to battle beoutQ, including launching a $1 billion international investment arbitration suit against Saudi Arabia (which has denied that it is backing beoutQ). Per beIN, $1 billion is an estimation of lost revenues simply for a six-month period in this now two-year-long saga. Separately, Qatar has launched a complaint against Saudi Arabia with the World Trade Organization. A variety of sports bodies, including FIFA, UEFA, Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga, have denounced beoutQ and some are taking legal action. The problem with working through the courts, however, is time.
“Fundamentally, the limitation of legal action is it takes many, many years,” notes David Sugden, the director of corporate affairs and communications at beIN. “The commercial rights that are being stolen are measured in seconds and minutes, not years—the length of a soccer game, a tennis match or a movie. The solution from a technology point of view is also very challenging because if you have a satellite stationed many miles above the Earth beaming the feed to set-top boxes, it’s very hard to disrupt the service if the satellite provider refuses to turn off the feed and adhere to international law.”
Not that beIN is neglecting tech initiatives. “We are trying to maintain the integrity of our platform through the use of technology,” Keaveny stresses. “And our spend in technology has gone up into the tens of millions.”
The company has also stepped up its political lobbying and awareness-raising initiatives. To that end, beIN has been meeting with ambassadors from around the world, the policy advisors to a range of U.S. politicians and working with trade bodies like the Motion Picture Association and the Asia Video Industry Association. In January, beIN launched beoutq.tv, a website detailing what it refers to as “Saudi state-supported piracy of world sport and entertainment.”
While the sports world has been vocal, Keaveny argues that the response from the broader entertainment landscape has been insufficient. The BBC and Sky in the U.K. have called on the European Commission to crack down on beoutQ, and more recently, demands were made by British Parliament members for the U.K. government to take action against Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the U.S. Trade Representative placed Saudi Arabia on its priority watch list for failing to protect intellectual property in its 2019 Special 301 Report. “Saudi Arabia has not taken action against the rampant satellite and online piracy made available by illicit pirate service beoutQ,” the report says. “While Saudi officials have confirmed the illegal nature of beoutQ’s activities and claim to be addressing this issue by seizing beoutQ set-top boxes, such devices nevertheless continue to be widely available and are generally unregulated in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia also has not taken sufficient steps to address the purported role of Arabsat in facilitating beoutQ’s piracy activities.”
“There’s going to be a financial implication with all of this,” Keaveny says on why content companies, trade bodies and governments need to step up their efforts against beoutQ. “This is a negative multiplier. Less money going into [the industry], fewer taxes being paid, it’s hitting company profits, it’s hitting GDP.”
Asked for comment, the Motion Picture Association (MPA) says it takes the beoutQ problem “very seriously,” Stan McCoy, president and managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), tells World Screen. “Consumers love the choice and convenience of official TV and film digital services and apps. One reason why piracy devices and apps are so insidious is because many present themselves as legitimate, easy-to-use offerings with names that imitate genuine services. beoutQ exemplifies that. The beoutQ device and services infringe the rights of companies that invest in high-quality sports and entertainment content, undermining the growing legitimate Middle East marketplace and causing damages to content creators and the hardworking people in the creative sector. Reducing this kind of piracy requires a comprehensive approach, from expanding access to legal content services to enforcing the rule of law to hold pirate operators and organizations accountable. We therefore welcome the recognition of beoutQ as a key example of ISD [illicit streaming device] piracy in the recently published USTR 2018 Notorious Markets report.”
beIN itself has had to change its approach to licensing expensive sports rights, opting not to renew its Formula 1 agreement this year. “People’s responsiveness and respect of their own IP is a definite factor when we renew our deals,” Keaveny says. “Saudi Arabia’s beoutQ has poured petrol on the world’s broadcast piracy problem and, if it is not stopped now, the economics of the sports and entertainment industry will never be the same again.”