CAIRO — After Netflix offered tantalizing hints that it planned to launch in the Middle East, the U.S.-based Internet TV provider made its debut in Egypt (and most of the rest of the world) on Jan. 6 — perfectly timed for an early Coptic Christmas present and a long weekend of binge viewing.
But for many, the excitement quickly turned to disappointment when the dream of streaming video crashed into the reality of Egypt's generally lousy Internet, and when it became clear that viewers in Egypt will only have access to a fraction of the programming offered elsewhere. Still, even with its limitations, the arrival of the service is generally good news for people who want to watch quality television without spending huge sums.
What you can and can't watch
In Egypt, Netflix doesn't offer the sense of boundlessness you get from scrolling through the seemingly endless options available to U.S. subscribers. The company does not make an official list of available programs around the world, but according to finder.com, Egypt has just 168 television shows and 426 movies, compared to the 1,157 shows and 4,593 movies currently available in the United States.
If, like many in Egypt, you rely on free satellite channels to sate your couch potato urges, even Netflix's relatively paltry local offerings look like a bonanza. Instead of dubbed Turkish soap operas and replays of bargain-bin Nicholas Cage and Vin Diesel movies, Netflix offers shows like Breaking Bad and Marco Polo, and a range of films a reasonably intelligent person living in the 21st century might actually be interested in watching.
There are, however, some disappointing omissions, including Netflix's hit original series House of Cards and Orange is the New Black — both of which are licensed to regional premium network OSN.
Excerpt of the list of movies available on Netflix Egypt — Source: Official Facebook page
To watch the full spectrum of Netflix programming, Egyptian viewers will still have to rely on virtual private networks (VPNs), which mask the location of an Internet connection. In this respect, the launch of a global service will make no difference for enthusiasts.
The company hints that there may be some hope for the future. "Most of our original content will be available globally," the company said in an email interview. "However, with House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, we didn't negotiate global licenses to the content, so they've aired on other platforms in the meantime. We may get them back in some of our new markets." Orange is the New Black, for example, will come to the Middle East and Africa "later this year," the company said.
The Square — a 2013 documentary about the Egyptian revolution released as a Netflix original — is also unavailable in Egypt and other global markets due to licensing issues, although local viewers still have the option of streaming it on YouTube.
Meanwhile, Netflix is investing heavily in more original content, planning to spend around $5 billion on programming rights in 2016, including more than 30 new Netflix original series. "Most of these will be available to our members everywhere," the company says.
For the moment, Netflix does not offer original or licensed Arabic content, although it does offer an Arabic interface and subtitles. Based on a brief sampling of programs, the subtitling seems to be competently done.
Asked about plans to offer original content in Arabic or to license local productions, the company says, "There is a limited amount of local content available at launch in some countries. We will add more as the service grows in popularity and we better understand what our members want to watch in each region."
The company has also been somewhat vague about whether it will censor its content in the Middle East. Asked at an open Q&A session about producing different cuts for different markets, company CEO Reed Hastings told reporters, "We'll have to see and we'll have to learn." The company's PR team told Mada Masr that they are "sensitive to the preferences of members where it operates" and will make "market-specific decisions" based on those preferences.
The content currently offered in Egypt does include some racy titles, including two documentaries about the pornography industry. The runtime for both Hot Girls Wanted and After Porn Ends are in line with the runtimes listed in the Internet Movie Database, suggesting that major cuts have not been made.
Netflix's local selection also includes films that depict same-sex relationships, like Bridegroom, a documentary about a gay couple, and the indie lesbian romance Anatomy of a Love Seen.
How it compares to the competition
With global players like Amazon Prime and Hulu still not available locally, Netflix's primary competition comes from established premium television service OSN and relative newcomer beIN.
Price-wise, Netflix is a hands-down winner, with its basic package starting at $7.99 per month. Registration is also quick and simple, although it does require a credit card.
OSN, in contrast, offers a bewildering array of packages at varying price points, and requires a specialized receiver. It's a bit difficult to determine exactly how much subscriptions cost — getting information from OSN requires phoning a helpline, and after 15 minutes on hold, this reporter gave up — but the cheapest packages mentioned on OSN's website come in at over 100 Egyptian pounds ($12.75) per month.
At 109 EGP ($13.91), the kids' package offers a few Disney and Discovery-branded channels in addition to HD versions of channels available for free on satellite networks. Unlocking additional entertainment channels or getting on-demand access requires coughing up for extras or subscribing to premium packages that cost up to 499 EGP ($63.70) per month.
Qatari sports network beIN also recently started offering movies and entertainment channels, and has already taken a bite out of the content available on OSN. Its cheapest package starts at $10 per month, and offers a small selection of sports, news and kids' channels along with the formerly free Fox and Fox Movies. More comprehensive packages range between $25 and $30 per month. Confusingly, their website indicates that the service is available in Egypt, but blocks attempts to subscribe from an Egyptian IP address.
Netflix and buffer?
The weakest link in the Netflix chain is undoubtedly the local Internet infrastructure. To watch Netflix programming in Ultra HD requires 7 GB of bandwidth per hour, which is basically a joke in Egypt. Local DSL provider TE Data's cheapest Internet package offers a total of 10 GB per month at a speed of 1 MB per second. Meanwhile, pricier unlimited Internet options offer speeds ranging from 512 KB per second (90 EGP, or $11.49 per month) to 24 MB per second (for a hefty 1,950 EGP, or $249 per month), and rarely achieve such speeds in reality.
This has led to numerous jokes online that instead of "Netflix and chill," Egyptians will be forced to lure the objects of their affections with invitations to "Netflix and buffer."
In practice, the service actually doesn't seem to be that bad. On Netflix's automatic setting, the speed, quality and buffering are on par with YouTube and other online video services: not beautiful, but tolerable — except on those occasions when the Internet inexplicably slows to a crawl.
For people who just want to kick back and watch something interesting, Netflix will probably be good enough, and with a free month-long trial available, there's little reason not to try it out. Barring a massive infrastructure upgrade, aficionados who want to enjoy crystal-clear resolution on HD screens will have to continue forking over subscription fees to companies like OSN that bypass Egypt's weak Internet.