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Sat 4 Feb 2017 01:22 AM

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How Saudi Arabia aims to dial up the fun

As Saudi Arabia moves towards opening cinemas and expanding its television offerings, the newly created General Authority for Entertainment must support content creation — and protection

How Saudi Arabia aims to dial up the fun
Leisure Public cinemas are on the agenda in Saudi Arabia but they face opposition from conservatives, including the top religious authority.

The competition for entertainment hegemony in the Arab world is fierce. The regional TV and video market is growing at unprecedented speeds with most countries forecast to double the penetration of services by 2020. All eyes, however, are on Saudi Arabia, and with good reason.

The kingdom’s General Authority for Entertainment — in charge of overseeing all facets of the entertainment industry from international content control to local distribution licensing and addressing anti-piracy matters — recently announced a new board. This move is a significant stepping-stone to raising its profile as an industry authority figure, much like its Emirati and Qatari neighbours.

With most domestic channels centralised and operated by the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), original Saudi content has traditionally been scarce compared to other countries in the region. Yet, the availability of MBC, OSN and other leading pan-Arab satellite and pay-TV operators in the kingdom is transforming the local offering. In addition, Chinese dramas, Bollywood and Hollywood films, international football tournaments, such as the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga, and pan-Arabic productions are now plentiful.

The Saudi public is responding well to this variety and regional market growth projections illustrate this. Consultants AT Kearney predict the Saudi Arabian market will grow more than threefold by 2020 – from 750,000 to 2.68 million pay-TV households.

Saudi Arabia has concurrently enjoyed a surge in creativity on social media, largely enabled by the kingdom’s 20.8 million internet users, with YouTube acting as the preferred channel for expression. The huge appetite for local talent and international content has also helped Saudi Arabia lead with the highest per capita consumption of YouTube in the whole world since 2012.

One of the first items on the new General Authority for Entertainment board’s agenda will be to review the kingdom’s current content offering. This will include local sources across all platforms used to produce content, as well as regional and international productions distributed over satellite and pay-TV channels originating from the greater Arab region.

Yet, video piracy is rife. A report by advisors IDC, titled Piracy in the Middle East and Africa, estimates illegal content distribution costs the industry in excess of $750m in lost revenue every year. In Saudi Arabia, ubiquitous internet access and strong consumer appetite for engaging local and international video content help pay-TV operators reach their audiences with relevant content, but these factors also drive video piracy — made more challenging by the difficulty of differentiating between legal and illegal content produced outside the country.

This leads to a fundamental question for content protection specialists: how can the General Authority for Entertainment ensure that it provides legal platforms to consumers who are - intentionally or unintentionally — accustomed to accessing their video content illegally or on YouTube?

The first step for the General Authority for Entertainment’s new board is to work alongside the General Commission for Audiovisual Media in order to control and license the international content offering, and enforce existing laws that ensure the respect of copyright, such as the Copyright Law of 2003.

However, it also needs supporters that have already shown how effective counter-piracy can be — like the UAE-based MENA Broadcast Satellite Anti-Piracy Coalition launched by OSN in March 2014.

According to official statements, in less than three years since its launch, the coalition has helped remove over 86,000 illegal videos from YouTube and Dailymotion, taken down nearly 2,300 advertisements of pirated boxes on online markets, and reported 829 free-to-air channel copyright infringements to satellite operators and distributors.

Furthermore, as a result of a complaint launched by the coalition in Abu Dhabi, the administrator of a pirate website was sentenced to six months in jail and fined AED50,000 ($13,600) for illegally uploading torrents and facilitating the illegal re-streaming of OSN content.

Sophie Moloney, OSN’s general counsel and head of content protection, explained the importance of these industry bodies: “Piracy, or content theft, represents an existential threat to our industry. The loss of revenue to the content creators, the people who make the amazing entertainment we all love, is just one part of the broadcasting value chain that could be severely harmed by continuing illegal distribution and viewing.

“We have a whole generation of under 30s who have come to expect content to be made available free and that’s why we need to join forces across the entire Arab world to educate people to the realities of how movies, series and sports get funded. Not only that but we need to work together to fight criminality that takes advantage of this illegal demand.”

In addition to government decisions and other pan-Arab industry groups, content producers, broadcasters and operators need technological partners — like NexGuard — to provide a better understanding and respect of copyright law. As an expert in tracking the illegal redistribution of content, we are working closely with content owners in every part of the world to help reduce piracy.

In countries like Saudi Arabia where the notion of copyright remains loose, we believe it is paramount to track illegal redistribution sources. However, we can go beyond simply punishing pirates. We can use the original copy being re-streamed as a platform to issue informative messages about copyright infringement and provide legal alternatives — effectively enabling us to reach not just the pirate, but also all the viewers of the illicit stream.

Moving forward, the challenge for the Middle Eastern content industry will be to combine these organisations with innovative and affordable services that leverage social media channels like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and find better ways to track pirates and inform the general public. In doing so, the Middle Eastern TV and media industry can ensure that it provides a perfect environment to support the creativity of the content industry, while enabling consumers to access content in a legal and user-friendly way.

Chrys Poulain, Sales Director at NexGuard.