Starz Play is all about non-US distribution, Arabia is its first hit

It turns out that the OTT service which Lionsgate’s Starz introduced last Spring, has taken off in the MENA region – Middle East and North Africa – ahead of its home country the US. It has been rewarded by picking up $125 million in total funding, some of it recently injected by State Street Global Advisors, Dubai based SEQ Capital Partners and UAE originated Delta Partners.

It shows that although the growth in TV in Africa and the Middle East is little more than a rounding error in the global appetite for media, there remains quite a lot of money to be made there in the short term.

Starz Play Arabia made its move into MENA very quietly in 2015 on the back of a partnership between Starz and the Parsifal Entertainment Group, making it the first international SVoD move by Starz and it has grown to 700,000 subscribers since then, each paying $8 a month. Starz now owns just 41% of Starz Play Arabia. It was only in January 2016 that Starz Play was launched as a brand in the US. The new funding will go towards enhancing the service’s customer experience and acquiring new programming.

The plan now is to attract more local content as well. But for $125 million, there does not seem much room to create much in the way of original content – as Netflix spends that on one or two new series. One area the new money will be used on acquiring right to existing Bollywood content for Indians abroad.

In recent months, Starz Play Arabia has introduced a download function for offline viewing, expanded telecom partnerships in North Africa, and expanded content partnerships to all major Hollywood studios. The company says that it will look outside the MENA region next as well, but we suspect to neighboring territories in the Gulf, rather than further afield.

In May 2017, Starz Play Arabia reported a total of 95 million viewing sessions across the MENA region, making it the 11th most visited website in Saudi Arabia and 25th in the UAE. As of May 2017, the Starz Play Mobile App had been downloaded on more than 1.6 million devices.

Starz Play provides payment options through mobile devices, available in 12 countries through 14 mobile carriers and is available on mobiles, PCs, tablets, Smart TVs and gaming consoles. As well as 6,500 hours of Hollywood movies, documentaries, children’s entertainment and ‘same-day-as-the-US’ series – there are 1,200 hours of Arabic shows consisting of Khaleeji, Egyptian and Levant content (Cyprus, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey). In June it cut a distribution deal with Ooredoo in Algeria. It began life on the back of similar deals with Etisalat in the UAE, Vodafone in Egypt and Maroc Telecom in Morocco.

Although when it was announced, Starz Play was pitched as a US OTT service, the Lionsgate investor site has no mention of Starz Play in the US or reports any revenue numbers for it, and it looks like this was always supposed to be an international move, which chose this part of the world primarily because Netflix was not yet there.

Starz has recently overtaken Showtime to become the second placed premium TV network in the US, leaving only HBO ahead of it, and although it genuinely has a web sign up for US customers, there appears to be no aggressive attempts to bypass its US cable operators, and that site offers a TV Everywhere registration for existing pay TV customers.