Technology & Robotics

What will we be watching?

Digital broadcasting techniques like OTT have not only transformed how we watch programming, but the nature of what we watch, too. Paul Godfrey reviewed a panel discussion dedicated to future trends at the recent ASBU Broadcast Pro Summit – and found some startling conclusions…

Content may still be king, but will it be recognisable in the new world of digitisation, OTT protocols and the power of Big Data to dissect viewer preferences and customise new genres and formats? How will the tastes of Generation Z impact the content providers and the dynamics of commissioning new product?

These were all factors addressed in a powerful panel debate at the recent ASBU BroadcastPro Summit. Titled ‘The Content Owners: Content – a mixed bag for new-generation viewers?’, the panel featured Asim Altokhais, Co-Founder & General Manager, 3rd action, Inc; Ben Ross, Chief Content Officer, Image Nation Abu Dhabi; Serge Zabbal, Business Director, Empire Entertainment; and Wesam Kattan, Vice President – Content at Vuclip Inc.

Moderator Rony Mitri, Head of Non-Theatrical Distribution – MENA, Empire Entertainment, was keen to investigate how the current market trends were impacting not only the appetite for certain styles of content and the genres that are preferred, but how – in an increasingly digital environment – the availability of viewing data and demographics we being used to shape the actual commissioning brief. Given that together, the panelists represented a 360-degree understanding of the sector, they were then able to provide a remarkable snapshot of the current state of play – especially given Rony’s opening remark: “Acquisition and Distribution: the aim is to provide a content roadmap of the region. Where do you place your bets, gentlemen?”

Ben Ross replied that: “For us, it’s all about movies and narrative TV shows. It’s all about stories; when we find a story we love, that’s what we focus on.” Wesam Kattan concurred – to a degree. “We focus”, he said, “on drama series and movies. We’re very focused on what type of drama series do we commission? We want to go a non-traditional route when planning these series – for example, we’re going away from the 30-episode formula. The young today simply don’t have time.”

What about Asim Altokhais, a Saudi Arabian scriptwriter literally in the front line? Rony Mitri asked him: “As a script writer, do you take any of this into consideration?” His answer is that: “I have to look at it the business way; at what trends in drama people are interested in. Sci-Fi, thrillers, crime – these are all interesting for the new generation.”

The debate then highlighted that while it’s one thing to talk about trends and viewer preferences, the question remains as to how ‘scientifically’ these changes are understood – which is clearly vital if all parties involved are to create content that is an accurate fit to market need. For example, is there any kind of database that can help define these preferences? Wesam remarked that” “There are two ways we use data. Firstly, through market research on what pulls Generation Z to the screen; and then, when we on-board a concept, we make sure that we retro-engineer all these topical themes into it.”

What about Empire Entertainment, the company that Rony describes as “cinema-owners, distributors, producers”? Do they actively take these analytics into the picture when bringing projects on board?” Serge Zabbal takes the view that: “We have to talk to the scriptwriters and the production houses to ensure we have this. As distributors, we have to be on top of the trend. The line is open…”

But clearly, it’s not compulsory to follow wherever the analytics lead. Ben Ross feels “you have to go with what you believe to be a good story” – and Wesam sums this up with an emphatic “you’ve still got to go with your gut feel. So many times when I’ve met great producers, they’ve said their biggest successes would never have happened if they’d only followed the research.”

While for many viewers, regional content is forever associated with locally-created Ramadan TV blockbusters, there seems to be little doubt that regional content is playing a larger role across the complete broadcast mix. It’s become a clear priority even for those businesses whose forte was typically a box office hit-list. With this dynamic up for discussion, Wesam explained that: “We want to be seen as a local provider for a local audience. We focus most of our licensing efforts to provide content for that local audience – but there simply isn’t enough Arabic content to provide premium viewing.”

Rony pointed out that recently, Empire Entertainment had decided to go into regional production – but why did they make this move? Serge Zabbal replied that” “We want to have quantity when we distribute, and although the scale of the international content is greater, it’s important to grow local content too; our plan is to leverage the balance to 50/50 – with maybe even more weight to regional content. Saudi Arabia may turn out to be a very interesting influence here.”

Ben Ross believes, though, that the scriptwriting element may be a stumbling block here. “Scriptwriting is a complex issue; much of what is being created doesn’t fit with what Wesam and Serge actually want – the 30-episide Ramadan series just doesn’t work anymore. Remember, it all starts with the script: without that, you have nothing.”

A question for many is whether the shift to digital will eventually implode the cinema industry altogether. It became clear from the panelists that the ‘black-white’ version of the change to digital is largely out of place – the market is big enough for all eventualities, and even if content is re-shaped and generically altered for an OTT audience, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the box-office mix is automatically faced with a ‘change or die’ scenario. Indeed, when Rony asked Serge if this is likely, he replied: “It didn’t impact audiences, because people still want to experience going to the theatre. They can enjoy going there, having their popcorn, their night out – we’re not replacing that. OTT is its own world, but it’s one that complements people wanting to go the theatre, go to the mall, and so on – it doesn’t take its place.” Wasem believes that: “We’re here to co-exist; nothing is about to replace going to the cinema”. (When pushed by Rony to explain why, then, he’s pushing first-to-OTT movies, he flatly denies the charge – “You better ask the people doing it!”).

Ben Ross’s view is probably the fairest: “Some OTT companies want to put the theatres out of business, others don’t. I do personally think they can co-exist, because many OTT viewers will watch to see a movie they missed at the cinema. Meanwhile, some movies are simply better-suited to going straight to OTT. Going through a cinema channel costs, and is it worth that expense?

Another powerful ‘change agent’ we are witnessing is the advent of public cinema in Saudi Arabia. This has effectively brought a new audience of 39.9 million into the viewer mix – a substantial number that surely, can become a powerful lobby whose tastes and buying power will influence the commissioning and production agendas of GCC providers? Yet here, the panel again took the view that the likely changes are a good deal more nuanced than the rather dramatic picture muted by many industry pundits.

Commenting on the impact, Serge’s view is that: “Obviously, revenues will grow. Plus, Saudi audiences will be continually exposed to fresh content and this will encourage local content providers, too. I hope we can see the birth of a ‘second Egypt’; a place where we see a completely new machine for production.”

Ben Ross adds that: “What can be really important here is that we get a clear understanding of what a local Arabic audience wants, in a way that we can’t do in the UAE, where the market demographic is much too complicated. In Saudi, the market can be closely understood and modelled.”

As to whether this will really lead to a boom in local output, Wasem takes a more philosophical view: “If we can see content that is sought-after by the audience, this will benefit every content provider in the region. But we need to be patient: we need to give the Saudi audience time, because they’re simply not used to seeing Saudi content. It needs time for the Saudi industry to develop – and we need to see every aspect of the crew grow there and get much stronger.”

Asim is less positive: “The industry is just not there. 90% of the people who get involved in the industry are amateurs; there is no recruitment with international companies at all.”

A telling – and chastening – view comes from Wasem: “Local talent has to grow there, because you can’t get a foreigner to tell a Saudi story.” Ben Ross develops this when he says: “We do a lot on mentoring by bringing western script writers to advise local writers and help then build their work. But here’s the problem: what’s ‘edgy’ in the western market is very different from what’s ‘edgy’ in the Saudi market. What western companies will do is far too ‘edgy’ – you can’t ever get the right fit by coming from outside.”

Perhaps the greatest lesson learned from the panel was that while it’s a sure hallmark of market development to have international product shifting through theatres and OTT alike (and it’s likely that the two approaches might well be complementary, not exclusive) the real work – generating a wealth of topical and inspirational local material – is only just beginning.

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