Just 15 months after taking the helm at OSN, CEO Patrick Tillieux has not just steered the media company into a more positive direction, he has also helped renew market confidence in the pay-TV network through new initiatives and partnerships. In an exclusive interview with Vijaya Cherian, Tillieux talks about how he helped move the company back on track.
OSN is on the rebound. Right in the middle of a global lockdown that has stumped broadcasters both regionally and worldwide, the pay-TV operator, which lay low in 2019 with several phases of mass redundancies, made a raft of new announcements last month that indicate it’s back in the game. Alongside a brand-new logo and a vastly revamped streaming platform, OSN played its trump card last month with the announcement that it has bagged the exclusive Middle East rights to all Disney+ Originals. With that, OSN’s CEO Patrick Tillieux, who had previously declined all press briefings since he took charge in November 2018, sat down for his first candid chat with BroadcastPro ME.
Tillieux, who hails from Belgium, does not shy away from the question that is on everyone’s minds – the mass redundancies at OSN that saw the operator’s workforce shrink from 2500 odd people to its current strength of under 900.
“The whole of 2019 was about transforming and rebuilding OSN. Part of that was reducing our headcount drastically. That was a very painful thing to do because we had to let go of a lot of good people, but we had no other option,” Tillieux explains.
Interestingly, Tillieux has spent the last 25 years of his career within the broadcast industry where a number of his roles involved building and reshaping major TV operations although he has a Master’s in Civil Engineering and did a brief stint in construction in Saudi Arabia before moving into media. In recent times, Tillieux has been on the boards of several organisations and continues to be on the board of PLAY, Poland’s largest telecom company. He was CEO of SBS Broadcasting Europe from 2001 to 2009, prior to which he held senior positions at ProSiebenSat.1 Media AG, CANAL+ Holland, CANAL+ Flandres among others. More recently, he was on the OSN board from 2016 before he was invited to lead the network as CEO when Martin Stewart exited the company.
“We have been through a very difficult period and it felt like we were in hospital in intensive care,” recalls Tillieux.
“Of course, at the time, we couldn’t talk, we couldn’t walk because we were in ICU and were working intensely on repairing and reinvigorating OSN. It was a radical evolution; radical because we had to go to the core of things and revisit all our strategies. We needed to evolve to keep up with what was happening in the current times. That included renegotiating all of our rights that were primarily designed for our linear platform to cover our streaming services as well. We also had to look at our cost structure all the way from the basement to the attic and that meant letting go of people as well. But the one thing that has stood OSN in good stead is the trust we have built over the years with studios, telcos and its customers. It was important to capitalise on that now and create a fundamental transformation within the company. On the customer front as well, there was a dire need to evolve. I believe that’s what we have done now,” he says.
Within that context of transformation and evolution, OSN announced an expanded content offering last month that includes its DTH and streaming platforms. In fact, Tillieux admitted that OTT was previously neglected by the operator and that from now on, streaming would become an integral part of the company’s DNA.
That point was driven home last month when Tillieux announced OSN’s biggest coup ever in recent months – its rights to exclusively host all of the Disney+ Originals for the Middle East on its platforms. The pay-TV operator already has the exclusive first pay window rights to most of Disney’s content including Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and Nat Geo. What was missing was the Disney+ Originals. What it offers now as part of its streaming service is an exclusive and comprehensive Disney package for the Middle East along with the entire HBO portfolio, kids’ channels, lifestyle programmes, reality shows and documentaries as well as a whole chunk of content for Arabic-speaking audiences at $9.5 per month. In fact, existing subscribers will be retained at $5, OSN’s previous OTT pricing before the revamp.
As we were going to press, the pay-TV network also announced a partnership with Intigral as well as more new channels and curated content. There’s more on the way, we are told.
“We have been doing business in just one way, which is linear and not taking care of our streaming business. So, we felt we had to shake things up dramatically especially in terms of rights with the dual approach of looking after our DTH and streaming viewers. This is what the deal with Disney was about,” explains Tillieux.
“On top of that, we already have 100% of everything on HBO, whether they are the miniseries, the documentaries and again, this is exclusive and a dual carriage deal, meaning it is on our DTH platform and on streaming. We also have all the exclusive content from MGM, Universal, Paramount and most of the major Hollywood studios. You could argue that OSN was going through a difficult time but the fact that Disney still came back with us is testimony to the confidence they have in us that we will do a good job. We have also let go of the name Wavo for our streaming service. All our services will now come under the overarching OSN brand and any additional services will go under this name. Our new logo as well retains its red colour but it’s much lighter and more dynamic and reflects the evolution we have gone through,” he says.
Tillieux is said to have started the conversation with Disney back in August 2019 and the deal was finalised at the Oscars.
Due to technicalities and the time needed to load up the assets, the first raft of Disney+ Originals have arrived in batches on the OSN streaming platform but from the next season, they will be concurrent, the CEO confirms.
When asked why it took so long for OSN to get its streaming platform on track, Tillieux says it’s not always good to be the first to market especially in this region.
“Our first OTT endeavour was six years ago. It was a journey of too many tests and learning, and our platform and knowledge weren’t what they should have been. We had a lot of catching up to do and that’s what we have done in the past year where we changed our platform supplier and reinvented the rules of engagement with our subscribers. I think we now have a good service in place, but it will gradually become a great service as we have a good team working on it now.”
Tillieux, however, is quick to point out that just because OTT has been embraced as part of the network’s mainstream entertainment now, it does not imply that DTH has been sidelined.
“The linear experience has a different value to video-on-demand and some people enjoy this more. Linear TV via dish and satellite remain equally important in this region because there are many areas, where people can only access linear entertainment because they do not have a good broadband connection. Our DTH service has 150 channels in HD and more than 500 in SD. Our box still includes a PVR and we intend to upgrade our box starting from September with features that will offer services that are very close to what you see on streaming. It’s important to underscore that the experience you get with a box has a very different value to VOD and that experience is beyond comparison.”
OSN’s DTH offering is priced at $40 for a basic package and $80 for the platinum bouquet and both include free streaming and comes with a host of premium and exclusive content, to which only OSN has the rights. On linear, Tillieux points out that subscribers also have access to movies on a transactional basis on the OSN store and this service is not available on the streaming platform.
Each of the Originals will also feature on OSN’s DTH platform on various channels based on their genre with Disney+ Original movies such as Lady and the Tramp, Togo and Star Girl coming up on OSN Movies First; The Mandalorian and High School Musical from Disney+ and Endeavor’s Killing Eve to be featured on OSN Series First and HBO comedies like Run, High Maintenance and Curb Your Enthusiasm to be broadcast on OSN Comedy.
Besides renegotiating its rights to accommodate both its online and DTH platforms, OSN has also fortified its partnerships with telcos across the region and is now looking at reinvesting in Arabic productions.
“There are almost 35 telcos from Mauritania to Muscat, and we have relationships with at least 30 of them,” explains Tillieux.
“We have excellent relationships with our telco partners and again, this is based on the trust we have built with them over the years. They understand the power of content in driving their business forward and we are expanding on these relationships. At present, we only have monthly subscriptions, but we are exploring two-week payment options in Egypt and some other countries.”
Under Tillieux’s leadership, content localisation has also become a key requirement at OSN again. Original productions and locally produced entertainment are currently in the pipeline. OSN is also digging deep into its extensive data resources to determine which content should be dubbed. In fact, since September 2019, OSN has been dubbing certain shows specifically in the Saudi dialect to better serve its subscribers in the Kingdom.
“Saudi Arabia remains our biggest market and we are testing something special there. OSN Kids, for instance, has localised programming. We have now started dubbing some of that content in the Saudi dialect to make them more appealing to our audience in KSA. This is one of the ways in which we are getting closer to our customer. I agree we don’t do enough in Arabic content at the moment but will double our investment in local production. We will look to bring some really good-quality local dramas to our platform. We also recently secured the rights for seven years to The Perfect Candidate, a film by the famous Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour. We will also do general entertainment in Arabic as we used to do before.”
One of the first decisions Tillieux made when he was appointed CEO of OSN was to axe sports and the Pehla bouquet, which targets South Asians.
“For us, as a commercial operator, Pehla was mainly driven by cricket. When we decided to cut sports, cricket was no longer part of our strategy. There was then no sufficient basis to sustain Pehla primarily because piracy is very high there. I had to make choices but this year, we don’t see much sports around anywhere with the pandemic,” he points out.
OSN has been one of the most active voices on piracy in the region. As the owner of a lot of premium content, OSN has two different teams working to keep pirates at bay.
“There is a direct link between the excellence of our content and the degree of piracy we experience so we have two different teams working on this. One does the policing with the authorities in different countries and helps with the raids on shops. On the digital side, we have means to identify and trace pirates and take measures there. We also do digital watermarking to track piracy across different screens.”
But no company can truly be re-energised without sufficient capital injection and this is where Kuwait Projects Holding (KIPCO), one of OSN’s two shareholders, stepped up its efforts last year. With the additional investment, KIPCO’s stake in OSN has gone up from 60.5% to 87.6%, according to March 2020 reports.
No doubt, OSN is well on the road to recovery and although there’s much left to do, Tillieux is confident that OSN will regain its position as the best entertainment provider in the region. He believes he now has a strong and dynamic leadership team in place to support that vision.
“When I came into OSN, it was almost like it was frozen in time with ingrained habits. People were used to doing things in a certain way. Sometimes we need to take a different approach, and this is why it was important to have a new team in place. It was key for OSN to have people that would step out of their traditional ways of doing things. OSN has that brand equity and I believe I can capture that again with a new circle of dynamic people. Peter Riz, our new CTO is ex-CTO of HBO; our new CMO worked with Emirates and Souq.com; Zahra Zayat, who heads the digital team is ex-OSN and she has accumulated, in a very short period of time, a wealth of experience and so I am happy that she is back here to lead our digital platform.”
In fact, Tillieux says OSN is now ready to hire again.
“We are close to 850 to 900 people now after the whole transformation. We went through a massive reduction. But now, we are hiring. We are looking for specialists in online media, be it Snapchat or Instagram, as well as people on the technology side such as software experts. It almost feels like a new company has emerged out of the dark period of 2018/2019. I believe 2021 will be the year we will enjoy the rewards of all the hard work we have put in this year and the last.
“OSN has been the lighthouse of great entertainment in the past and we will be the same going forward.”