Interviews

Qanawat: Building digital platforms for MENA broadcasters

From left: Onur Alp Aydin, Business Development Manager with Ahmed Nureni, Director, Business Development, Qanawat.

With programmatic TV as represented by VOD and YouTube poised to account for a third of global TV ad revenue by 2021, TV broadcasters in the region are taking digital seriously. Digital platform specialists at Dubai-based Qanawat explain the opportunities and hurdles in the MENA region.

Maa Hessa Qalam is a popular drama series that played on Dubai TV three months ago during Ramadan. The compelling story of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s now features on YouTube, and has garnered millions of online viewers since then.

The analytics team at Dubai-based digital platform specialist Qanawat will tell you that the popular drama series is drawing in audiences that do not watch linear TV – much like everywhere else in the world, where digital platforms are seen as complementing traditional broadcasters.

“TV broadcasters are now approaching us saying they will produce content only for YouTube … we had never heard this before,” reveals Ahmed Nureni, Director, Business Development at Qanawat. Established in 2001, the company offers mobile VAS-managed service to more than 45 mobile operators in 22 countries in the MENA region. In the music industry, Qanawat is readily recognised as the company that represents more than 25,000 tracks produced by 700 artists across MENA. Since 2013, it has seen a small but significant increase in the number of TV channels as clients.

“The channels have seen their YouTube subscriber numbers increase. They probably started with 10,000 subscribers or less, and even the smaller ones have more than 100,000 subscribers. We have TV broadcasters now wanting to devise clear annual digital strategies to grow their current subscribers to reach hundreds of thousands,” reveals Onur Alp Aydin, Business Development Manager for Online Video and Digital Platforms at Qanawat.

“TV broadcasters are now approaching us saying they will produce content only for YouTube … we had never heard this before” Ahmed Nureni, Director, Business Development, Qanawat

BroadcastPro ME met with the Qanawat team at their boutique office in Dubai Media City, which houses around 55 employees. The company also has offices in Riyadh, Cairo, Casablanca and Algeria.

The growing TV clientele happened organically, Aydin reveals, mirroring the early days when music went digital. With Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s Kingdom Holding investing in French music streaming service Deezer earlier this year, and music streaming initiatives from Apple, Anghami, Spotify, Huawei Music and Samsung Cue, there has never been a better time to hold the digital rights to the works of so many music artists in the region, says Nureni.

“Today, you do not need to explain to a music artist about intellectual property rights, digital rights and so on. Most of them know about protecting their music and the value of monetising music on digital platforms.”

Well-known Arabic singers such as Hussein Al Jassmi, Saad Lamjared, Rashed Al Majed, Balgees are featuring new releases on their official YouTube channels as priority over other platforms and TV channels. 22-year-old Emirati singer Mohammad Al Shehhi is a poster-boy for the potential of the digital landscape.

Ahmed Nureni, Director, Business Development, Qanawat.

Nureni says: “He had one hit song when our music content team approached him. We set up a digital platform for him and manage it as well, and today, after just one-and-a-half years, he has more than 35 songs and 1.2 million subscribers. Viewership of some of his songs goes up to 70 million.”

Research by PWC predicts that programmatic TV, as represented by VOD and YouTube, will represent approximately a third of global TV ad revenue by 2021. With Facebook now launching Watch, there are more platforms for broadcasters to extend the reach of their audiences. The situation appears to be a win-win in a region not especially noted for audience measurement. With TV content available on digital platforms, advertisers will be able to optimise TV advertising based on detailed, immediate feedback generated by online platforms.

Conversations with TV channels began around five years ago, as more of them started making tentative forays into the digital arena, Nureni recalls. “Most channels would say they had a presence on digital platforms such as YouTube, but there was no strategy around that initiative.”

The hesitant start by TV broadcasters the world over can be explained as a failure to fully grasp the power of the snackable content that can be shared, or to fully understand the seemingly anarchic nature of digital platforms. The potency of online platforms in extending audiences, however, was immediately evident.

Since he started his US show in 2014, English comedian James Corden, for instance, has racked up billions of YouTube video views and gained 16 million subscribers to the show’s channel. His Carpool Karaoke with Paul McCartney has clocked up 32 million views since it came out two months ago.

Elaborating on Qanawat’s managed services for TV broadcasters, Aydin says: “We help in copyright protection on digital platforms. We have a dedicated team that monitors content across platforms for any IP violations. Another key objective is audience development. We help increase discoverability of content, which is critical. TV broadcasters are understanding now that these are virgin audiences for them. By sharing exciting snippets of their videos and making them reachable, you keep the buzz high. There is a curiosity created, and eventually the younger audiences catch up with the programmes on TV that in any case their family or parents are already watching. After a while we post entire episodes online.”

With TV clients experiencing exponential audience growth online, they are now approaching the Qanawat team four to five months prior to the all-important month of Ramadan.

Nureni explains: “We work closely with them as Ramadan approaches; sometimes a year in advance. We dig deep into the data to present who is watching the content, what parts they are not watching anymore and so on. 60%, for instance, of the yearly viewership is during the month of Ramadan for all broadcasters. We offer our analyses of previous years, indicating drop in views, people skipping certain parts and so on. From gender to audience retention, we evaluate the data and present our findings.”

Currently, Qanawat manages the YouTube platform for more than 40 broadcasters in the MENA region.

Onur Alp Aydin, Business Development Manager, Qanawat.

While the Qanawat team, like the rest of the industry, bemoans the lax enforcement of anti-piracy laws, the company has been a torch-bearer in ensuring singers and content producers are paid for their content in the region. And now, as broadcasters come alive to the viral possibilities of digital platforms, plans and people are transforming in Qanawat. Blockchain is one of the new projects.

Nureni outlines the changes: “We are currently working on a blockchain project to track copyright violations of artists on various platforms. We have four developers in-house, and it should be done by Q1 or Q2 of 2019. The other major project is developing our own interface. Content producers will not have to approach us in person. They can upload their content through our interface, complete with online signatures to ensure the contract is legal. We could have done this five or six years ago, but only now have digital signatures been legalised, and that too only in the UAE. It is still not legal in most other countries in the MENA and that is slowing us down.”

While technology is streamlining a complicated process of engagement with content producers living across MENA, there is also “the dedicated account manager in case the content creator wants to release his work at 3am in the morning”, explains Aydin. And apart from the personal touch for promising content providers, the composition of the staff at Qanawat has undergone a transformation in line with the demands of the changing digital landscape.

Nureni says: “As per the dynamics of the market, our team structure has changed. We require our staff to be YouTube-certified, DITEX (Digital Industry Tools Experts)-certified and up-to-date with a fast-changing digital landscape, to present our clients with strategies that will resonate with the audience.” For the artist and content producer, Nureni’s team has one compelling proposition: “Build your card.”

Nureni explains: “Our marketing team is working with several sponsors and brands through agencies or directly. For the content producer, his or her followers on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube become the ‘passport’ to effective monetisation. Our team helps them build that passport.”

The conversations around digital platforms have become less difficult with linear broadcasters, admits Nureni. However, the issue of digital rights still needs to be underlined.

“TV broadcasters are understanding now that these are virgin audiences for them. By sharing exciting snippets of their videos and making them reachable, you keep the buzz high” Onur Alp Aydin, Business Development Manager, Qanawat

“We remind our broadcast clients that they need to buy both television and digital rights for the content before it can be aired on digital platforms. For the time being, with most of them, we are concentrating on the content they produce in-house.”

Nureni also believes the advertisement-driven online digital platform model is not sustainable in the long run and does little to curb the toxic notion among online audiences that premium content is free.

“It is not free,” Nureni stresses. “Advertisers pay for the content. We need to change the model from freemium to premium. Advertising budgets that vary year to year will tend to rule in a freemium context, and that kills the intrinsic value of the content. For instance, with Apple Music you have to subscribe from day one even if you are offered a three-month free subscription. Local platforms should follow the same model.”

Both Nureni and Onur acknowledge that the content business is poised to take off in the region, as sampling on YouTube and other digital platforms is leading to extended audiences for television content, with revenue shared between the digital platform and the broadcaster.

Nureni admits to being extremely selective about taking a TV broadcaster on board – it all depends on whether the Qanawat team can deliver the agreed KPIs. The digital path, however, is inevitable for all broadcasters, regardless of size. He concludes: “If you want to talk to young people, digital should be part of your ecosystem. This is my message to TV broadcasters.”