Arab world does not want its own Game of Thrones, says Starz Play CEO

Streaming platform's first original Arabic series will be 'sensitive to cultural values' following backlash faced by competitor Netflix over controversial series Jinn, according to Maaz Sheikh
Arab world does not want its own Game of Thrones, says Starz Play CEO
Maaz Sheikh, CEO of MENA’s leading subscription video on demand (SVOD) service Starz Play. Its first Arabic original production will be based in the UAE but will feature a pan regional storyline.
By Lubna Hamdan
Mon 08 Jul 2019 12:07 PM

The Arab world may not want its own Game of Thrones-style show as Western content and language do not reflect regional cultural values and traditions, according to the CEO of MENA’s leading subscription video on demand (SVOD) service Starz Play.

Speaking to Arabian Business, Maaz Sheikh said the platform will launch its first Arabic original based in the UAE, but that it will be sensitive to regional cultural values, particularly following the backlash faced by competitor Netflix over its controversial Jordan series Jinn.

Viewers slammed the show for featuring intimate scenes, alcohol consumption and vulgar language, which they argued are against Jordanian culture, values and principles. It led the Jordanian government to launch an investigation into the series and the national army’s cybercrime unit to attempt to pull it from Jordanian Netflix.

“There was a lot of negativity and backlash around Jinn, so we’ve been watching that and trying to figure out what works in the region: what it is that people are sensitive about, why consumers accept certain language and scenes in Western language content, but do not accept it for their own Arabic content.

“When we look at our original content, we’re going to be sensitive to that. As much as people say, ‘We want to produce the Vikings of the Arab world or the next Game of Thrones of the Arab world,’ I’m not sure that is the right strategy as far as audience preferences are concerned,” Sheikh said.

Traditions

While globalisation has exposed regional consumers to Western culture and language, they remain largely loyal to their traditions, Sheikh added.

“While we live in a very global environment thanks to the internet and social media, this is a culture that’s steeped in tradition and family values. We are still trying to find out what the balance is between accepting global media and at the same time staying loyal to our roots, and the cultural values and norms that are still very much a part of our daily lives and our system.

“There’s a lot of pride in our culture and family values, so when we are portrayed in a way that does not reflect those family values and cultural norms, and [it is] put on a global stage, people react and people don’t like it… Of course there are always extremes [people] in a society that might talk or behave like that, but the backlash was about the fact that that’s not who we are as a society and culture,” Sheikh said.

Starz Play boasts the largest market share in the region at 29 percent in terms of subscriptions as well as revenue at 32 percent, according to the IHS Markit Pay TV & Online Video Report, MENA, 2019.

First original production

Its first Arabic original production will be based in the UAE but will feature a pan regional storyline.

“Our major plans for the rest of the year is to do an Arabic original and we’re looking at partnering with a few studios. The show will be produced in the UAE, but we’re trying to make it a pan regional show. It will be a UAE-based show and Dubai is our home and we want to do our first original from this part of the world, but we’re trying to make the storyline pan regional so it has a pan regional view to it,” Sheikh said, adding that more details around the show will be announced by Q4 this year.

The CEO said he is glad Starz Play did not rush to produce an Arabic original as it “helped us watch what happened with Jinn”.

Sheikh added: “There’s a lot of talk on social media about people cancelling Netflix and going to Starz Play. I don’t think it’s that big and that it will last very long, but it just goes to show you how sensitive people are to these boundaries and when these boundaries are crossed, they get very upset.”

Starz Play currently has 1.2 million users, with Sheikh crediting user growth to the platform’s diverse offering of flexible payment options in MENA, where bank card penetration remains low. Payment options on the platform include payment through local mobile plans and free trials without commitments or restrictions.

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