In the last couple of years, the Middle East has been caught up in the biggest piracy storm ever, with content rights stolen from under the noses of broadcast rights owners and the rest of the world watching but remaining tight-lipped. Piracy remains a huge concern in the MENA region, costing it more than $500m annually. But piracy last year, in combination with the launch of several OTT services, saw traditional broadcast media suffer exceptional economic losses that compelled media executives to urgently consider collaborative methods to ensure their collective survival.
Addressing this from a strategy point of view was the keynote panel, moderated by Robert Lakos, founder of Deleel TV. This panel brought together Manoj Abraham Mathew, Territory Head MENA, Pakistan and Turkey for Zee Network; Zahra Zayat, VP MENA at YuppTV Inc; Farah Ramadan, Digital Planning Manager at MBC Group; Frank Poppelsdorf, VP Product Management at Irdeto; and Ahmed Abbas, CEO of DigiSay.
Lakos chronicled some important moments that saw spikes in piracy in the region, starting with the 1990s when Canal Plus pirate decoders were popular in North Africa; moving on to the digital movement, when pirates took to hacking into the systems of major European CAS providers with very cheap multi-cast decoders that impacted Showtime, OSN and ART; to a third phase where internet keyword sharing was rampant; and to the current period, with illegal streaming the biggest cause of piracy.
He then began the discussion by asking Farah Ramadan how MBC counters piracy in the free-to-air (FTA) and VOD space. Ramadan stated that MBC had managed to take down 245 pirate channels since 2014 through the Broadcast Antipiracy Coalition. On the digital front, MBC has taken down millions of pirated content with the help of CMS on YouTube and social media partners over the last three years. She pointed out, however, that pirate sites were not just making money by having advertisements served on their platforms but also lining their pockets off subscriptions.
“We believe in working with Google on this, while also creating awareness among advertisers, asking them not to place ads on pirated sites. I believe we will be able to cumulatively succeed if we cut off their revenue and involve all regulatory and value chain parts of this industry, including government legislation, media agencies, advertisers and telcos.”
When asked the same question about YuppTV, which has a strong Bollywood offering and therefore serves as a fertile ground for piracy, Zahra Zayat commented that her team quickly preempted certain challenges within that context and addressed them.
“When launching in Kuwait, where the systems are not so robust, we looked at how much the pirates were charging for their service. We decided to charge a similar amount and launched our whole Bollywood package at $11. We did take a hit, but the feedback from customers was that when they invested in pirated packages, there was no guarantee on the quality, the number of channels or the continuity of the broadcast, especially in the case of sports. We as a legal platform were able to guarantee a quality service for the same price as the pirate. We have found that if customers are given a reasonable option, they will opt for a legal platform over an illegitimate service.”
In fact, when the cricket season began, YuppTV advertised on pirate sites that were running its content to attract people to its website – a ruse that was successful, she said.
Zayat pointed out that the biggest advantages an OTT platform has over a linear service are “economies of scale” and the ability “to upgrade faster and more efficiently”.
“I do not carry the burden of cost that traditional pay-TV companies carry. Where pay-TV companies offer their content at $40, we can offer it at $15 with a richer portfolio. Where they offer 50 channels, we can offer 250, in addition to 3,000 movies and catch-up and cinema content, transaction EVOD content and so on. Technology, digital transformation, AI and IoT have disrupted content consumption and have given us the tools to offer a personalised experience to the customer.”
Lakos then queried Abbas on DigiSay’s role in combating piracy.
“We are an MCN; we are one of those companies who partner with YouTube. We realised during our research that pirates have very professionally packaged content; they rank very high on Google Search; they are really good with SEO and market their products very well. Because they do not have to worry about content acquisition, editorial rights, geo blocking and so on, they focus all their energies on marketing. We especially examine Arabic, Turkish and Indian content and crawl them every day and look at the data and match it with our customers,” Abbas remarked.
He noted that one of DigiSay’s key research findings was that the most stolen content in the region was Spanish and Turkish, and said that piracy will get worse, as more people are after specific content “scattered across different platforms”.
“People may pay for one or two subscriptions, but the rest of the content they want to see may be secured illegally. This is why I like OSN’s recent strategy with Game of Thrones. It was a smart move to allow consumers to watch Game of Thrones for just $3. More services need to start thinking creatively like this.”
Lakos drew a parallel with five years ago, when consumers complained about having to invest in multiple boxes and subscriptions to watch linear content.
“The legal options were neither user friendly nor in the interest of consumers. Several countries tried to come up with legislation to resolve this, but eventually it was the pirates that actually filled this void by offering attractive content on a single platform at a good price point,” Lakos said.
The moderator then queried Manoj Mathew of Zee TV on how the Indian media network had created a pay ecosystem in India. Mathew pointed out that one of the secrets to Zee’s success has been keeping its fingers in both the DTH and cable pies while also keeping costs down for the consumer.
“In India, prior to 2003, cable was controlled by the mafia. Most of the cable operators were pirating our channels, so there was no money coming in from there. The cable operators would declare a million subs when they had close to 20m subs. That’s why in India, almost all the broadcasters have an investment in a cable or DTH platform.
“Zee was the first to launch DTH with Dish TV in 2003, at a time when no one believed in the pay model. Subscription was expensive. There was a notion that people would only watch free content. Sports is very popular in India, especially cricket, and this was available for free on government channels. Then came a new breed of content with dramas, which attracted people to move into cable and later DTH.
“We knew that a consumer would pay a certain amount and beyond that, they would pirate the content. Two years ago, we bought the second largest DTH operator, owned by Videocon, because we knew scaling was also important. Today, we are the second largest DTH operator in the world with 28m subscribers in India. India has around 110m subscribers across seven DTH operators.”
Mathew pointed out that with OTT entering the fray, the company had to invest less in set-top boxes and this saving was passed on to the customer. “Your monthly subscription in India would be around $4-6. It may not have all the channels, but even our competitors operate at similar pricing points.”
YuppTV’s Zayat agreed with Mathew that technology is a great enabler, adding that the platform tracks the behaviour of its subscribers and targets them with ads that fit their profile and viewing habits: “In the US, for instance, we target subscribers by zip code.”
Lakos then moved on to strategies to contain piracy. With consumers in the continent devouring Indian content, he asked how Zee manages this.
Mathew commented that the challenges are especially major in hugely pirated markets like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, where pirates buy multiple set-top boxes to create a small headend and charge a small subscription fee to distribute content to consumers in their townships. He says Zee incentivised illegitimate players to move over from the dark side.
“Typically, content owners and platform owners would go raid them and shut them down, but ten others would mushroom in their place. We reached out to them and offered them a special pricing to become a legitimate operator. In this way, we managed successful operations in all these three very difficult markets.”
Frank Poppelsdorf pointed out that to succeed against piracy, an operator must align good technology with proactive services and a very good business model.
“Some pirates are very good at marketing their services and make it attractive or confusing for consumers. Pirates also don’t operate with the same restrictions as operators, who typically have a managed box with only their own service.”
He also remarked that 2019 will be the year we see more Android TV boxes managed by operators than retail Android TV boxes.
“This is a very real example of how operators are ensuring their boxes are consumer friendly on an Android platform. However, you still need to take steps to ensure proper security on Android TV and consider third-party apps such as Kodi. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has cited that over 70% of the consumers using Kodi will do so for piracy. This is where Irdeto comes in to ensure the security of Android TV for an operator.
“We are ensuring that operators have the highest levels of security on Android TV by providing them services that enable them to monitor and get insight into pirate content sources through a two-way connection.”
He pointed out that it is equally important to measure the level and extent of piracy in a region before responding with appropriate technical or business solutions.
“You can take action by shutting the malicious plug-ins down on your managed Android TV boxes, or you can choose a different pricing model for your service. We work closely with operators in this new world where it is mostly about OTT and being consumer friendly. We have to move with that flow, so staying in a world where you have your own managed STB that is confined and controlled at a very high cost does not work anymore.”
With people moving away from STBs to integrated television sets, IPTVs and so on, Lakos enquired what solutions different countries were exploring.
Citing examples from other regions, Poppelsdorf said: “We have looked at ways to make it easier for consumers to receive their content. One of the areas where we have been leading is providing a solution for a USB-form factor for CI Plus 2.0.
They have a long history in Europe, where every single TV has to support CI Plus using PCMCI. That didn’t work with the rest of the world, because it had costs attached to it.
“However, CI Plus has changed the specs for TV to support USB. So this will be available in all their TVs going forward. What it allows you to do is have a very cheap form factor of a USB dongle. It has its limitations in terms of UI control, but there is no security concern as it provides content in a secure manner, with security integrated based on Irdeto Cloaked CA.”
In essence, the panellists agreed that all barriers to accessing a legitimate service across different parts of the chain, especially cost, must be kept in mind.
In a concluding question, Lakos asked how the panellists defined winning the battle against piracy, and what their key metrics to that achievement would be.
Ramadan pointed out that MBC had secured small wins by using data to see what content people are watching on pirated sites and trying to cater to that demand.
“As a content buyer, MBC and Shahid started researching the needs of our viewers more – and based on that, we started offering exclusives and first runs.”
However, she expressed reservations about relinquishing full control to the viewer, stating that MBC would provide a much safer, better and more reliable experience to attract and retain its viewers.
Mathew stated that his basic metrics would be “more subscribers, better ARPUs and more money at the top line”.
Poppelsdorf stated that it is important for content owners to differentiate themselves to compete with professional pirates.
“We know how difficult the battle is to eradicate piracy. Professional pirates are relatively easy to find, because they market their products just as extensively as operators do to attract subscribers. Tracking them is easy. Shutting them down is not. The solution is to identify them and make their lives difficult by ensuring their service is unreliable at crucial moments of broadcast. As an operator, on the other hand, you must ensure that your service offers a reliable and enhanced user experience. The other important thing is deploying technology that enables you to scientifically try, test and measure the methods that will give you the best results.”
Zahra added that with the definition of content having evolved over the years, service operators need to offer as much flexibility as possible to consumers.
“We have to deliver the right content at a price fit for their pocket and be able to view anytime, anywhere without restrictions. We also need to offer flexible modes of payment to facilitate easy payment on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. People have different capabilities and the more flexible the payment options, the greater the opportunity to win over a subscriber.”
Abbas added that while it is difficult to find one secret ingredient to successfully deter pirates, a collection of different methods will help the cause. But he also pointed out that operators and content owners sometimes deliberately use piracy to hook people on a programme and then get them onto a legitimate service. He cited Game of Thrones, saying that data showed that the pirated version of the series was watched ten times more than a legitimate service.
“I hear that Netflix deliberately protects titles only for a limited period of time and then they leak it out so they can get new subscribers.”
With everyone in the game to hook more subscribers, it seems to be a case of by hook or by crook.
Lakos concluded with a round-up of the key themes discussed such as the need to revisit business models to access a wider consumer base, and ways to collaborate to combat illegal content distribution.