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Fox’s cunning plans

In Advertising, Communicate, Digital, Interview, Journalism, Marketing, Media, Published journalism, Television on November 24, 2010 at 7:47 pm

David Haslingden, Fox International Channel’s president and CEO, tells Communicate about his network’s ambition for the region

Originally published in Communicate, May 2010

In March, broadcast company Fox International Channels (FIC) announced a tie-up with Abu Dhabi media hub twofour54 on three projects (see regional news, Communicate, April 2010). As well as moving operations for some of its locally targeted satellite channels from Hong Kong to the UAE, the News Corporation subsidiary is opening a Middle East headquarters for its online advertising business Dot Fox, and a branch of its NHNZ production house, both in twofour54.

President and CEO of FIC David Haslingden was in town for the recent Abu Dhabi Media Summit, and Communicate sat down with him to find out more about the new initiatives, FIC’s new-found love for the UAE capital, and the network’s wider plans for the region.

Haslingden echoes his News Corp. colleague Sydney Suissa, executive vice-president of content for National Geographic Channels International (see “International Geographic,” page 66, Communicate, March 2010) when he says the reason NHNZ is coming to town is that there is a “huge demand” for stories about the Middle East. This is the case, he says, both for FIC’s free-to-air channels in the region (Fox Movies, Fox Series and National Geographic Abu Dhabi), and for the network’s international audiences. “A number of the shows that we’ve had about Dubai, for example, have rated very well in the UK and the USA,” he says.

One of these was about the building of the Palm Jumeirah artificial island, he says, and other construction-focused documentaries are in the pipeline. At the end of March, National Geographic Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC) channel Abu Dhabi Al Emarat broadcasted a program on the making of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and we can expect to see another on the Gate Building, the twisting headquarters of Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center.

NATURAL ORDER. NHNZ was founded in New Zealand in 1977, and specialized at first in producing natural history documentaries. It has since gone global and broadened its scope, hence the decision to adopt an acronym-only moniker. Its heritage may help it, though, as the GCC’s building bubble bursts. Haslingden says that while many of the packages coming out of the region have been based on mega-projects, NHNZ is banking on wider interest.

One such story, he says, is on the marine reserve at Bu Tinah Island, a finalist in the ongoing New Seven Wonders of Nature project. “There is a natural history story about marine biology there that has nothing to do with boom towns or investments or anything else,” he says. “There are lots of stories here that will continue to remain in films, regardless of how this market performs in the economy.”

If NHNZ is about content, then Dot Fox is firmly about sales. The company is an Internet sales agency that hopes to tout space on local sites. Even working from abroad, says Haslingden, it already has the second or third largest network in the region, competing with the likes of Yahoo and MSN.

“We like to provide advertising solutions to our clients both in television on the linear format and also in interactive, Internet space,” he says. “So where we have strong sales operations, strong television channels, we generally also launch a Dot Fox service so we can provide advertisers with what we call a 360-degree, or one-stop-media-shop solution.”

FIC will also be moving operations for some of its Middle East channels out of Hong Kong, where they are currently based. However, Haslingden is keen to emphasize that FIC is not opening a regional base of operations. “We’ve never really had a headquarters in the region,” he says. “And we are not announcing the headquartering of Fox’s operations in Abu Dhabi.”

NETWORKS NETWORKING. ADMC, which sells advertising for the Fox channels, was making the most of its News Corp. connections. The Media Summit hosted several other top players in that company, including its chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch.

Haslingden says the event was a chance to meet News Corp. and FIC’s partners in the region, and for those people to meet one another. “I’m a big supporter of these media summits,” says Haslingden. “Part of growing an industry and a location as a hub for the industry is networking, and getting senior executives coming to the region and becoming interested in the region by experiencing it first-hand and talking about business here.”

Also in town was Walid Bin Talal, the owner of Saudi Arabia-based media group Rotana. News Corp. (in which Bin Talal’s Kingdom Holidings investment vehicle owns a 7 percent stake) bought a 9.09 percent share of Rotana in February. The somewhat circular changes in ownership should make little operational difference, though, says Haslingden. “I don’t think that investment would necessarily trigger us to do anything different from what we were doing,” he says. “Our operational ties with Rotana obviously preceded the investment [FIC’s relationship with Rotana goes back to 1998, when Fox Movies launched in the region]. Clearly we like working with them, and clearly we like that company; otherwise we wouldn’t have invested.”

Currently FIC’s free-to-air channels are financially “on-plan,” Haslingden tells Communicate. This is partly because, being new channels, they set their expectations low and didn’t expect very high revenues in the first year of operation. Handily, that was the year most affected by the downturn. “Since then we’ve been tracking at or above our business plan in terms of advertising support for the network,” says Haslingden.

FOX FEEDS FOX. One thing that must help is that production company 20th Century Fox has now shifted its allegiance to fellow News Corp. firm FIC. When Fox Movies launched in the region, 20th Century Fox was locked into a deal to give another regional free-to-air television network, MBC Group, first rights to its movies. That deal ended last September, and now Fox Movies and Fox Series can be the first to air Fox content.

FIC also broadcasts paid television channels in the region. These include several National Geographic channels, Star Movies, Channel V and Fox Sports. It represents Fox News and Sky News. Haslingden says that FIC’s free-to-air offerings stand alone, but also drive interest in the Fox brand and its offerings.

There are no plans at the moment to launch Fox News or any other channels on to the free-to-air platform, he says. However, “You may see more Fox channels in the short term on paid television. But they obviously have a much more limited distribution.” Those channels won’t be locally produced.

In terms of regional markets, Haslingden says Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are important to FIC. This could change over the next decade, though. “We are pretty long-term players,” he says. “So we are trying to set up products that resonate here, and people who are able to be strong business people here, anticipating that we will play a big role in 10 years.”

That’s a long time, he admits, adding, “The markets that we are targeting in 10 years may be very different from the markets that are obvious to target now.”

However, in the immediate future, FIC will be building a base and hiring staff in Abu Dhabi. While it’s too early to say how many jobs FIC’s new operations will create, Haslingden says the company will be recruiting production people and Internet sales people. Twofour54 will also be looking for technical personnel to support FIC’s operations.

And the rest of us can watch how things develop on television.

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