All change

In the first of a series of interviews with the region’s biggest content providers, CNBC Arabia CEO Steven Hall tells CommsMEA what he thinks needs to happen for mobile TV to take off in the Middle East.

Tags: 3GArabic contentMMSMobile TVUnited Arab Emirates
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All change HALL: Content providers and telecom operators must work together to make mobile TV a success. (Lyubov Galushko/ITP Images)
By  George Bevir Published  July 20, 2009 Communications Middle East & Africa Logo

Mobile television has been described as a 75 year-old killer application, but it has struggled to take off in many markets around the world, including the Middle East and Africa. High data tariffs and poor handsets have been blamed for the lack of interest, but for the chief executive officer of Dubai-based CNBC Arabia, one of the Middle East’s most prominent broadcasters, increased take-up will only occur when there is a change in the relationship between operators and content providers.

The Arabic business channel offers text alerts on market information to customers in Saudi Arabia, and the channel is also streamed to Etisalat and Qtel customers who sign up for the operators’ mobile TV packages. CEO Steven Hall subscribes to the Etisalat service, and he points out that CNBC Arabia’s news tickers – the straps of data that move across the screen – are difficult to see on a mobile device. It is a perfect example of how content that is not repurposed for mobile devices can lose some of its appeal on the small screen.

Suprisingly, Hall says that CNBC Arabia does not receive any revenue in return for the channel being shown on operators’ mobile TV services. Other deals to disseminate content via mobile devices generally see operators taking the lion’s share of the revenue with the rest split between content providers and the firms that provide the technology that connect the two.

“It sounds like a tired phrase, but content is king,” Hall says. “You can have the best delivery system in the world, but without rich content, users and viewers won’t take it up.”

The CNBC boss says that the current business model will have to be revised and that “reluctant” operators need to agree to a more equitable revenue split with companies such as CNBC Arabia that provide content. The deals in place at the moment fail to give content providers enough of an incentive to create content specifically for mobile devices, he says, warning that a growth in subscribers will not occur if existing contracts are simply amended and tinkered with.

“For the content providers to put in the effort and the investment into this, we’ll need to find a model with the telcos that we can all benefit from”, he says, adding that it is up to content providers to help convince telecom operators that “rich and tailored content” will lead to better revenue streams all round.

Increased focus

The demographic of CNBC Arabia’s viewers is slightly older than for mass market channels, but, as Hall points out, the 15-25 year-olds of today will be tomorrow’s decision makers, and it is with these potential viewers in mind that some changes will be made to the way that CNBC Arabia can be consumed.

Youth viewing habits are completely different to those of their parents, and for CNBC to be considered relevant by its future audience, it needs to be prepared to communicate through the channels they use.

At present, mobile users in Saudi Arabia can get text alerts with the latest information on the financial markets, and CNBC Arabia is planning to expand this service in KSA and across the Gulf to make it a “much richer service”, with MMS, value-added services, catch-up services on 3G.

The expanded mobile services, which Hall hopes to launch in three months time, will form what he describes as a “virtuous circle” with traditional broadcast and an overhauled website that was re-launched at the end of May completing the offering.

Arabic only

Operators and industry experts around the Middle East bemoan the lack of Arabic content in the region. This is an area that gives CNBC Arabia a distinct advantage, according to Hall.

Furthermore, as a business news channel that concentrates on financial information rather than politics, CNBC is also less likely to fall foul of telecom regulators looking to keep check of what is being shown on mobile screens, Hall says.

Just what kind of regulatory body will eventually oversee the converged world of telecoms and media in the Middle East is unclear. Hall says he would like to see “coherent but streamlined regulation”, with “pan-Arab and regional coherence between individual regulators towards a commonality of regulation across the Arab world”.

“In any economic sphere it’s in the interest of all the individual countries to promote cross border trade, so the impetus is there. I would like to see as little bureaucratic impediment as possible while streamlining and converging these processes.”

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