Mohamed Youssif: YahLive will be the hotspot for HD broadcasting

mediaME speaks to Mohamed Youssif, the CEO of YahLive. Mohamed shares his views on the satellite broadcasting industry in the Middle East, the future of HD broadcasting, its acceptance in the region, and more...

Q. Kindly introduce yourself and your company.

YahLive is a new, UAE-based satellite broadcasting company. Yahlive is a joint venture owned by Al Yah Satellite Communications Company (YahSat) and SES, one of the largest satellite operators in the world. YahLive basically focuses on broadcasting high definition, high quality channels across the Middle East, Europe and South West Asia. 

Q.  Tell us about the satellite broadcasting industry in the region. How does YahLive fit in the grand scheme of things? How does it differentiate itself? 

As we all know, the Middle East is mainly a free-to-air market. There are about 55 million television-viewing households in the Middle East, and the majority of these households (more than 90%) are watching TV via free-to-air satellite. This market is basically dominated by free-to-air, although I do not think that will continue for long. However, this is currently the situation.

As YahLive, our position is quite simple. We don't look at subscribers, because we are only a satellite operator. We basically give broadcasters HD broadcasting capabilities. We cater to TV channels that want to broadcast in high definition. I think we can safely claim that so far, we are the only satellite dedicated to HD in the region, and that is what sets us apart. 

Q. How do you choose which channels to broadcast?

Currently there are more than 600 channels available in the Middle East via satellite, that broadcast anything ranging from 'worthy' to 'not so worthy' content. At YahLive, we focus on two important things; quality of content and quality of transmission (i.e. the broadcasting). As such, we are kind of picky. We don't broadcast any channel. It has to be a channel that is 'most watched', or is a new, niche channel that has not been available in the Middle East before.

To decide which channels we would include, we conducted a market study in six Middle Eastern countries (Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Lebanon). These countries represent the majority of viewers in the region. We looked at the most watched channels in each country, and this is what guided us. The results were very interesting. The average number of channels being watched by any random viewer is between 8 to 10 channels. So why do we need 600 channels to be on the satellite? That affirmed our concept of focusing only on the most watched channels. Instead of having 600 channels of irrelevant material, we decided to focus on the majority of viewers, and put 100-130 channels together that would all broadcast in HD. 

The other important factor is the quality of transmission. Currently in the Middle East, the average capacity on a satellite used for a TV channel is somewhere around 3.5 mhz. When compared to the average in Europe, that is very low. So when we started, we set our standard at 8 mhz. The average in Europe is 10 mhz. Therefore, we are now close to the average in Europe. We wanted to broadcast in the best possible way, and set a globally recognized standard. 

Q. Why such focus on HD technology?

We focused heavily on HD technology because it is the future. We are very much aware of satellite operators' viewing HD as the future of broadcasting. Many broadcasters would like to broadcast in HD, but their standard definition (SD) broadcasting is consuming a lot of their capacity. This leaves little room for HD, which requires more capacity than SD.

Because we have a lot of viewers on SD, broadcasters find it difficult to make that conversion to HD, or they do it on a limited basis because they don't have the capacity to do it. We didn't want the baggage that comes with SD broadcasting. We wanted to start with where the future is going to be (i.e. HD broadcasting).  

Q. How has the response been from regional broadcasters? Have they accepted this 'exclusive' policy?  

The issue of having a new channel come to a satellite is the like 'the chicken or the egg first?'. Broadcasters want to come to you to have viewers (i.e. dishes pointed at your satellite). However, people will not point their dish to your satellite until you have broadcasters and their channels. So how do you break that chain? How do you break that cycle?

We talked to many broadcasters that were doing HD broadcasting, and they would tell us that their content gets lost between the other 600 channels available through other satellites. They liked the fact that with our satellite, they would be part of an exclusive club of HD channels. This has been very helpful in getting 34 channels to sign up on our service in less than 6 months.

So far, we have been successful in targeting broadcasters. We encourage them to advertise the fact that their channel is broadcasting in high definition via YahLive. This strategy has been successful for us and it was very effective in getting broadcasters to sign up with us.

We have also offered various incentives for broadcasters to broadcast via our satellite. Some channels want to be in HD but they are not able to make that conversion quickly enough. YahLive offers them a bridge. We take their SD signal directly from the studio and upscale that to HD and broadcast it at 8MG. Granted, this form of transmission is not going to be exactly as native as HD content, but it's close to it. We call it 'HD quality'. 

Q. You have recently made deals with several channels including HIGH TV, and Cartoon Network. Tell us about the recent additions to the bouquet, and how it has developed.

From the very beginning, we focused on the most watched channels. What better way to start than in your back yard? We are an Abu Dhabi-based company, so some of our first broadcasting deals were with MBC, Dubai TV, and Abu Dhabi TV because they are based out of the UAE. Those were our anchor customers.

Now we are expanding further. We have signed on to broadcast the first 24/7 3D channel in the world called HighTV. It is now broadcasting exclusively on YahLive. We also signed a deal with Cartoon Network to be HD exclusive on YahLive. With these different broadcasting deals, we are trying to cater to different audiences. We are working on our sports bouquet. We have succeeded in attracting the Saudi Football League on our satellite, but it is only operating in Europe for now.  

 Q. You serve expat communities in Europe. Why were broadcasters inclined to use your service rather than European satellite companies?  

Channels that are targeting expats and travelers are mainly government channels. They target Arab and Muslim communities abroad. Some of these channels found that the European-based satellites they were using were broadcasting other channels that were not suitable for them. They found that we offer a 'family- friendly' atmosphere, and therefore expressed a great deal of interest. We now have a number of channels broadcasting via YahLive throughout Europe. 

Q. What are YahLive's future plans? Where do you see the company going in the next 2-3 years?

We currently have 34 channels available via YahLive. We hope to have 50 channels before the year ends. In the next 2-3 years, we will be focusing on populating our hotspot. Our main goal is to have YahLive as the hotspot for high definition.

Our long term goals are simple. We only serve as a bridge. If the industry widely adopts 3D, that is what we will do. As far as we are concerned, we are just a mirror. We will reflect whatever is being adopted on the ground. 

Shireen Mufti