Digital Platforms in the
By Chris Forrester
The Middle East has no
fewer than four competing digital television platforms fighting for viewer loyalty:
ART/1st NET, Orbit, Star Select, and Gulf DTH/Showtime.
Four years ago there was
no subscription TV. The few direct-to-home (DTH) satellite channels were all free-to-air
and offered little threat to the monopoly state-run national TV channels. Over
the past four years, four different digital satellite pay-TV platforms have emerged,
but at the same time analogue (conventional) free-to-air satellite channels have
also mushroomed. A walk through almost any Middle Eastern city will show how enthusiastically
viewers have adopted the new broadcast technology.
The first two Arab pay-TV
platforms have Rome as their operational bases--Orbit and Arab Radio and Television
(ART). Both have substantial new facilities, including studios and playout centers.
Both ventures are backed by substantial capital investment. Orbit is undoubtedly
the market leader of all the competing platforms, thanks to the seemingly bottomless
pockets of the Saudi Arabian al-Mawared group. In June 1998 Orbit confirmed it
had taken studio space at Egypt’s giant Media Production City, pointing to dramatically
increased local production.
ART is funded by two very
wealthy SaudisSheikh Saleh Kamel of the Dallah al-Baraka conglomerate, and
Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, an investor in News Corporation and Netscape, among
others. ART, in barely four years, has gone from a single free-to-air analogue
DTH channel to a 20-plus pay-channel platform (although not all are ART-supplied)
with plans for expansion to 18 or more of its own channels in an attempt to wrest
the leading Arabic digital broadcasting position from Orbit's twenty-TV-channel
Currently Orbit is the
clear market leader in Middle Eastern digital television broadcasting. It transmits
13 Orbit TV channels and some 25 audio channels uplinked from Rome. Orbit's DTH
platform launched in May 1994, making it the world’s first digital broadcast platform.
Orbit claims around 180,000 "viewing points," as of June 1998, though independent
estimates put the subscriber base figure nearer 80,000.
The third platform is
News Corporation's Star Select package, which in 1996 placed itself firmly in
alliance with the Orbit platform. Star Select and Orbit share the same decoder
in much the same way as DirecTV and USSB do in the United States, but remain separate
packages. Star Select transmits 12 channels targeting Western and Asian expatriates,
principally in the Gulf states.
The fourth pay platform
comes from Gulf DTH, which trades as Showtime, backed with English-language programming
by Viacom Inc. and co-financed by Kuwait Investment Projects Co. (KIPCO), a Kuwaiti
conglomerate. Showtime, originally broadcasting from PAS-4, has recently added
Nilesat to its capacity, and it has developed (in conjunction with Samsung/Galaxis)
a decoder box capable of receiving digital signals from more than one satellite.
ART/1st NET and Showtime
were originally established with the intention of satisfying both linguistic factions,
Arabic speakers and international/English-speaking viewers. It would be fair to
say that not all initially went well for 1st Net and Showtime, but 1998 has seen
these squabbles repaired and good relations restored. If this cooperation continues
there can only be added benefits for viewers and platform owners alike.
However, these four different
digital satellite pay-TV platforms have led to a highly competitive broadcasting
environment. Large sums are being invested in programming and studio equipment;
there are some high disposable incomes to be targeted and a mass market to be
captured. These factors, combined with a complete lack of high-quality Arabic-language
entertainment programming, suggest that the prospects for digital TV are positive.
Stricter regulatory content
constraints from some countries may mean that local distribution is more likely
to flourish in an MMDS environment than a satellite one, although primary distribution
to MMDS headends will be from satellite. This is certainly the situation in Qatar
and may prove to be the case in Saudi Arabia. In the long term, there is unlikely
to be room for so many rival digital pay-TV platforms, and consolidation is inevitable.
However, in the meantime, competition will keep prices keenso initial enthusiasm
The one negative in this
story is also a positive! Satellite broadcasting has led to the emergence of excellent
pan-regional free-to-air broadcasters, in particular appealing to the very mass
market originally targeted by the satellite platforms. MBC (the Middle East Broadcasting
Centre), LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation) and Future have all developed
into "super-stations" that Ted Turner would be proud of. There will be others.
This highly competitive environment can only be good for broadcasting, program
makers, and ultimately the viewer. It
will lead to fresh programs being made, greater openness in the sort of discussion
programs that are aired, and greater creativity from directors and producers.
The reason is that viewers
(of free-to-air channels) will not watch rubbish. Advertisers will not sponsor
old material; they will constantly be looking for modern, appealing entertainment.
Nor will subscribers pay for encrypted channels that show tired old movies or
1950s musical shows, unless they have some historical or cultural relevance.
Instead I suggest that
from this explosion of choice, from the new studios, from the universities and
media schools, will come a fresh enthusiasm for broadcasting. New broadcasting
ideas from the West and the East will be incorporated into the Arab way of life,
with adjustment made for Islam’s natural conservatism.
Which is not to say everything
will grow and prosper in this garden. Like in any business environment there will
be failures, and Arab public broadcasters need to improve their product to match
the imaginative efforts coming from the new satellite channels. If they do not
match the satellite product, they will die.
Chris Forrester, TBS contributing
editor, is a well-known broadcast journalist, with columns regularly published
in Middle East-related magazines and newspapers. A frequent broadcaster, he is
also author of "Digital television broadcastingdrivers for growth and pattern
of uptake," published in June 1998 by Phillips Business Information.