Opinion

In Search of a Sustainable Business Model

Karim Sarkis.

Karim Sarkis (@kmsarkis) is the CEO of Sync Media, a content creation company based in the UAE with the purpose of developing advertiser-funded programming with content integrated across tv, web and mobile. Since 2007 and up until January 2012, Karim managed the TV and radio business of Abu Dhabi Media. 

On the surface, the free-to-air television sector in the Middle East is thriving. Viewing time is one of the highest in the world. Even in the turbulent political environment of 2011, research indicates that the advertising market has continued to grow. Hundreds of channels exist yet satellite operators can’t keep up with demand and continue to launch new satellites. International players such as Newscorp and Turner have made investments in Middle East media. The region’s population is growing rapidly and is very young by global standards, thus making it attractive for advertisers. The large number of broadcasters supports an eco-system of profitable entities ranging from international and regional production houses to infrastructure providers and media professionals.

In reality, a minuscule number of broadcasters are profitable. Ad figures are inflated by rate card monitoring that does not take into account regular heavy discounting. On a net basis, ad spend per capita is lower than global benchmarks. In the absence of a single regulatory body with authority over the many countries in the region, the advertising and broadcasting sectors are practically unregulated. In advertising, this has led to aggressive but not always transparent sales practices. In broadcasting, the lack of regulation has led to large discrepancies in the quality of content. Audience measurement is either non-existent or relies on antiquated methodologies.

The rapid development of satellite Direct-to-Home distribution, while a necessity in the past to avoid strict government control of the television sector, has come at a cost. Broadcasters and advertisers cannot target individual markets and therefore larger countries tend to get the lion’s share of television spend while local TV advertising budgets are diverted to newspapers. 

Despite the lack of profits, new channels continue to launch, at times as misguided commercial ventures but mostly in pursuit of non-commercial goals. This is fine in a normal free market scenario, but with the lack of audience measurement and no regulation of the claims channels can make or how their advertising inventory is sold, the market becomes distorted. Its overall value is diminished as too many players are left chasing an undervalued advertising spend.

There is no short term solution or quick fix for the various issues afflicting the TV sector in the Middle East. Many are regulatory and related to the multi-country footprint of the sector and therefore cannot be easily resolved. Ultimately, the current key players in the Middle East’s television industry including broadcasters, advertisers, media buyers and sales representatives, are best positioned to improve its prospects by taking pragmatic steps to increase revenues, reduce costs, and support transparency.

Key actions include:

All parties should support the introduction of audience measurement tools. The UAE is the only major Middle East market that is close to launching people meters. 

Broadcasters can increase their revenues if they work closely with advertisers. The evolved advertisers need to expand their arsenal beyond the 30-second spot to cut through the clutter. Yet currently the content development process at broadcasters barely involves their ultimate clients. If more budgets are to be allocated to TV, broadcasters must reach out to advertisers and seek to develop content that entertains audiences while integrating brands in a seamless non-intrusive manner.

Broadcasters should begin to shift their mindset to that of content owners and capitalise on new platforms to increase revenues: IPTV platforms are emerging in Saudi and other countries. OTT is a nascent but promising sector. Satellite operators are considering spot beams. YouTube viewing on mobile is one of the highest in the world. Broadband penetration is growing rapidly in key markets. All these platforms provide opportunities for content owners to create more relevant localised content, extend television brands onto the web and mobile, generate syndication and licensing revenues, or explore new advertising mechanisms.

Broadcasters can reduce content costs by sharing productions across markets or acquiring rights for smaller geographic territories. The pan-Arab channel is a convenient myth and very few channels can be both popular with audiences across all countries and be able to generate revenues from those countries.

Advertisers too must play a role in rewarding broadcasters that create premium content with verified audiences. In too many instances, the short term focus on reducing spot rates has led to a negative ripple effect across the advertising value chain.

The TV sector in the Middle East must repair its business model if it wants to sustain itself in the long term and attract investment on a commercially viable basis. Eventually, internal voluntary reform, if not exercised, will be replaced by externally imposed regulatory reform.