MBC CEO Sam Barnett on Beating Netflix Beyond Ramadan and Navigating Saudi Arabia’s Production Boom (EXCLUSIVE)

Dubai-based CEO Sam Barnett leads the Middle East’s largest broadcaster MBC as it turbocharges its Shahid streaming service through a scripted content drive, and gives Netflix a run for its money.

Shortly before the holy month of Ramadan, which is marathon TV time in the Arab world, Barnett spoke to Variety about the still crucial relevance of Ramadan season in luring eyeballs, MBC’s need to offer “interesting new types of content” outside of the holy period, and why the company remains resolutely pan-Arab while riding the wave of Saudi’s production boom.

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There is a perception that MBC is becoming more “Saudi-centric” since it now plays an important role in Saudi’s drive to become a major content producer. Can you talk to me about how this shift is playing out in your overall production strategy?

MBC has always played a major role in the media in the Kingdom, and that’s continuing. What’s happening in Saudi is – with the opening up and the evolution of production and the diversification of the economy away from oil – there’s a greater focus on building industrial ecosystems in all sorts of different sectors. And naturally, MBC is accommodating these developments in media.

But I don’t think it’s correct to say MBC has changed our strategy, or that we’ve suddenly become Saudi-centric. We are playing a role in the development of media in Saudi, as we have done for many years. But I don’t want to give the impression that MBC has suddenly become a local Saudi broadcaster.

Tell me more about MBC’s pan-Arab scope

I’ll give you a few examples. The largest show that I think has ever been on an OTT in the Middle East is a show called “Heera.” It’s an Iraqi soap opera and it’s hit the ball out of the stadium in terms of all the other numbers we’ve ever seen.

We’ve just done Season 2 of “Casa Street” in Morocco. Again, probably one of the largest and most popular series in Morocco. And in Egypt, we have probably our biggest drama in Ramadan, a show called “Al Aghar” with Amr Saad, and we have out a normal prank show with Ramez Galal. That’s important because Egypt is going through economic challenges at the moment. But we are doubling down there. And we are still number one there and have made a commitment to Egypt. So we are still as Pan-Arab as we ever were. Our biggest content on air right now is called “Al Thaman” (produced in Lebanon and Turkey) which is an “Indecent Proposal”-like story, but over 150 episodes. It’s a pan-Arab product and it’s as popular in Musket as it is in Marrakesh. And it also works very well in Saudi.

What are some of your other big productions at the moment? I think at least some of them are being made in Saudi

Well, we just finished shooting “Mu’awiya,” which is a show set in the past, in the time of Islam and the Prophet. That’s actually been shot in Tunisia but is probably one of our largest shows ever and will be hugely significant when it goes on air.

In terms of what’s happening in Saudi, for Ramadan we’ve just finished [smash hit Saudi Arabian sketch comedy format] “Tash ma Tash” which has been revived in a new version and is now in Season 19. As you know, we are producing “Rise of the Witches,” which is based on a Saudi series of books. That’s in production right now and will be multiple seasons. We’ve been shooting that in Neom. And I’m sure you’ve heard about [Hollywood tentpole] “Desert Warrior.” We are anticipating that will come out soon, and we have more films going into production in Saudi as well, though I can’t to go into details.

Production aside, how important is Saudi as a market for MBC, especially for Shahid?

We continue to reap nearly 50% of the linear Saudi audience share. And Shahid, as we understand it from external sources, is bigger than Netflix across the region and certainly in Saudi where we also have the Saudi Premier League. Shahid is really a compelling OTT proposition in Saudi. Also we are moving more people there. We have a new office in Saudi and we anticipate that office will grow. We are also building studios in Saudi to take advantage of both the incentives and the fact that it’s a large high-income market.

You just said Shahid is beating Netflix in terms of subscribers in the region. What are your numbers?

We are well ahead of three million subscribers now, and we’re now heading for four million. As we go into Ramadan that’s always a big acquisition [of subs] time for us. Last year we did well during Ramadan in terms of keeping a big chunk of the new subscribers who came on board during Ramadan through the rest of the year. The challenge in the past has been not to be seen as purely a Ramadan-focused service because there’s lots of people who want to go and consume Arabic dramas during Ramadan. We absolutely capture that. But we want to position ourselves as having interesting new types of content outside of Ramadan. And the fact that we are keeping our numbers high and continuing to increase them across the entire year means that we are having success in doing that.

You recently hired U.S. producer Christina Wayne, known for “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” to head MBC Studios. Are you also looking to make product that can travel? 

I think that was always part of our ambition. Prior to Christina, Pete Smith had launched MBC Studios, and again we pulled him in from outside. We’ve been working with international talent, linked up with local talent to try and improve the quality of our productions with the ambition that we could export.

“Desert Warrior” is an extreme example of that. One that we will certainly [do] in the Middle East, but is designed as an export product.

Going forward, we believe that if we can tell authentic local stories with an international level of quality, then that will be of interest to the global audiences. The key driver is to push Shahid and our TV across the whole region. But we are also aware that if we can amortize some of the investment through global distribution, that certainly makes the case easier.

And there’s all sorts of stories which are of interest. So we continue to be in discussions with other studios about particular projects. Christina helps that. She brings a great network. I think her experience at AMC and Amazon means she has a very good understanding of the logistics and the process of how to manage numerous large-scale productions at the same time, and she has a good creative eye.

What was the rationale behind MBC’s content partnership with Vice in Saudi?

The Vice deal is an interesting one. It’s edgy; it’s youth focused. When they make content, they have people who are interested in it from around the world. They have a big distribution platform. Plus it brings a kind of level of openness and a new edge to some of the things that we’ve done in the past.

In your discussions with Vice, was there ever any sort of issue or mention of the possibility that content Vice will be producing in Saudi Arabia could face censorship?

Look, we do deals with all the main U.S. studios. And we produce content with several of them. At MBC whenever we are putting things on platforms that we control, we have an editorial say on content because we want it to be relevant for our audiences.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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