The Netflix Inc. website and logo are displayed on laptop computers arranged for a photograph in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. Netflix Inc., the largest subscription streaming service, is expected to release earnings data on Jan. 22. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Netflix: Coming Soon To Mideast Screens

U.S. entertainment giant signs deal with regional partner to introduce streaming service by June

Netflix ventured into uncharted territory this month by inking what it considers its first-ever Middle East deal, partnering with Dubai-based OSN, the leading entertainment network in the region and North Africa. Beginning in June, OSN subscribers will be able to access, for an additional fee, the popular on-demand platform from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates and beyond.

While Netflix in 2016 signed an Internet Service Provider (ISP) partnership with Israel, the entertainment company is promoting the OSN deal as a first-of-its-kind in the Middle East. When contacted by The Media Line, a Netflix spokesperson downplayed the apparent paradox, instead contending that “region categorization depends on context.”

For his part, Yann LaFargue, Manager of Technology and Corporate Communications at Netflix, reinforced to The Media Line that “this is Netflix’s first ISP deal in the region, and we’re constantly and actively looking at different, local partners to help enhance viewers’ entertainment experience across every possible internet-enabled device.

“With OSN’s new set-top box,” he continued, “this gives us another way of seamlessly delivering amazing content to Arab viewers, with one consolidated bill.”

Netflix is, accordingly, beginning to place an emphasis on content both produced in and focusing on the Middle East. On March 1, LaFargue revealed, “we are releasing Netflix’s first Arabic original production of Adel Karam: Live from Beirut,” a series featuring the Lebanese stand-up comedian.

This week, Netflix announced it will be producing its second Arabic series, Jinn, a supernatural teenage drama featuring Middle Eastern talent that will be filmed in Jordan and begin airing in 2019. In the related press release, Erik Barmack, Vice President of International Original Series at Netflix, expressed excitement over the opportunity to “celebrate Arab youth and culture.”

Nevertheless, Western programming will likely remain the primary draw. “Content preferences aren’t limited by geography,” LaFargue explained, adding, for example, that “the UAE’s most ‘binge-raced’ shows of 2017 were Stranger Things 2, Marvel’s The Defenders and Fuller House 3.”

Similarly, Martin Stewart, CEO of OSN, contended to The Media Line that “across the region, Western content is viewed, with popular genres including Hollywood movies, the latest TV shows, kids or family content. OSN is known for bringing its Middle Eastern customers the latest shows exclusively at the same time as U.S.,” he expounded, “as enabled by our long-term partnerships with Hollywood’s biggest studios, such as Disney, HBO and Fox.”

Given that many in the region are not fluent in English, Stewart highlighted that “OSN subtitles [in Arabic] the majority of our shows, especially kids’ content so that it broadens the appeal.”

Juxtaposed against conservative Middle East societies, the West, and by extension its culture, is deemed risqué—if not offensive or even heretical—by many in the region. This, in turn, raises questions about censorship, in particular if and how restrictions will be applied to Netflix’s content.

“Netflix is sensitive to the preferences of its members and will continue to make market-specific decisions based on such preferences,” LaFargue told The Media Line.

For his part, Stewart explained that “OSN complies with the rules and regulations of the local authorities, but we pride ourselves in showing our movies and TV shows uncut and uninterrupted.”

According to Dr. Andrea Stanton, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Denver, “censorship rules vary by country in the Middle East, but there’s a fairly high degree of censorship of entertainment content on satellite TV channels, especially in the Arab world, primarily for reasons of sexual content and violence. Officials censor content,” she continued, “which they consider to threaten social harmony: [that is,] content with a sectarian, ethnic, or political element.”

On the other hand, Dr. Stanton told The Media Line that “the Middle East has been a technology leader in terms of delivering personalized entertainment content, via different platforms.” As an example, she noted that over a decade ago there were “efforts via Gulf-based television channels to provide downloadable and then streaming entertainment coverage via mobile phones.”

Whether or not Netflix’s content will be restricted in the Middle East either due to licensing rights (which limits the amount of programming in Israel, for example) or censorship, many believe its introduction into the region stands to have positive effects. In this respect, its broad range of shows could serve to further bridge the cultural and political divide between the Middle East and the West.

(Daniella P. Cohen is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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