In its 20-year history, the Saudi-owned MBC Group has become the biggest free-to-air broadcaster in the Arab world.
Sam Barnett, the chief operating officer and general manager of MBC, has been with the company since it relocated to Dubai in 2002. He tells The National how MBC has grown from one TV station into a 10-channel network, and the company's plans to maintain its position in the market.
You have been involved with MBC since 2002. How has the company changed over that time?
When I joined the network it was reasonably new to Dubai, and we were one TV station and one radio station. And so the key change has been in the shape of the portfolio; we have continued to launch channels through that time. While we were, back then, generating about 20 to 22 per cent share of the market, we're now 45 per cent share of the market in Saudi Arabia. If you look at other countries … the direction is the same.
Free-to-air television is still dominant in the Arab world. Do you think that will stay the same, or will pay-television grow its share of the market?
If pay-TV operators are successful in their current attempts to reduce piracy, then that will be a good foundation for them to grow … if that's successful, then one would anticipate that pay-TV penetration will increase.
Will pay-television threaten MBC?
In most markets, free-to-air and pay-TV co-habit. In the Middle East it has been an overwhelmingly free-to-air market. People are used to consuming free TV, and they get very good quality. So we're confident [enough] about our position to be supportive of pay-TV growing. But there's still a long way for them to grow, and I think that with the changes they're making on piracy there is potential for them.
Does MBC Group receive subsidies from the Saudi government?
Not as far as I know … I've managed this group since 2002, and we're cash-flow positive. We are run on a commercial basis and fund our business from our own operations. I also don't see any [government] involvement whatsoever. I think people like to believe that MBC's success is because it gets favours or money. It's not … we're actually a successful commercial organisation.
Last year you launched MBC Drama. Are you going to add any other channels this year?
We never say never. Because our strategy has been that, if we see a niche which is evolving, and we think that we can serve that in a profitable way, then we will go for it. But we have no immediate plans for new channels.
Does MBC have any plans to launch any paid premium channels or any paid on-demand services?
We've got MBC+ Drama [a joint venture with the pay-TV network OSN]. There may be others like that in the future, depending on the amount of content we've got. But there are no plans as of yet. Our core strategy remains the free-to-air business.
How many people are watching MBC channels every day?
106 million people will watch one of our channels each day in north Africa and the Middle East.
The Arab TV market is unique in that the same satellite broadcasts are beamed from Morocco to Oman, rather than to specific countries. Do you see that staying the same?
We've looked at spot beams [which allow for localised satellite feeds]. It will depend upon whether the satellite companies are able to launch them at an attractive price, and whether a sufficient mass of stations will adopt their signals. What we have seen is the evolution of more local programming. And we will anticipate that in each market you'd have strong local channels coming up.
What do you see as the broad trends in MBC's business model during the next five years?
I'd be surprised if we fragmented again as much as we have in the past. I'm not sure that we will double the channel number again. What we're doing now is really fine-tuning the position of each channel, and making sure that the content is addressed to the local market. On some channels, such as MBC Action, that means we're introducing local shows. Rather than purely relying on acquisition content, we will put on more Arabic programmes, so you'll see each channel becoming a brand. You'll see more online initiatives and more social media initiatives.