Streaming services in the Middle East are competing for Arab audiences with US giant Netflix set to release its first Arabic production in June, chasing a slice of a potentially lucrative market.
Streaming platforms Starz Play and Wavo have emerged in recent years as local competitors to Netflix, while giant Saudi-owned TV powerhouse MBC Group announced plans for original productions as well as the acquisition of international content to boost its streaming services Shahid and Shahid Plus.
These platforms are locked in a battle to attract millions of Arab viewers throughout the year, with a special focus during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, the premier entertainment season in a region where traditional television still dominates.
Viewing spikes during the month as families traditionally settle down with soap operas after breaking their fast at sunset with the iftar meal, or during the Suhoor, the pre-dawn meal.
Netflix has been showing four Arabic-language dramas during this year’s holy month, three being Gulf productions and one Syrian-Lebanese show.
Each has 30 episodes for the 30 days of Ramadan, and unlike the usual binge-worthy Netflix fare, tantalisingly only one episode is released each night.
An estimated 85 percent to 90 percent of people across the Middle East watch television, while between 25 percent and 30 percent watch streaming video online with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, according to Mukul Krishna, head of digital media at US-based research firm Frost & Sullivan.
After Ramadan, Netflix will debut on June 13 “Jinn” its first production in Arabic. Filmed in Jordan, the show is a supernatural drama that follows a group of teenagers who encounter two jinns, or supernatural figures, during a field trip to the historic city of Petra.
Netflix declined to disclose the number of subscribers it has in the region. The company also announced in May a third Arabic original production called ‘Paranormal’ based on novels bearing the same title by Egyptian writer Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq.
Netflix originals in languages other than English, such as ‘Money Heist’ in Spanish, have proved popular with international audiences.
Several streaming platforms offer production in Arabic like OSN Play of the OSN television network and Wavo which is backed by OSN. But Starz Play remains the main competitor for Netflix in this region with its one million subscribers.
Starz Play is trying to make streaming more relevant and convenient to viewers, said Sheikh from his Dubai office.
Starz Play is showing a number of popular series currently unavailable on Netflix in the Gulf region including ‘The Big Bang Theory’, ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and the ‘Marvel’ superheroes shows, attracting large audiences.