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Published in Sep-Oct 2021

Streaming Laggards

Despite the apparent revenue potential, Pakistan is holding back on launching its own streaming services.

The truth is, we already are – streaming, that is. Just not in the way we were expected to. Elsewhere in the world, there are multiple over the top (OTT) platforms that offer localised content. Furthermore, established global platforms such as Amazon Prime Video and Netflix offer more localised content in other countries than they do in Pakistan, and the reason is because we simply haven’t escaped from living under the shadow of Indian content – yet. The people and the language are pretty much the same, the producers have fewer restrictions, and the industry there is so advanced that we cannot even begin to compete. No matter what attempts we have made to restrict Indian content, they have not worked. In fact, it has invariably been detrimental. When we banned Indian movies in Pakistani cinemas, for example, footfall dropped so drastically that even if the pandemic hadn’t happened, most cinemas would have shut down by now.

A simple search for “best streaming services in the US” comes up with a top 10 list that includes the obvious Netflix and Amazon Prime Video at the top, and several others are already considered giants because they are backed by industry leaders such as Apple, Disney, HBO, NBC and Paramount. In India, ALT Balaji, Disney+ Hotstar, Jio TV and others are gaining popularity. So what are the industry leaders of Pakistan doing? Where are streaming services from ARY, DawnNews, Geo, Hum, etc.? Currently, the ‘big guys’ seem to be satisfied with hosting their content on YouTube. Although this does generate some revenue, it is nothing compared to what they could make had they launched subscription-based streaming services – with a large subscriber base. This is critical.

Show me the Money!
Given the projected subscription numbers, why is it not feasible for the bigwigs to set up and market subscription services and develop specialised content? If you ask the people at the top, they all have plans for their own streaming services in the pipeline for launch when conditions are favourable. With such a large population and massive 3G/4G and broadband penetration (102 million and 104 million respectively, according to the PTA), one would think that we would have been ready to enter the scene yesterday. So, are they being overly cautious, or are the ground realities such that we are just not ready? For now, Pakistanis who can afford to subscribe to streaming services are happy enough with a combination of streamed foreign content, Tata Sky, downloaded content, YouTube, and of course, good old-fashioned cable and terrestrial TV.

Nevertheless, a few players have appeared on the market and include MJunoon, Starzplay by Cinepax and Tapmad; we also have Zee5, an Indian service, and then there are telecoms like Jazz, Telenor and Zong which have apps hosting content for their subscribers. There are also a number of channels on YouTube worth looking at, such as SeePrime and Teeli. When I searched for ‘Pakistani streaming services’, the first out of these to show up was Tapmad, on the third page of results – search engine optimisation (SEO) really does not seem to be a major concern for these companies! This is shocking to me, because if one is hosting a service that is purely web-based, then the first thing they should do is have their SEO in order to make sure they are right at the top of search results. Almost anyone searching for a product has at least some intention of buying it, and if you are not seen by them, it can prove to be a serious disadvantage.

One of Ours, One of Theirs, One for Everyone Else:
Let’s have a look at what Tapmad have to offer. The top of their page is dominated by sports; Premier League to be exact. As you scroll down, you see sports channels, more Premier League, more sports, then Hollywood/Bollywood movies; next is original content. (I wonder if the stress on sports is due to my demographic, as it makes sense to market this particular genre to me, but perhaps I am overestimating their acumen.) The layout is similar to any streaming service, with rows of title covers lined up according to genre.

At the time of writing, the main piece of original content they were promoting was Baarwan Khiladi, expected to release by September 2021, directed by Adnan Sarwar of Shah and Motorcycle Girl fame, starring Danyal Zafar. I had a look at the teaser on YouTube (for some reason their own site does not have the teaser) and the production values look pretty good. I spoke to Sarwar about his experience working for OTT after making movies for cinema, and he said it was much better. “The culture at these companies is more corporate, with timely payments which is a big plus.” He adds: “There is a big wave of OTT coming to Pakistan, which is great, but it is important that the stakeholders realise that they cannot use the same mindset as television. The audience demographics for these services are completely different, and they expect to see different things from TV. But everyone is finding their feet, and it is an exciting space for sure. I am hearing about a lot of projects in the works, new services being launched, and by next year I think we are going to see a lot of good content.”

As for the quality and quantity of the content, a casual scroll through Tapmad’s site suggests there is not all that much on offer that one can’t watch somewhere else, but it is a promising start. I remember when I first subscribed to Netflix and Amazon Prime Video I used to struggle to find something to watch on them.

Zee5 had garnered a lot of attention – and subscribers – in Pakistan, when they published Churails, starring Sarwat Gilani and directed by [Asim Abbasi][1] (Abbasi also directed Cake, one of the better films to be made in Pakistan). Unfortunately, the powers that be had a huge problem with Pakistanis watching such a no-holds-barred depiction of Pakistani society – on an Indian service, no less – and decided to ban access to Zee5. Nevertheless, Zee5 continues to produce many shows in Pakistan that are aimed at Indian audiences and at Pakistanis who are tech-savvy enough to use VPNs.

SeePrime’s YouTube channel has quite a bit of original content available, and of pretty high quality, but what is their business model? I spoke to Naveed Arshad, the owner, and he said that the content they have put on YouTube is for showcasing purposes only, as they do not expect to generate enough revenue to recover what they are investing, but when the time comes, they expect high returns.

Bueller? Bueller?
Pakistan’s media industry tends to be a bit slow catching up when it comes to streaming. We are still in the process of upgrading to HD and this is because most audiences still do not have HD TV sets. One can assume this will be the case for streaming services. While much of the world is hurtling towards a future in which terrestrial and cable are becoming a thing of the past, what we have are a few players that are not even able to market themselves properly. The disparity between urban and rural populations is also significant and therefore it will take even longer for the rural areas to adapt to paid streaming services. Or perhaps marketers are going to have to come up with a completely different model to cater to them.

However, even if it seems there is not much on the table right now, there is the promise of a much awaited feast of content in the air.

Nofil Naqvi is Head of Content, Z2C. nofil.naqvi@z2climited.com