OSN fights pirates in high-definition

Orbit Showtime Network subscribers need to switch to new set-top boxes to watch the first HD television channels.

DUBAI - JANUARY 31,2010 - Marc- Antoine d' Halluin , President and CEO of Orbit Showtime Network gesture during press conference on the merger of Showtime and Orbit. ( Paulo Vecina/ The National )

Orbit Showtime Network (OSN) subscribers will have to switch to new set-top boxes to watch the region's first high-definition satellite channels. The pay-TV broadcaster will today launch a package of three high-definition channels, including Nat Geo Wild HD, Discovery HD and OSN Movies HD, which will also carry the English Premier League (EPL) matches in high-definition until the company's contract for the rights ends in May.

"This is a very important moment for the history of television in the Middle East," said Marc-Antoine d'Halluin, the president and chief executive of OSN. "This is as big a difference as when colour television came, versus black and white." The new boxes, which will be free of charge, will also bring improved encryption technology to the region, which has a history of pay-TV piracy. They will be rolled out over the next six to nine months.

"The technology is central to the Orbit Showtime Network, because from the technology comes the security of the platform," Mr d'Halluin said. "So for us, as a platform, we have decided to deploy the new box in every one of our subscribers' homes in order to ? bring the high-definition channels and ? better secure our platform." But the swap will be a formidable challenge. OSN Network does not release its subscriber numbers, but Mr d'Halluin said the company had ordered "hundreds of thousands" of the new boxes, which would only be available directly from the company.

"This is not a box you can buy in the market," he said. "We are done with this model that actually opened the door for excessive piracy." Five more high-definition channels will be added to OSN's package of 75 channels this summer, Mr d'Halluin said. Nick Grande, the managing director of Channel Sculptor, a television consultancy based in Dubai, said such a swap was "do-able" but represented a major investment for the company.

"It's an interesting play," Mr Grande said. "The argument might be that you are losing the EPL but you are gaining high definition, and nobody else has got it. It's a way of persuading those subscribers that there is something worth sticking around for." Abu Dhabi Media Company, which owns and publishes The National, has bought the rights to the EPL for the next three years, starting in the second half of this year.

To further sweeten the deal, OSN has rolled out five more standard-definition channels in its new offering, including the region's first channels devoted to Hollywood movies and series dubbed in Arabic. While dubbed western content is common in many other markets, until recently it has been scarce in the Middle East. Khulud Abu-Homos, the senior vice president of programming at OSN, said the broadcaster had invested heavily in the dubbing process, conducting as many as 25 auditions to find the right voice talent for blockbuster movies.

"We wanted to show dubbing in Arabic could be elite and high quality," Ms Abu-Homos said. OSN has exclusive deals with all major Hollywood studios to do the dubbing for the pay-TV runs of their movies and series, which air on pay TV a year or two before they air on free-to-air TV. Other new offerings include the Food Network, Black Entertainment Television (BET) and OSN Variety, featuring western shows.

The high-definition set-top boxes will be followed in about three to four months by the introduction of a high-definition DVR, which will allow subscribers to access programmes on demand, Mr d'Halluin said. @Email:khagey@thenational.ae