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ART Wins STAR Select; Showtime Launches SmartTV

Arab Digital Distribution (ADD) announced in late October a great coup in Middle East pay-TV: a deal with STAR to move all the STAR Select channels from Orbit to ADD, the platform provider for ART (Arab Radio and Television), starting Jan. 17, 2002.

The move fits with ADD's general strategy, which ADD CEO John Tydeman described to TBS last year, of making ART a platform provider. "This is an expansion and consolidation of the platform, with a set of channels that support the Western, the Arabic, and the Asian bouquets," says Tydeman. "It makes us the most expansive Western bouquet in the Middle East, with around 40-plus channels total."

The addition of STAR Select significantly strengthens ADD's English-language offerings, part of the company's strategy of offering entertainment packages suited to all Middle East viewers. The STAR channels joining the ADD platform include Star Movies, premium entertainment channels Star World and UKTV, Sky News, the music channel V, CNBC Europe, the History Channel, Fox Sports, Fox Kids, National Geographic, and Adventure One.

These channels will be integrated into the existing ADD bouquets—FirstNet, Al-Awael, and Pehla, with their respective English-language, Arabic-language, and Asian focus—and STAR Select will also be sold as a separate package. ADD and STAR are working on special offers for current STAR subscribers, who will have to change equipment if they want to continue receiving the service.

Tydeman predicts tremendous growth in the coming year. "With a bit of luck we'll have 80 to 85 thousand new DTH subscriptions this year"—a figure that doesn't include any Orbit subscribers who may move to ART along with the STAR package. "Our Asian bouquet Pehla has gone crazy in the marketplace. We're giving people on the ADD platform a complete range of choices."

ADD is also launching a new channel called Blue Nile, set up by ART in cooperation with Sudan TV, for Sudanese living across the Middle East. Driving it will be exclusive Sudanese league football, plus general entertainment programming. The channel will be free-to-air until January, then offered by ADD as a stand-alone channel or an add-on to their packages.

While ADD was scoring a content coup, their fellow Nilesat pay-TV provider Showtime placed itself on the region's technological cutting edge with their announcement of SmartTV, a set of interactive TV services.

SmartTV, supported by OpenTV's EN2 technology, offers three initial components, and there are plans to add more services. First is an interactive EPG (electronic program guide) that includes seven-day listings for all the Showtime as well as Nilesat free-to-air channels, with options to search by time, date, or genre or to set reminders for programs the viewer want to see. There's also an interactive preview channel featuring 16 Showtime channels, with information such as the name of show, times, and how much time is left in program. Last but not least is a package of six arcade-style games that can be played using the TV remote.

Showtime, says Andrew Bone, "has looked at the applications that really work, that add value. We now have a critical mass of subscribers to whom we can start offering real interactive services that we know we can deliver and that we know people will enjoy, like games, or that they will find very functional like the EPG. These may attract new subscribers, but more important is the role of interactive TV as anti-churn, or customer retention, because they add value to tie people in to Showtime for longer." Between now and the end of the year, Showtime is upgrading software, via satellite, on about fifty percent of the boxes currently in the market. As for the other half, says Andrew Bone, "there are a considerable number of non-Showtime-approved boxes in the marketplace, and we've always been very specific that you must have an approved box to be able to get the full range of services. There are also some older boxes out there that don't have enough memory, and we're going to offer very subsidized swap options for those subscribers."

Bone says that Showtime is not only looking at expanding its interactive TV offerings-to include, for example, text-based news and information or game competitions-but is also planning to launch early next year what it predicts will be a significant driver: pay-per-view. "Showtime is number one for movies in the Middle East. With pay-per-view we'll have even earlier release dates for major titles, plus premium live sports and music events."

Showtime also announced that starting Nov. 1 it has added the financial news channel CNNfn to its lineup, at the same time dropping CNBC. Showtime President Peter Einstein cited their "disappointment in the quality of the CNBC feed" as the basis for the decision. "The addition of the exclusive feed of CNNfn from the United States significantly improves Showtime's coverage of financial news from the world's leading markets."

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