Mid­dle East’s screen binge

For bet­ter or worse, the pan­demic has changed peo­ple’s view­ing habits as mil­lions look to stream­ing ser­vices for es­cape

Arab News - - Front Page - Ju­mana Khamis Dubai @ju­mana_khamis

Tem­po­rar­ily trans­port­ing your mind away from the hum­drum rou­tine of re­al­ity to the more ex­cit­ing uni­verse of­fered by tele­vi­sion has proven an ex­tremely pop­u­lar ac­tiv­ity dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

Since March 1, un­planned clo­sures of schools, of­fices, en­ter­tain­ment ser­vices and other public spa­ces across the world have re­sulted in more and more peo­ple spend­ing ex­tended hours at home in front of screens.

With few sources of ac­ces­si­ble en­ter­tain­ment be­yond the world of TV shows and movies, stream­ing ser­vices and tele­vi­sion net­works have pre­dictably ex­pe­ri­enced an ex­tra­or­di­nary surge in view­er­ship in the Mid­dle East, lever­ag­ing the op­por­tu­nity to draw mil­lions of cus­tomers into a COVID-free world of leisure.

A prime ex­am­ple is Net­flix, which saw its best quar­ter yet for sub­scriber growth, adding a record 15.8 mil­lion subscriber­s world­wide dur­ing the first few months of the pan­demic.

In the UAE alone, the stream­ing ser­vice re­ported a 26 per­cent in­crease in view­er­ship dur­ing the month of March, ac­cord­ing to the coun­try’s Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Reg­u­la­tory Author­ity.

Sim­i­larly, MBC’s Shahid OTT au­di­ences grew three­fold dur­ing March and April, with the Shahid VIP seg­ment re­port­ing 10 times the au­di­ence growth.

An­other ex­am­ple is the StarzPlay stream­ing ser­vice, which recorded strong growth in the num­ber of unique users from 2019, peak­ing at 141 per­cent in April 2020 at the peak of the pan­demic.

“Com­pared with March 2019, the num­ber of StarzPlay app in­stalls in March 2020 in­creased by 328 per­cent and in April 2020 by 486 per­cent. Con­tent con­sump­tion in March 2020 in­creased by 230 per­cent over the same pe­riod in 2019 and in April 2020 by 340 per­cent,” Maaz Sheikh, CEO and co-founder of StarzPlay, told Arab News.

“The en­tire in­dus­try ben­e­fited dur­ing the stay-at-home pe­riod and es­pe­cially dur­ing Ra­madan, as con­sump­tion

CG Ra­madan/COVID-19 Re­search

picked up with more peo­ple spend­ing time at home.” Ad­di­tion­ally, the Or­bit Showtime Net­work (OSN) stream­ing ser­vice re­ported a 900 per­cent in­crease in con­sump­tion of con­tent across all gen­res be­tween March 1 and April 26. With their timely launch of the Dis­ney Plus chan­nel in March, orig­i­nal Dis­ney movies made up 75 per­cent of the top fam­ily films viewed dur­ing the same pe­riod.

“We’ve seen strong en­gage­ment num­bers over the past few months. Saudi Ara­bia specif­i­cally saw an av­er­age of over five hours of en­gage­ment per sub­scrip­tion, per day. Over 50 per­cent of new down­loads have come from Saudi Ara­bia, fol­lowed by the UAE and Kuwait,” Zahra Zayat, se­nior vice pres­i­dent at OSN, told Arab News. “We felt from what our num­bers showed us that peo­ple were hun­gry for con­tent and they were just grasp­ing ev­ery­thing that was put in front of them.”

A 35 per­cent in­crease in screen time was also re­ported across OSN’s lin­ear chan­nels, with news chan­nels specif­i­cally see­ing a 250 per­cent in­crease in view­ing time. Yet, de­spite the ini­tial spike, the pan­demic did not gen­er­ate a con­sis­tent de­mand for news, Zayat said.

“The in­crease was stronger and larger in other ar­eas and gen­res al­most as if peo­ple got tired of watch­ing the news and had this fa­tigue from hear­ing about the pan­demic,” she said, not­ing the news view­er­ship con­tin­ued to drop dur­ing the sum­mer months. How­ever, with a larger au­di­ence lean­ing to­wards “binge-wor­thy” and “com­fort” TV con­tent, spend­ing long hours plonked in front of a screen has quickly be­come what may be a tem­po­rary or longterm habit in many house­holds. Ac­cord­ing to Dr.

Sal­iha Afridi, clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and manag­ing direc­tor of Light­house Ara­bia in Dubai, the trend can be at­trib­uted to the fact that many peo­ple have cho­sen tele­vi­sion “as their go-to item for dis­trac­tion and numb­ing from dif­fi­cult emo­tions” dur­ing the pan­demic pe­riod, and more specif­i­cally dur­ing lock­downs.

“By watch­ing TV, they are trans­ported into the lives of other peo­ple and dis­so­ci­ated from their own wor­ries or sad­ness, cre­at­ing tem­po­rary re­lief,” she told Arab News.

Afridi said that many stream­ing net­works re­tain au­di­ence en­gage­ment through so­phis­ti­cated al­go­rithms, such as au­to­mat­i­cally start­ing the next episode, which draw in binge-watch­ers.

How­ever, the im­pact of binge­watch­ing on view­ers dur­ing the pan­demic can go one of two ways. “For peo­ple who have ad­dic­tive ten­den­cies and use TV, which is a so­cially sanc­tioned ad­dic­tion, their ad­dic­tion is most likely wors­ened dur­ing the pan­demic where there aren’t many op­por­tu­ni­ties to do any­thing else other than stay home and watch TV as a source of en­ter­tain­ment,” said Afridi. “Oth­ers, who are hun­gry for so­cial con­nec­tion, out­door phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, trav­el­ing, and other en­ter­tain­ment will most likely pre­fer that over TV once go­ing out­side with ease is a pos­si­ble op­tion.” More over, the pan­demic has also cre­ated new habits when it comes to pop­u­lar view­ing times. OSN saw a 100 per­cent jump in view­ings be­tween the hours of 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. dur­ing the first six weeks of the pan­demic, dur­ing which many coun­tries in the Mid­dle East were un­der tight lock­downs and quar­an­tine. “His­tor­i­cally, the peak time would start at 8 p.m. un­til 1 to 2 a.m. How­ever, dur­ing this time, the peak pe­riod was start­ing at 6 p.m. and end­ing at 5 a.m. the next day, so our en­gage­ment went up by more than 11 times, with the max­i­mum ap­petite com­ing from Saudi Ara­bia,” said Zayat.

She said some of the most pop­u­lar ti­tles were all-time fa­vorite se­ries, in­clud­ing “Game of Thrones,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and

“West­world,” which drew in old and new fans.

Ti­tles like “Aladdin,” “Avengers: End Game” and “The Lion King” also con­tin­ued to top the most-viewed con­tent on the stream­ing app.

How­ever, a rise in views was also re­ported in some of the less pop­u­lar cat­e­gories dur­ing the pan­demic, as some view­ers proved more in­quis­i­tive and ven­tured out to gen­res such as re­al­ity TV, cook­ing shows and doc­u­men­taries.

Sim­i­larly, StarzPlay stream­ing ser­vices saw a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease (20 per­cent) in the num­ber of to­tal view­ing hours, par­tic­u­larly among Saudi unique users, who re­ported a rise in the num­ber of hours per user, from 11.83 hours in Jan­uary 2019 to 18.06 hours in May 2020. A spike in con­sump­tion of fam­ily con­tent such as Dis­ney clas­sics and Warner Bros. fa­vorites was re­ported, with Ara­bic con­tent also grow­ing five-fold in pop­u­lar­ity across the MENA re­gion dur­ing the first few months of the pan­demic. “We have also seen a grow­ing ap­petite for DC con­tent in the re­gion, es­pe­cially box sets. As per our re­cent view­er­ship anal­y­sis, 42 per­cent of our view­ers are bing­ing on DC shows,” said Sheikh, re­fer­ring to a no­table in­ter­est in crimescene in­ves­ti­ga­tion shows among DC fans in Saudi Ara­bia.

The top three most-viewed shows among StarzPlay view­ers were “Vik­ings,” “Power” and “The Big Bang The­ory.”

How­ever, while OTT plat­forms

By watch­ing TV, peo­ple are trans­ported into the lives of oth­ers and dis­so­ci­ated from their own wor­ries or sad­ness.

and TV chan­nels may seem to be thriv­ing dur­ing the pan­demic, one down­side has been a drop in ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enues dur­ing the sec­ond quar­ter, which co­in­cided with the month of Ra­madan. Ac­cord­ing to me­dia in­vest­ment com­pany Group M’s mid-year re­port for the MENA re­gion, which fore­casts the fu­ture of in­vest­ments in the Mid­dle East, TV ad spend­ing across all coun­tries will be down 29 per­cent in 2020 com­pared with 2019.

Over­all, the av­er­age time spent on news and movie chan­nels dur­ing the first pe­riod of the pan­demic and Ra­madan had risen by 30 per­cent, while en­ter­tain­ment chan­nels saw an in­crease of be­tween 20 and 30 per­cent.

Yet, de­spite the growth in TV con­tent con­sump­tion in coun­tries such as Saudi Ara­bia, Egypt and Morocco, in­vest­ment in the sec­tor dropped by 30 per­cent com­pared with last year.

This can only mean one thing: As the pan­demic hits some­what of a plateau, with many of­fices and schools re­open­ing, the main fo­cus for many TV net­works and stream­ing ser­vices is to keep their large “quar­an­tine” au­di­ences hooked and sub­scriber be­hav­ior up — that is un­less an­other wave of in­fec­tions hits this win­ter.


‘Avengers: End Game’ was a fa­vorite on one stream­ing app as view­ers sought refuge in fan­tasy.


Hits such as ‘Game of Thrones’ have boosted net­work rev­enues.

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