MBC’s Sam Barnett

PREMIUM: Sam Barnett, the CEO of the Dubai-based MBC Group, tells TV MEA about the strategy that has enabled the company to reach 120 million people across the region every day with its Arabic-language and imported content.

TV MEA: Tell us about the breadth of the MBC portfolio.
BARNETT: We broadcast 18 free-to-air TV channels across the Middle East. We’re the market leader in terms of the general entertainment, news, movies and kids’ genres. We also have a variety of thematic channels. We’ve just launched several sports channels to cover the Saudi football league. We have radio stations in Saudi Arabia. Our digital platform includes the premium Arabic video-on-demand portal, Shahid.net, and a variety of leading websites. We broadcast in HD. Across the Middle East, 120 million people watch one of our channels each day and for the past 23 years we’ve built a completely pan-Arab audience from Morocco through to Iraq and Oman.

In recent years, a combination of political changes, technology evolution and industry development have led to the growth of local channels with local content targeting subsets of the 22 countries in the region. We have responded to this development and in 2012 launched MBC MASR in Egypt to target the largest national audience in the region.

TV MEA: Do you have plans to roll out any additional linear channels?
BARNETT: The advertising market in the region has further to grow and linear television remains highly popular. We’ll launch channels where there is an economic logic to do so and where we can compete successfully.

We’re looking closely at the success of our model for a local channel in Egypt. Clearly with 350 million people spread over such a great area in so many countries, there will be other opportunities to expand.

TV MEA: Arabic-language content is a key part of your offering. What investment has MBC been making in production facilities?
BARNETT: We have world-class production operations in Beirut and Cairo that make much of our non-scripted entertainment content, including many of the big formats. In the past this included Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and now we’re producing Arab Idol and Arabs Got Talent.

We’re also investing in drama production through O3 Studios. We have produced major series such as [Omar], the biopic of Omar Ibn Al Khattab [a companion of the Prophet Mohammad] that made headlines internationally in 2012 and historical dramas such as The Palace that was a hit this Ramadan. We’re also building the means to produce larger volumes of telenovela content, which remains extremely popular. Our latest series, Matrimonial (Second Chance), has been shot in state-of-the art studios in Dubai Studio City.

TV MEA: How important is imported content across the portfolio? Are you using day-and-date premieres as a way to protect against piracy in the region?
BARNETT: Piracy is one reason for the decline in the viewership of international content. There are Internet downloads and pirated DVDs, but these are pirate dinghies. The aircraft carriers of the pirate world are the several dozen free-to-air channels that broadcast pirated movies across the whole region of 350 million—sometimes while the same movies are playing in cinemas in the West. We are mystified why many studios have not launched even one legal case to defend their content. We assume it’s because they fear the complexity and expense of dealing in local courts—and that they’ve already cashed their money from us.

Another reason for the decline is the improvement in the quality of Arabic content and the greater relevance of such local content. We tried to use day and date on Western series as a means of boosting ratings, but it didn’t have a huge impact.

TV MEA: What potential do you see for the international export of MBC dramas?
BARNETT: As the quality of Arabic drama increases, it will undoubtedly find willing audiences internationally—and particularly where those audiences are linked culturally to ours. As a pioneer of the shift up in quality, we hope to lead this export. We’re already selling major series to TV stations in Indonesia and Malaysia and this will continue.

TV MEA: How have ad revenues been in the markets in which you operate?
BARNETT: Ad revenues continue to grow in all categories except print, and they have a lot further to grow, too. Taken across the Middle East, the CPMs remain extremely low in television and as audience measurement improves across the region, advertising rates will climb.

TV MEA: How are you working with advertisers outside of the traditional 30-second spot?
BARNETT: Many of the large formats that we produce are designed to be integrated with sponsors and their marketing messages. This integration can be as superficial as basic product placement “cup on table” and as complex as designing characters in dramas to represent “product values.” In a market that is evolving fast, the challenge is to sketch out the space that is both commercially attractive and creatively aligned. We have a great team that does this very well.

The 30-second spot remains important though. In a market like Saudi Arabia, where people watch five hours of television a day, and MBC has a 48-percent share [of viewing], we’ll be selling 30-second spots for a long time yet.

TV MEA: What are some of the ways you’re engaging with audiences outside of the linear channels?
BARNETT: Many of the brands we grow on TV have a life off screen. We’ve recently taken Barney and Dora to Saudi Arabia for the first time for a series of sold-out live shows across many different cities.

Casting for our major entertainment shows also generates huge interest in the cities we visit. Last year’s winner of Arab Idol, Mohammed Assaf, had travelled from Gaza to Egypt and crossed the bridge to try and attend a casting session. He got to Cairo only to find he was too late to register. Luckily, he was given a ticket by a fellow contestant who heard his voice, and 13 episodes later, 92 million people saw him win the show.

As well as on-ground, we’re also very present online. Shahid.net is the largest video-on-demand portal focusing on Arabic content and we’re now generating 100 million media views a month.

TV MEA: You operate in markets that have seen political instability over the last few years. In times of social unrest, do you feel a greater responsibility to make sure MBC’s viewers are informed and engaged?
BARNETT: The news channel Al Arabiya launched in 2003 just prior to the invasion of Iraq. Since then and through the turmoil of the last 11 years, it has built a solid reputation for informing its audience on topics and in areas where there is often more heat than light. Those working for the channel take this responsibility seriously. The work they do is important and it often upsets dangerous people. Protecting our staff from such dangers is a big responsibility for everyone.

TV MEA: What have been the greatest transformations at MBC since its founding more than 20 years ago?
BARNETT: From 1991 to 2002, MBC was based out of London. Then, the company moved to Dubai. This enabled MBC to get closer to its audience and its clients—and with the guarantees of the Dubai government, to continue managing its own editorial policy. This was perhaps our single biggest change.

We’ve gone from one channel to nearly 20, from acquired to produced [product], from a 100 employees to 2,700, from analogue to digital, from sports highlighter to league broadcaster and from a start-up to a multinational.

TV MEA: What are MBC’s biggest challenges in the next year?
BARNETT: Our biggest challenge is tonight. Will our 120 million viewers stay watching or click the remote and disappear across to some of the 900 competing channels in our region? We have a variety of plans over the next 12 to 18 months but we forget at our peril what a huge ongoing fight we face.

We’ve just signed a 10-year contract to broadcast Saudi football. Another challenge will be to bring the international broadcasting quality, for which MBC is well known, to league and cup football in the region.

Viewing habits are changing as technology evolves and while we are a content-based company, our product is always mediated by this technology. We face the challenge of keeping our best content accessible, packaged and attractive on any new platform that might emerge—and to do so as quickly as any of the competition.

TV MEA: What do you see as key opportunities for expansion, be it geographically or into new business areas?
BARNETT: Our core advertising market has a lot further to grow. And around the region, new national markets and audiences will emerge. As the largest broadcaster for many years across the Middle East, MBC is well placed to take advantage of this.

The content that fuels our advertising business on linear TV is certainly strong enough to fuel other business models on other platforms. We’re uncertain what these will necessarily be, but we’re determined that we’ll continue to control the premium content and that such control will give us the ticket to decide on new business models in future.

TV MEA: What are your priorities for MBC through 2014 and into 2015?
BARNETT: We have four sets of priorities. First, maintain our ratings and grow revenues in our core market. We do this by controlling the best content. Second, grow the institutional backbone of our company so it can exploit new information and technology and reduce operating risk in a wildly difficult environment. Third, expand into new markets and take advantage of the tremendous potential in the Middle East. Fourth, be lucky. It’s good to be lucky and we’re always very thankful when we are.