The MENA region is facing a number of threats from illegal satellite distributors and internet piracy in the form of IPTV and social media streaming services. BroadcastPro ME recently brought together key figures from some of the region’s most popular content providers, where a multi-pronged approach comprising technology, modified commercials and strengthened legal enforcement emerged as the ideal way to tackle piracy.
The US Chamber of Commerce estimates that $29bn is lost each year because of digital piracy. Closer to home, IDC estimates the cost of piracy in MENA to be around $750m. A 2021 report by media analyst firm Ampere Analysis and video technology provider Synamedia reveals that the MENA region is a piracy hotspot, while it is also the biggest potential market for paid operators.
Media companies have been adopting initiatives and technologies to counter piracy and better monetise their investment in content, and BroadcastPro ME recently hosted a panel to unearth how some of the big Middle East media players are doing so. Moderated by Dr Sherif Zaidan, co-founder and CEO of SilkBytes (a DigiSay Group company), the panel consisted of Cameron Andrews, Legal Director, Anti-Piracy, beIN Media Group; Fiona Robertson, General Counsel, OSN; and Sunil Joy, Director of Content, evision by e& life (one of the business pillars of e&, formerly known as Etisalat Group).
Over the past few years, and peaking during the pandemic, piracy has exploded across the broadcast industry. Pirates use a plethora of illegal methods such as localised pirate networks over terrestrial broadcasting and cable, traditional card-sharing control words, and encryption hacking. However, it is internet-based piracy, with content offered via websites, social media live streaming platforms and IPTV, that is posing an almost existential threat to the industry.
Today, pirates can stream content onto YouTube or Facebook, make a peer-to-peer file, send movie links to friends or make it available on a website. While broadcasters put in massive efforts to keep piracy off the social streaming sites, the “real potential killer for the business is pirate IPTV”, commented Andrews. beIN, one of the leading MENA sports rights owners, has suffered losses to the tune of billions due to piracy in the region.
“This has just been exploding, and it has exponential growth. It’s fuelled by middleware that the pirates use, platforms like extreme codes and other variants of it, which have made it very readily accessible across all markets. Wherever the internet is growing, we see pirate IPTV following.”
While IPTV is also a concern for pay-TV operator OSN, the network is further plagued by piracy of linear content, especially on platforms like YouTube. “Our focus is on the protection of originals and exclusive content, as they are the most important driver for subscribers. YouTube pirates seem to get the content within five minutes of us putting it out. So we do a lot of work on YouTube,” said Robertson.
“There are a number of very well-known pirate devices, which are generally hybrid boxes that are enabled for reception of illegally decrypted pay-TV channels through control word sharing networks and IPTV. So the users of those boxes tend not to know how they’re receiving the content,” added Andrews.
Although hybrid receiver boxes are popular in MENA, the internet is a breeding ground for piracy, making it more difficult to track pirates and pursue action against them. There’s also been an increase in smart IPTV services. Additionally, pirate services tend to be generic and unbranded. A combination of these factors is making it challenging to trace illegitimate distributors and pursue enforcement action against them.
While piracy is rampant across all forms of content, sport is one of the hardest-hit broadcast avenues and revenue losses are huge. Andrews gave the example of the Champions League, for which beIN has exclusive broadcast rights. MENA viewership figures were recorded at 83m.
Given the scale of piracy, broadcasters are rethinking their business models. BeIN is aggressively protecting its new content, as it is a key differentiator and massive revenue driver for the network. Over the past few years, it has had to drop some crucial broadcast rights from its portfolio, such as German football, Italian football and Formula 1.
For Andrews, a shrinking portfolio is an indicator of shrinking revenues. “We don’t have the money to invest in carrying all those portfolios. And if piracy continues with these sorts of exponential trends, then I think that’s where the business will respond – the portfolio will have to shrink. There have been job losses in beIN as well, which are directly attributable to the direct impact of piracy and shrinking revenues.”
Apart from revenue and job losses, piracy has also had an impact on consumer access to original content. For instance, after beIN dropped some of its rights, those broadcasters haven’t been able to find alternative partners to carry the content – a significant loss for the region’s audiences, according to Andrews.
Conversely, OSN has been able to salvage some of its revenue from the pirates. The network’s drive to convert ’side set-top box’ sellers to legitimate distributors has been quite successful, with OSN able to collect considerable revenue. While “piracy is annoying and has been an issue for the industry for quite a number of years”, said Robertson, “I think that there is a perception in the market that piracy erodes our legitimate revenue streams. There’s a small percentage of people that would ordinarily pay for a subscription, but most of the people that are taking on these very cheap or free streaming services are not going to be paid consumers at any point. So this isn’t really something that we would use to move the goalpost of our business.”
“Our focus is on the protection of originals and exclusive content, as they are the most important driver for subscribers. YouTube pirates seem to get the content within five minutes of us putting it out. So we do a lot of work on YouTube” – Fiona Robertson, General Counsel, OSN
All of the panellists agreed that production studios must offer greater support to broadcasters with exclusive rights, in order to take down pirates. With tens of thousands of VOD titles available at negligible cost to consumers of illegal content, the playing field isn’t level for broadcast networks and aggregators. As Andrews put it, “I think it’s the ease with which pirates are able to get all of the content without paying anything for it, and charge almost nothing for it, that is an absolutely killer for legitimate businesses. We have a huge portfolio and are probably the biggest owners of sports rights of any operator in the world. We can’t really look at the beIN platform and say it’s lacking in the content it provides. That’s not the issue that we face in MENA.”
For aggregators, the challenge lies in creating customised viewing packages when broadcast rights move between networks. The eLife packages offer a multiple choice of networks and a seamless transition between networks and their channels.
Asked if beIN or e& life are considering a pay-per-game or pay-per-view option as a possible measure to counter piracy, Andrews and Joy both said no. “I don’t think it really has any great impact on the piracy of it. Pay-per-view games suffer from huge amounts of piracy, and it is an absolute nightmare to try and manage the piracy of those events. In fact, those sort of broadcasting models are particularly vulnerable and particularly sensitive to piracy,” explained Andrews.
The panel unanimously agreed that a multi-pronged approach comprising technology, modified commercials and strengthened legal enforcement was the ideal way to tackle piracy. On the technology front, beIN has invested in industry-leading conditional access systems (CAS), DRM and content security. The network is also the world’s leading broadcaster when it comes to the implementation and deployment of watermarking technology. BeIN is also developing other tools using AI to detect and take action against piracy.
Website blocking is another important part of the network’s strategy, and it’s working with internet service providers in more and more countries in the region to block access to pirate websites. The network is also exploring the option of server-based blocking. Finally, beIN actively runs disruption campaigns to stop piracy. This involves identifying all the services that pirates use, from e-commerce platforms to streaming platforms, hosting providers and social media, and issuing take-down notices.
BeIN has also stepped up judicial action against pirates. The network recently joined the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment, a global anti-piracy alliance with a great track record of bringing enforcement actions. The company is already seeing success in this avenue.
OSN’s dedicated piracy team has developed software that scours the internet for its content and takes pirated sites down. This year alone, 35,000 streams have been taken down by the OSN team. OSN also collaborates with social media giant Meta to take down content on its social media sites. However, set-top box raids remain OSN’s biggest pushback against piracy; the network works with authorities such as SAP in Saudi Arabia, the Egyptian police, Dubai’s DED and Citra in Kuwait to clamp down on illegal providers. OSN also works extensively with the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store to take down illegal apps. The network has ties with the Motion Picture Association (MPA) and works with them on local anti-piracy campaigns.
Joy highlighted that eLife tracks the usage of its devices, apps and platform to tackle piracy. Its OTT Switch and eLife ON app have built-in controls to detect device registrations and regulate the frequent switch of devices. The company also attempts to curb piracy through collaborative deals and packages and in conjunction with partners such as beIN and OSN, where it creates value-added bundles for viewers. For instance, bundles that mix and match beIN’s sports, OSN’s entertainment and eLife’s broadband services have emerged as winning combinations for the growing number of eLife subscribers.
eLife also actively works with regulatory bodies and other telcos to block piracy sites. While take-down notices are effective, the process is time-intensive and doesn’t serve well in cases of live streaming, added Joy. eLife, he said, is pushing for blanket rules that will help enforce tighter and faster blocking mechanisms.
Disruptive measures such as video throttling are also taken, to discourage viewership of pirated content. However, this is risky, as to the layman a throttled video seems like the result of a poor internet connection, casting a shadow on the reputation of the service provider.
Unlike the US or the EU, MENA countries are not unified by common laws. This makes it difficult for networks and regulatory bodies to put stringent controls in place. Some countries have robust policies and laws on paper, but less forceful execution on the ground. The region also suffers from a prevalent ’culture of piracy’. “What we need to tackle is the mindsets of the people and raise awareness about the impact of piracy,” said Andrews. He pointed to parts of North Africa, where pirated streams through set-top boxes are the only way “people have been watching TV for years”.
“Pay-per-view games suffer from huge amounts of piracy, and it is an absolute nightmare to try and manage the piracy of those events. In fact, those sort of broadcasting models are particularly vulnerable and particularly sensitive to piracy” – Cameron Andrews, Legal Director, Anti-Piracy, beIN Media Group
According to Andrews, the culture can be resolved only through advocacy, with networks, ISPs, broadcasters and regulatory bodies collaborating to take down pirate networks. In such cases, classifying piracy and intellectual property theft as trade issues and escalating them to the government level appears to be the most appropriate solution. beIN is starting to take steps towards this too.
Here, OSN has had considerable success in Saudi Arabia in tackling piracy through regulatory bodies, while in Egypt the network has yet to make headway. “We’re starting from step one and trying to learn our way around each country, because they all are very different. We do need to get engagement from the top down to allow us to get the resources that we need from the police and from the enforcement, in order to take the pirates down,” said Robertson.
Joy also advocates for continued close collaboration between government agencies and media bodies, to encourage higher investment in production and increased monetisation for the broadcast of original content.
The panel concluded with the participants agreeing that the speed with which pirate channels and their methods proliferate means piracy is an ongoing challenge that will go unabated unless there is collective, pre-emptive and sustained action from every stakeholder, including regulatory bodies, broadcast networks, production houses and even audiences.