x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

US disputes provide a lesson on creativity

Two years of unrest in the US entertainment industry have illustrated the importance of taking new media into account when drafting contracts.

Conan O'Brien, left, Jon Stewart, centre, and Stephen Colbert kill time on the NBC show Late Night with Conan O'Brien.
Conan O'Brien, left, Jon Stewart, centre, and Stephen Colbert kill time on the NBC show Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

When the Screen Actors Guild in the US began beating the drums for a strike last winter, it sounded to many in the industry like the opening song to a very tired old rerun. After all, it had been less than a year since the Writers Guild of America had gone on a three-month strike, which turned out to be a devastating affair for just about everyone involved - especially viewers. Few who saw it are likely to forget the horror of watching the American late-night talk show host Conan O'Brien try to fill the awkward hours of unscripted airtime by inviting the camera crew to film him playing the video game, Rock Band, in his office with his co-workers. It's a fun game, but terrible television.

At the centre of both disputes was the question of how the people who make the shows get paid when that content gets consumed over new media, from internet television to mobile downloads. Many of the writers and actors' contracts, they complained, did not include methods for measuring online distribution, or guidelines on how to pay for it fairly. Technology had simply moved faster than the lawyers, leaving the people who helped make the content in nearly as awkward a position as Conan as they watched their industry's digital revolution lift off without them.

Today, as concrete signs emerge that internet television revolution in the Middle East has begun in earnest, those disputes in the US will be sifted for pointers to pre-empt problems. Last week, MBC, the group behind several of the region's most-watched television channels, released viewership figures for its first experiment with free, advertising-supported internet television, in conjunction with Etisalat. Since the project was launched, during Ramadan last year, there have been 8 million viewings online - not to mention the more than 5 million advertisement viewings that went with them. This has been a vote of confidence that the region may indeed be ready for the free, advertiser-supported online television business model. Until this video-on-demand project, MBC offered its programmes online by subscription only. But MBC's tie-up with Etisalat last September was followed by a similar tie-up between the telecommunications company and Dubai Media Incorporated, suggesting that more free online television is on the way.

The model has already proven popular in the West, with The Walt Disney Company's ABC television network joining NBC Universal and News Corp as an equity owner of Hulu, the advertising-supported online video site, in April. But the question for the region is whether it can make the transition to an increasingly digital television industry more gracefully than those who blazed the trail. Dr Ammar Bakkar, the group director of new media at MBC, predicts this shift will cause fundamental changes, not just to media companies' internal structures, but to what gets played on the television airwaves as well.

"One of the things about television that should change is the windowing system," he said. "Currently TV channels repeat content freely. Now, when channels know that the minute the content is shown on TV it's going to be available on the web, repeating content for the second or third time will look less appealing, which will create problems. "All of a sudden, the owners of content, who used to sell their content 10 times, will say: 'Everybody has seen it online. Who would bother to buy it?' It will create changes in the market."

So far, those changes have not happened, but Dr Bakkar believes they need to if the Middle East is to mature to a point where it can profit from the web's popularity as a source of television, just as iTunes has been able to do in the West for music, and increasingly for TV shows and movies as well. Mark Hill, a partner at The Rights Lawyers in Dubai, has worked on several contracts between broadcasters and production companies over the past four years that included online provisions - including Dubai TV's contract for the broadcast and online distribution of the animated series Freej. But he agrees that, generally, there are many unanswered questions about how television contracts will work in the region as internet television becomes more common.

"A question is how long the exclusivity window is before [a programme] goes free-to-air, whether it goes to pay TV or free-to-air, and how does the internet fit into that?" he said. "Because in an online context, MBC is no different from Showtime." He said it would be some time before the complexity and precision of contracts in the region matched those of more developed markets in the West. "It's not a simple game," he said. "I think people have either not started to play the game yet, or have thought that it's maybe easier than it is."

Of course, it is unlikely that the UAE, having no actors' or writers' unions, will be subjected to marathon sessions of spontaneous reality programming anytime soon. And the debates in the West were about the agreements between creative professionals and production companies, not the broadcasters. Still, the last two years of unrest in the industry have illustrated the importance of taking new media into account when drafting contracts.

As the UAE in general, and Abu Dhabi in particular, attempts to position itself as a content creation hub for the region, with ventures such as the twofour54 media zone, it should make sure that it becomes known as a place where content's creation is rewarded, no matter how it is consumed. khagey@thenational.ae