Variety key to online consumption shift
Before the dawn of digital video platforms, linear television was the main (or only) platform of choice for many, but even that had a poor production track record.
In addition, equal opportunities for producers and actors were practically non-existent, leaving a monopoly for the select few channels and talent who had the means to produce content. This further limited the type of content on offer. Unlike in the US or UK, which had a lot of range in terms of genre, drama was the mainstay when it came to linear TV options in the MENA region. The content was repetitive and viewers saw the same faces over and over again.
Cue the launch of YouTube in the late 2000s, and it’s not surprising the region witnessed an influx of consumers switching to digital video alternatives. Today, variety is in abundance. It has opened up a world of choice for audiences, which before, were at the mercy of poor production and content.
From linear to digital content
The way the GCC reacted to consumer demand made it – and the UAE in particular – a global frontrunner when this new era was born.
The country did an excellent job in rolling out broadband to homes, working with local operators to get the job done quickly. That was the fundamental reason for the nation’s success in transitioning from linear to digital consumption means.
In fact, the UAE now has one of the best broadband and fibre infrastructure networks globally, not just regionally. The UAE authorities recognised that the country needed world-class infrastructure and an environment conducive to staying abreast of consumer demands. It has been reaping the benefits of streaming and online video content numbers ever since.
That smart approach to infrastructure went far beyond just introducing broadband into homes, though. The UAE went on to set up different strategic zones – including Dubai Internet City and Dubai Media City – to act as a base for companies targeting regional emerging markets. The idea was to attract top talent to the area; talent that could help set up and roll out the infrastructure services needed for a seamless and effective technological environment.
What that created was the local equivalent of ‘Silicon Valley’. Today, a lot of companies are benefiting indirectly as a result of that implementation, including big business players like Google, IBM and YouTube, all of which have regional offices in Dubai.
While I cannot deny the growth has been impressive in the UAE, what's exciting is that it is still in its teenage stage. And because it is still growing, we are expecting to see ups and downs in the coming years, but I see a very positive outlook in terms of etching out that Silicon Valley vision for the region.
Right now, the GCC dominates some of the biggest numbers globally when it comes to internet penetration and smartphone adoption. But while progress is being made, demand will always outstrip supply.
To address that, constant change is needed. The GCC is – and needs to remain – at the forefront of innovation. Over the next two years, the six countries are looking to be the global leaders in the deployment of 5G networks. And while responding to technological advances is encouraged, what the Gulf needs to focus on now is local output.
Creating a hub for local production
In today’s digital age, people want to watch things immediately. They don’t want to wait – and they no longer have to wait. No matter how much content you put out there, you will always be short in supply. To mitigate this, countries need to create an environment that’s conducive to local production. They need to introduce content creation hubs, much like the UAE did with its YouTube Space launch in 2018.
Today, 80 per cent of videos consumed in the MENA region are made up of international content and reruns. We need to change this and create content locally. The region has carved out the infrastructure to stream videos, now it needs to carve out an environment to create those videos. That will play a huge part in meeting demand.
In my opinion, short-form videos cater best for the UAE and wider GCC audience. With today’s fast-paced lifestyles and wandering attention spans, short-form content is most effective. And 20-minute videos work better than 90-minute movies.
Next, we should tackle genre and that should be created with residents in mind. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work. The UAE's diverse demographic will demand a certain type of content and with more than 200 nationalities living together, it would make sense to create English language content with an international feel.
Content could follow the ‘by expats for expats’ format. By creating a product in a universal language and weaving in the customs and traditions of nationalities here, it will be relatable to the majority of residents. Producing a product in a language everyone can understand will be the future of local production, and it will carve out a niche for international talent too.
Creative hubs really need to start looking to export, not import, content and talent. The perception that every waiter or bartender in Los Angeles is an aspiring actor is the kind of image that needs to be created here.
But how do you create that image? Building the infrastructure isn’t enough. Private and government organisations need to collaborate to publicise the UAE as the place to come to produce content. The two need to come together and become a public relations agency for the country.
The UAE should also participate in the international festival scene to a greater extent. By stepping up engagement with some of the key stakeholders in award ceremonies like the Oscars and the Grammys, the exposure will help promote the UAE as a multi-disciplined, content-focused destination. In turn, that will help attract talent to the country and to the region.
Eliminate inconvenience through consolidation
The GCC is one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing regions for online video content consumption. Dubai has become an attractive base for global companies and start-ups looking for a foothold in the region. But while the successes in the sector are plenty, the industry cannot afford to rest on its laurels. To keep pace with an ever-demanding consumer population, constant innovation is needed.
We often read the statement: ‘content: anytime, anywhere’, and although powerful, it can be misleading. The challenge today is that we have opened up a Pandora’s box because, despite open access, consumers still have to go to multiple sources to watch what they want. That creates inconvenience. The reality is, online video consumption is becoming as cluttered as linear channels once were. To avoid irking the consumer, we need to see more consolidation in this sector.
A one-stop-shop for all could create ease-of-use for the consumer. It would eliminate the need of having to subscribe to numerous platforms for specific content.
Slowly but surely, we are seeing more big companies coming together to collaborate and bring a seamless experience to customers. AT&T has finalised its multi-billion-dollar deal to acquire Time Warner. Disney has acquired 20th Century Fox to bring content online, globally. These major studio acquisitions make sense because it will simplify the end-time message and will bring more truth to the phrase, ‘anytime, anywhere’. That's a move I would encourage.