What are UAE audiences streaming while self-isolating? From mysteries, to pandemic-themed shows and animations

With more people in self-isolation and practising social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic, many have turned to streaming

Kingdom. Juhan Noh/Netflix
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The coronavirus crisis is clearly preying on the minds of those who have downloaded films from iTunes and Google Play in recent weeks, with the Image Nation Abu Dhabi co-produced pandemic drama Contagion (2011) making an unlikely comeback to top both platforms' download charts.

And the film and TV industry as a whole has been badly hit, both in terms of health and finances, with famous names including Tom Hanks and Idris Elba contracting Covid-19, cinemas closing globally, film releases being postponed and the production of major TV shows and films grinding to a halt around the world.

But a rare bright spot can at least be found in the home entertainment sector.

Crash Landing on You. Photo by lim hyo seon

With families forced to self-isolate, and an increasing number of workers spending office hours and leisure time in their homes, video-on-demand services and streaming companies are experiencing something of an unpredicted, if not entirely welcome, boost.

Some VOD services see 300% increase in the UAE 

As a rule, these services tend not to give out exact numbers, but iTunes says, since the outbreak became front page news, its VOD business in the Gulf has increased by about 300 per cent, while OSN’s Wavo streaming service has experienced a 29 per cent upturn in unique users from mid-February to mid-March, when the WHO declared it a pandemic.

But what about streaming site viewers? Judging by the March figures from three of the region's top streaming services – Netflix, Wavo and Starzplay – viewers seem to be opting for light relief, with pandemic productions almost conspicuous by their absence.

Out of the top 10 most streamed pieces of content on the three platforms, on the week of Sunday to Saturday, March 15 to 21 (a total of 40 shows and movies, as Wavo provided separate data for films and series), Netflix's documentary Pandemic was the only specifically virus-themed content making an appearance, coming in at number eight in its chart. The South Korean drama Kingdom, at number six, does admittedly feature a zombie plague.

Light relief: Children's content and comedies dominate 

Pandemic aside, there's a heavy skew towards the lighter end of the spectrum. With the schools currently closed because of the virus, it's probably not surprising that Wavo's head of content, Noha Jadallah, tells The National that "most of the top viewed movies on the streaming platform over the past week are kids' movies, including Incredibles 2, Frozen and Moana".

Children's content has also made a strong showing in Starzplay's download charts this month, with Peppa Pig, SpongeBob SquarePants and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle all making its top 10.

Keeping things light, comedy also dominates in the latest streaming charts. The Big Bang Theory tops Starzplay's chart, while The Office makes the top 10 both in Starzplay and Wavo's series charts. The mockumentary is joined in Wavo's chart by more comedies – Sex and the City, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Veep all make the top 10.

But for Netlix users, it's all about crime

Michael Ward in Top Boy Season 3. Chris Harris/Netflix

Netflix is the outlier. Of the top 10 shows in the region on the world's biggest streaming platform, only the animated series Boss Baby: Back in Business coming in at number four, could be said to be comedy. 

Murder is seemingly higher on Netflix's subscribers' minds, at least judging by the popularity of shows and films such as Elite, Toy Boy, Spenser Confidential and Lost Girls, all of which feature an element of murder-mystery.

In another notable divergence from the norm, Netflix's entire top three is made up of foreign language productions – Spanish murder mysteries Elite and Toy Boy take the top two slots, while Korean drama Crash Landing on You takes third place, along with Kingdom, perhaps buoyed by an increased interest in Korean content after Parasite's Oscars success last month.

Netflix’s multi-cultural top three certainly gives credence to the streaming giant’s claims that it is bringing global content to bigger audiences than ever before.

Foreign language film 'Elite' tops Netflix's streaming chart in the UAE. Manuel Fernandez-Valdes

Starzplay doesn't win quite as many diversity points as Netflix, but it does take the prize for the only Arabic language show to make the charts – the Tunisian-shot, Ottoman-era Middle East, historical drama Kingdoms of Fire sits at number four in its chart.

Exclusivity also seems to play a big part in the popularity of content on the international streaming platforms. With the exception of Kickboxer, Netflix's entire top 10 is made up of Netflix Originals or co-productions, while three of Starzplay's top four – The Big Bang Theory, Baghdad Central and Kingdoms of Fire – are exclusively available on that platform in the region.

From Spanish high-school murders and zombies to comedies and Arabic historical epics, the rise of streaming has put more choice and variety at our fingertips than ever before

We can't really compare Wavo in terms of original content, as it's not a major content producer, so it's no surprise that the bulk of its most successful series are shows that have already had international success, including chart-topper Game of Thrones – perfect binge material in these challenging times.

What do these stats tell us?

So what conclusions can we draw from these figures? First of all, despite Contagion's popularity, the heavy comedic presence among the most streamed shows and movies suggests we're at least as interested in laughing despite these dark times as we are in scaring ourselves.

The UAE's diverse population also seems to make us more open to content from around the world than some audiences – not a single one of Netflix's diverse top three in the UAE make the US chart for the same period, with the top 10 there made up entirely of US content. As if to hammer the point home, All American tops the US chart.

Mostly, though, we can learn that in these times of self-isolation, there’s plenty of content for everyone. From Spanish high-school murders and zombies to comedies and Arabic historical epics, the rise of streaming has put more choice and variety at our fingertips than ever before, and we’re probably going to be very pleased about that in the challenging weeks ahead.