ZEE5 is strategically lining for massive Middle East expansion

In October 2018, ZEE took its ZEE5 OTT streaming service global targeting the South Asian diaspora in 190 countries with its new platform.

Offering its content on a freemium models in Middle East markets, the OTT service has evolved to now offer originals as part of its package, which Anand claims is a major focus for the group, and despite the pandemic continues to work tirelessly on adding new shows. Following are the excerpts of an exclusive interview with Anand:

Can you share ZEE5’s strategy for the UAE?
The UAE is strategically a high priority market for us because our content has a strong appeal among multiple segments in the market. For one, there is a huge Indian and South Asian diaspora in the UAE that is already familiar with and loves our content. Our rich content library across Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, and other South Indian languages further helps us strike a deep chord with these communities here. We also have a library of more than 4000 Bollywood movies, which is a huge draw among Bollywood fans in this market, including local audiences. We already have a strong set of partnerships in place in the UAE and across the Middle East, and we now look to deepen our presence here through more partnerships, through various marketing initiatives, and through a line-up of great, compelling content to delight our viewers.

The space for OTT service providers, especially offering Indian content, has become quite cutthroat in the UAE with your counterparts such as Sony Liv entering the market, how do you distinguish and stand out to your target audience?
We have a very differentiated content offering. For one, we are the only digital platform to offer both ‘on-demand’ content and live TV in a single platform, and at such a scale with over 100,000 hours of on-demand content. Further, we have content across multiple categories, from TV shows to originals, the aforementioned large movie catalogue, live streaming news channels, cine-plays, music, and more. What’s more is that we offer our content across 18 languages, including 12 Indian languages and also Arabic. As the most prolific creator of content, we also have over 100 originals on our platform, and some of the biggest direct-to – digital releases. All this sets us quite apart from any other player.

Speaking about the target audience, are you looking beyond the Indian diaspora?
Yes, we are targeting not only South Asians but also mainstream and local audiences in the market. We already have some fabulous content for South Asians available across but we have also added content across some international languages for mainstream audiences. We launched Arabic dubbed Bollywood movies in April to give Bollywood fans across the Middle East and the diaspora across the globe access to the biggest Bollywood blockbusters, in the language of their comfort. These Bollywood movies have been made available for free exclusively for audiences in the Middle East, and this has done very well for us.

Now that you are in the UAE, what are your expansion plans looking like?
Over the past year we have built a strong presence in the UAE market and will look to deepen our presence here and across the region with exciting new content launches and new partnerships that help us reach and drive deeper connections with audiences in the market. We already have some strong partnerships in place including with the LuLu Group, ZNAP and Wego to name a few, along with with key telco partners in the market. We have several other partnerships in the pipeline, and will look to scale them rapidly.

How has Covid-19 impacted your operations given Zee has its own production and post-production facilities, along with live content producing studios.

The lockdown impacted our TV shows as production activities were paused for a period. However fresh episodes of these shows have been back on air since June, taking our viewership back to pre-Covid levels. Shooting of our originals has also resumed, however not at full capacity. Some of our originals are scheduled to begin shooting in the coming months, of course with the utmost safety measures in place. During the lockdown period, with theatres being shut, we had focused extensively on originals and on bringing our viewers the best of direct-to-digital movie releases, and these have done superbly well. Our recent launch, Pakistani web-series Churails, has become a runaway hit in the market and has received some fantastic reviews.

Content and programming is playing a huge role to keep the public occupied during stay home measures. Our industry has a big task on its hands, would you agree?
Yes, surely. The lockdown has been that single common factor across the globe that has drastically impacted the way we consume content. Stuck at home and with movie theatres closed during the lockdown, people have ended up experimenting and engaging with content across platforms like never before. For instance, we saw a huge uptake in traffic and engagement on ZEE5 across global markets especially between March and May, and we rolled out multiple initiatives, including the launch of Arabic dubbed Bollywood movies, a steady flow of direct to digital releases, attractive pack offers. To meet this increased demand and keep our viewers entertained and safe at home. The focus now shifts to retaining these new audiences acquired, and on driving continued engagement through a steady flow of compelling content, and improved personalisation user experience.

Talk us through your funding and monetisation strategy for the UAE and your Middle East expansion?
Like in all our markets, we follow a freemium model in the UAE and the Middle East. Ensuring ease of availability and seamless payment mechanisms for consumers wanting to access our premium content is a critical element of our strategy for the region, and we have forged multiple partnerships to enable this, including with key telco partners across the region, with more in the pipeline. We have, for instance, partnered with a key telco in the UAE market and with both Omantel and Ooredoo Oman to cover the Omani market.

Arabic content is huge and appeal to an audience of over 350 million across the ME region, is that something ZEE is looking to get into?
We don’t have any immediate plans [of getting into local productions in the region]. However, we have seen a major uptick in the Arabic dubbed Bollywood movies since their launch in April. These Arabic dubbed titles include Toilet Ek Prem Katha, Padman, Veere Di Wedding, Commando 2, RaOne, Welcome, Bareily Ki Barfi and some classics like Mr. India and Shah Rukh Khan Starrer Pardes. United Arab Emirates 

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