By Sean Williams
As the year lurches to an end, it’s time to look back on the highs and lows that have made 2010 one of the most exciting years in the history of the Middle East’s digital broadcast history.
Every year is a big year in broadcast. From the emergence of
major players to spine-tingling new technology, the industry is always alive
with activity. In 2010, the Middle East’s
media pros shook off the cobwebs of the global recession and knuckled down to
creating and distributing some of the planet’s most thrilling content. Digital
Broadcast has been on the scene from day one, bringing you the whos, whats,
whys and wherefores making waves in the region and beyond.
With January came a chance to forget the financial austerity
of the previous two years. At a whopping US$1.3 billion, Al Jazeera’s
acquisition of Arab Radio and Television’s (ART) sports portfolio was a huge
statement of the Qatari broadcaster’s ambitions, and committed the network to
bringing the FIFA World Cup 2010 to the Arab world. Yet as most will know by
now, Al Jazeera’s World Cup dream quickly turned into a nightmare. A similar
intent was earmarked by Rotana’s penning of a US$26.7 million deal with Fox
International Channels, to bring Walt Disney’s colourful content to the region.
But while acquisitions appeared all the rage, it took 2009’s biggest merger to
remind everyone that financial worries hadn’t been left behind. Orbit Showtime
Network began the year by laying off employees, beginning with its Bahraini
commercial and marketing departments.
In February the broadcast industry took a step back from the
previous month’s heavy M&A activity, with the exception of Motorola’s
gobbling up US
conditional access firm SecureMedia. As the region geared up for CABSAT, one
mainstay was stepping down, as Abullatif Al Sayegh relinquished his position as
CEO of the Arab Media Group (AMG), after nine years. The move came as
state-backed Dubai Media Incorporated (DMI) snapped up several of AMG’s key
products including newspapers, TV and radio, and it was clear Al Sayegh thought
he had taken the firm as far as it could go. “I am a person who just wants to
keep going and building and doing more,” he said, “and right now everything is
The month provided mixed fortunes for two of the US’ web giants.
Google continued to steamroll opposition, announcing quarterly profits of
US$1.97bn, a 17 per cent rise on the previous year. However Yahoo! recorded
revenues which were down on 2008, but slightly ahead of 2009, leaving it somewhat
trapped in financial limbo.
March could only mean one thing: CABSAT. And while thousands
poured into Dubai
for the famous show, Digital Broadcast was on the ground, covering what would
become one of the event’s most successful editions. That ground was being
broken, meanwhile, by a glut of exciting new products and technology to make
broadcasting better and more efficient. On the news front, UAE pay-TV operator
Etisalat was busy rolling out 20 new HD channels, which would revamp its E-Vision
offering. CEO Humaid Rashid Sahoo was particularly busy, featuring on the cover
of Digital Broadcast to sing the praises of the growing MENA market. “We are
encouraging broadcasters in the Arab world and Asia
to launch HD,” he told the magazine. “It’s the technology of the future.”
Eslewhere Al Jazeera announced that it would be covering the
FIFA World Cup in 3D. Receiver and subscriber mix-ups would later turn the
announcement into a logistical headache. Algeria set the tone for its own
broadcast ambitions, by launching its first IPTV service, SAFIR. “SAFIR is a
key initiative in the rollout of our FTTH network, and evidence of our
commitment to offer six million broadband connections by the end of 2013,” said
Algeria Telecom CEO Moussa Benhamadi.
After March’s maniacal activity around CABSAT, April saw a
series of high-profile news stories. Top of the agenda was ADMC’s announcement
that it had won the rights to the Formula One championship, a sound investment
with Bahrain and Abu Dhabi’s entries into
the season calendar. MBC could be excused for feeling slightly nauseous, as US network
Dandana launched a US$10 million lawsuit over distribution of MBC on American
satellite platform Dish Network.
The month also saw
the sad loss of one of the Middle East media
industry’s founding fathers, Antoine Choueiri. The Lebanese mogul founded the
Choueiri Group in 1970, which manages advertising space across the Arab world.
After a wobbly start to the year, May was a month during
which the sector could look towards a brighter future. Twofour54, Abu Dhabi’s media
production zone, announced the masterplan for its cutting-edge campus facility.
The Mena Zayed outfit was designed by a host of world-renowned names including
Bernard Tschumi and Kohn Pederson Fox, and will weigh in at 600,000sqm upon its
completion in 2014. Also making waves was TECOM Investments, whose 11 business
zones were to be consolidated into five clusters.
On the other side of the world, the future of digital
broadcasting looked brighter than ever, as NAB 2010 concluded under the halogen
guise of Las Vegas’
cavernous convention centre. Attendance at the April show shot up from the
previous year, from 82,650 to 88,044. Closer to home, ADMC discussed its
forthcoming EPL distribution plans, including HD and mobile, exclusively with
Digital Broadcast. Bigwigs from the Emirati firm stressed the importance of
sophistication and premium content – just as well considering the staggering
US$300 million fee paid for the league’s rights. “We have a great opportunity
to stimulate the uptake of broadband and the demand for upgrades to high-speed
services,” said Ricky Ghai, executive director of digital media.
As the region rolled towards a blistering summer, the heat
was turned up on the broadcasting industry in June by Google’s announcing
details of its new TV offering. The web behemoth would go hand in hand with
Sony, Intel and Logitech to allow users the chance to surf the net on their TV
and search for TV content available via internet sources. Sony also announced
plans for its own Internet TV service, which would incorporate Google’s model.
“We believe that open systems lead to more innovation, value and choice for
consumers, which is why we are so proud to work with Sony to bring the power of
the Android platform to more consumers around the world,” said Google chaiman
However that wasn’t all the technological news stunning the
Middle East, as Arabsat successfully aired the region’s first 3D TV broadcast,
the Emir’s Cup Final in Doha.
The pioneering move was quickly followed by a number of echoes across the
sector, with E-Vision and ADMC both vowing to show the beautiful game in a
third dimension in 2010. Yet it was precisely football – namely Al Jazeera’s
now disastrous World Cup coverage – which was threatening to seriously
undermine the Qatari outfit’s plans. Confusion over service bouquets and
lagging sales of access cards, coupled with transmission errors (switching
commentary from English to French, for example), resulted in deals with du and
It was hardly surprising that July’s news was dominated by
the World Cup – or lack of it. Al Jazeera decided that their signal was being
jammed from ‘un-named elements’, which the broadcaster would later reveal to be
based in Jordan.
Motorola continued to steamroll towards the Middle East,
with VP and GM Steve McCaffery issuing a rally cry for the future: “Motorola
Home is putting all its resources into this region at the moment, it will mark
a step-change in our business going forward.” Also on the up was social
networking giant Facebook, which was reported to have smashed its 2009 revenues
by up to $300m.
It was a mixed month for Arabsat. While the operator
launched an next-generation satellite in its 5A version, and spoke publically
about its Ar@b Surf broadband venture, research showed that the growth of
free-to-air (FTA) channels slowed to just 2.7 per cent in 2010. Add to that
OSN’s bold announcement that it would be offering all its channels in HD by
2013, and it seemed the month would become one of the year’s most breathless
August felt like the calm before the storm of
fast-approaching IBC. OSN was hitting the headlines again, this time by
declaring that it would be closing down its Bahrain offices within half a year.
The majority of those hit by the move would be offered jobs in Dubai, but several would be leaving the
ADMC had no such
problems, despite its vast outlays on the English Premier League, as it began
releasing details of its impending coverage, including a dedicated website and
whispers of a radio foray to boot.
Nilesat and Yahsat were both making waves in the month,
rolling out new satellites and penning important partnership deals. Yet
August’s loudest union was between Yahoo! and Rotana, who tied up a deal to
offer Rotana content on the Yahoo! platform.
Meanwhile Digital Broadcast met up with Yahoo! Maktoob’s new
head of audience Hosam El Sokkari, to chat about his move from BBC Arabic and
the future of online content. We also visited the home of Abu Dhabi Radio
Network, where director Abdulrahman Awadh al Harthi championed the format. “The
traffic (in Dubai) means, on average, people are commuting for two hours a day,
that’s a good chunk of time that radio has a monopoly on their attention,” he
If August had crawled along somewhat, then September was
broadcast’s bursting into life, as megashow IBC hit the halls of Amsterdam. Digital
Broadcast was there eyeing up exciting new technology and service offerings
from across the world, and speaking to the industry’s major players. Making the
front cover was a coven of Saudi names, who have been turning the kingdom into
one of the region’s media powerhouses. “Saudi has taken a leadership role in
terms of broadcast technology,” said chairman and GM of First Gulf Company
Walid Al Moukhtar. Elsewhere, BlackBerry maker Research in Motion was facing
mounting opposition to its web services from India and the UAE, with deadlines
looming after which emails would be switched off.
October chronicled IBC’s ups (lots) and downs (not many),
from which Front Porch Digital and Broadcasting Center Europe emerged big
winners, taking home the show’s prestigious innovation gong. The team’s
European Parliament Audiovisual Unit, which archived over 50 years of content,
beat Spanish network Antena 3’s multi-platform newsroom to the title. ITN was
also cracking open the non-alcoholic bubbly in Dubai, as it announced a shiny new bureau in
the Emirate. It was the broadcaster’s first foreign foray in four years, and
brought former Washington
correspondent John Irvine to the region. VOD, however, took a hit with the news
that Intel’s High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) technology had
been compromised. Intel’s director of issues and policy communications Tom
Waldrop, assured Digital Broadcast that the future was still bright for the
embryonic VOD market.
As the mercury dropped across the Middle
East, broadcast business was hotting up as a host of new
enterprises made their regional debuts. Turner brand Cartoon Network launched
Cartoon Network Arabic in Dubai
to significant fanfare, twinning famous shows with locally made titles such as
Freej and Ben & Izzy. Indian channel Colors also ran to the region,
offering a huge population of subcontinental expats the chance to watch edgy
dramas, Bollywood movies and controversial reality show Bigg Boss, the storm
around which stubbornly refuses to shift. France 24 completed an inauguration
hat-trick for the region, as its Arabic news channel began airing 24 hours a