MBC CEO Sam Barnett on Ramadan Shows as Subs Drivers For Shahid

The recently ended holy month of Ramadan, which is peak TV season for Arab audiences, has seen most streamers in the Middle East try to lure new subscribers with Ramadan releases, which have risen on OTT platforms with the notable exception of Netflix.

Dubai-based media analyst Nader Soban — head of the Vynd data intelligence platform, which tracks content consumption — notes that the streaming giant didn’t release any programming during Ramadan, preferring instead to launch its Arab shows during less competitive periods. Vynd indicates that, this year, MBC Group‘s rapidly growing Shahid VIP streaming service was well ahead of the pack in both scripted Ramadan releases and the number of exclusive shows on offer.

Variety spoke to MBC Group CEO Sam Barnett about the role of Ramadan season in his drive to reach Shahid’s two million subscribers benchmark.

How significant has Ramadan viewing been for MBC’s Shahid VIP streaming service?

MBC has always been important to families in Ramadan. Typically in the past, people would sit down after Iftar [the evening meal with which Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast at sunset] and watch the MBC comedy and then go straight into the dramas. And we would get huge ratings on our [linear] television. And that, thankfully, continued. [Linear] TV continues to be a key part of the family viewing habit. But Shahid has clearly become a premium outlet for people who want to have a comprehensive view of all of the content out there.

What we were able to do for the audience on Shahid this year was provide 37 dramas, which is the largest number of dramas in one place at one time ever seen before. It comprised everything we had on TV — on which we gave a 24-hour preview window — and then other series that were elsewhere, on other TV stations which we [offer], sometimes exclusively, on OTT on Shahid.

In terms of significance, 140 million people watched the MBC channels each day. That’s a huge number. The number on Shahid is always going to be a section of that. But what we have done this year is really tap into that audience for our premium service and I think that’s why it’s significant. Because we’ve never been able to do that before.

How many subscribers does Shahid now have?

We are [still counting but] hoping that Ramadan will allow us to reach our goal of 2 million.

It’s been pointed out that Shahid experimented with different genres this Ramadan. Last year, MBC launched “Umm Haroun,” which made a splash because it explores historic ties of Jewish people living in the Arab Gulf region. Anything like that this year?

Well, if you are looking for the element of international controversy, I’m not sure you’ll find that. This year, comedy and the lighthearted shows seemed to have done extremely well. We’re not sure whether that’s a response to the difficult year everyone’s had, but certainly that could be a factor. Our top-performing show on Shahid was “Amina Haff,” a light-hearted look at how a woman navigates the complexities of large families in the Gulf. It’s social comedy, easy viewing for the family, but also an interesting look at some of the challenges in this particular culture.

Another one is Egyptian show “Khalli Babak Min Zizi.” This one marked the first time we’ve tackled ADHD — Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It was entertainment, but done in a way that was respectful. And this is what MBC is so good at. It takes often difficult subjects and presents them in a way that large mass audiences can connect with. I think we got lots of accolades from across the spectrum of Egyptian society for how well we’ve done that.

It’s not just trash TV, there’s a meaning and a purpose behind it. Even if you look at some of the traditional comedies that we do — like Nasser Al Qasabi, the Saudi star whose name is synonymous with Ramadan comedy — if you look at what he does, his comedy each year tries to pick out some of the contradictions and make people laugh at them. This year, his comedy [show] dealt with COVID, but he never resists from highlighting the dangers of sectarianism or the problems of discrimination, and this year was no different.

How much of MBC’s Ramadan content was exclusive to Shahid?

Most of the content that was on Shahid was on [linear] TV as well. Partly the reason for this is that the Ramadan format is 30 episodes of a drama. The Shahid proposition during Ramadan is providing this comprehensive portfolio where you can see anything. For us, if you are looking at where we invest to come up with those unique products that tend to be the 6 to 10 or 12-episode stories, where you can tackle a story in a different way that you might expect to see on a streamer — that’s not really what you do on Ramadan.

Where does Shahid go from here?

When you are dealing with a service that you’re launching across the Middle East to very large numbers of people, technically it’s a big challenge. We are very proud that this year, the service was very stable for more users than ever before. We’ve got CDN [content delivery networks] deployed locally. We believe we now have a service that ranks with its international competitors and we are proud that it actually worked. Having gotten to the number of subs we’ve got, we are now looking at the next round of expansion and all the different content that we can put out. You push like mad to get to the first benchmark, the 2 million. Now the board will be looking for even more aggressive growth going forward.

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