M-Net introduced "Express from the US" in July 2014 and in the past 8 months has managed to revolutionise the South African viewing experience when it comes to pay-TV, allowing subscribers to not only watch shows (and minimise spoilers) at the same time as the rest of the world, but giving viewers the opportunity to join in the global conversation around shows and episodes.
Last week M-Net announced that the 5th season of the high-buzz and acclaimed drama Game of Thrones will be shown on M-Net in South Africa from 13 April at exactly the same time as in America on M-Net Edge (DStv 102) - pushing the concept of "Express from the US" even further and again shattering viewer expectations and industry records.
TV with Thinus spoke to Yolisa Phahle, M-Net's CEO for South Africa, about M-Net's "Express from the US" success.
I asked her how the process works, the reaction from viewers, how challenging it has been and is for M-Net to do it, the impact on schedules, how titles are chosen, and how overseas studios feel about doing this.
How does M-Net decide which of the titles are earmarked as "Express from the US" shows and when do you take them off from that pedestal, and how do you put them into that bracket?
Yolisa Phahle: What we do is that we look at a number of factors. One of the things is "most talked about", if it's a massive series that has broken out in the United States and that the whole world is talking about.
Then we assume that our audience would also like to see that at the same time.
The other thing huge award-winning series like Game of Thrones - especially around the positioning of the M-Net Edge (DStv 102) brand where that channel is a channel which really deals with cutting-edge and future-forward drama, drama that people are talking about that's recognised by the critics and the public.
The other thing is we also look to see which is the most pirated shows because if you're a DStv subscriber, we believe that you're paying, so you should be able to watch those shows easily and when you want to, instead of in a sense encouraging the piracy problem - which is a major issue for studios and broadcasters all over the world.
Is there a limit on the number - a self-imposed limit or a capacity limit - or how do you decided how many TV shows you can or want to have as "Express from the US" shows, and is it dependant on the schedule?
Because I would think you can't have all of the dramas, otherwise it would almost be impossible to build a stable M-Net schedule?
Yolisa Phahle: Basically the big difference is, and the big things we have to take into consideration, is the way they schedule and the way they produce in the United States is very different from the way our audience would like us to schedule here in South Africa.
In America for instance they have big launch periods in the year and the big shows are launched in September and October. And that's our summer period where actually to some degree it is our lowest available audience - people are enjoying the outdoors and go on holiday.
So we can't necessarily follow what happens in America because we're a different country. We're in different seasons with different behaviour. The other thing is we want to make sure we've got great new programming all year round.
In America viewers there have become quite accustomed to periods in the year when everything's new and then later in the year there's repeats and there's less new.
Here, because we're a pay-TV operations and people are paying we understand that people always want to have some highlight and something new and minimise the amount of repeats.
So we try and keep some programming, so that during our winter, when actually there is nothing much being released in America, or much less, we've actually got great shows.
The other thing is, is that in America they've got this big "mid-season" break and some shows are more prime to those breaks than other shows - and the cable shows are less likely to have breaks while the network shows are more likely to have breaks.
So we also try to avoid those huge breaks because our audiences told us that they find it very irritating when they watch 6 episodes and then the show goes off air for two or 3 months.
So we try to pick and anticipate - even where there are some breaks - to have shows and to keep great shows as well for winter when its cold and we want something great to watch on TV every night.
What has been the reaction and response from viewers since M-Net introduced "Express from the US" and how behind the scenes logistically challenging has it been for M-Net to do this, or is it more a technology thing?
Yolisa Phahle: The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. It really is a premium offering and over the years we've done a lot to build the Compact offering and sometimes Premium subscribers have been trying to see where the real value in [DStv] Premium lies.
With the DStv Explora and the ability to have this extended Catch-Up library to watch when you want to, and with the fact that you now get this hotly-anticipated, most talked about show within 24 hours to our audience over here, it has been really, really well received.
I think it's been one of the big things we've done over the last 12 months, along with the launch of the premium TV channels, VUZU AMP and M-Net Edge, both of which are doing extremely well.
I think as a company we realise that we have to focus on our Premium subscribers, and we have to continue to give them new services and new ways to feel the value and the benefit of what they're paying for.
What's been interesting to me, is how much better, or greater than usual the communication has been especially around "Express from the US" titles and when those programming happens at short notice or ends and notifications when it would resume on-air as well as to the press.
Was that a conscious effort because M-Net is doing that really, really well. Was there a decision to follow a different kind of communication strategy on-air and to the media?
Yolisa Phahle: One of the biggest challenges I identified last year was that people are paying a premium for something but there's so much there - there's so many channels, there's so much choice - it really becomes quite difficult to be able to know when your favourite show is on.
Obviously people have particular preferences - some like crime dramas, some people love hospital dramas. From the feedback we got that people were realising two or 3 episodes into a new season that it had started which was irritating to them.
So we literally had a complete workshop and a complete rethink in terms of the way we communicate to our audiences and that communication has been updated in terms of electronic programme guides (EPG's) as well.
We try really hard to as well as giving a bit of an episodic synopsis, we want to tell people upfront what is it. Is it a crime drama, is it an adaptation of an amazing book, has it Kate Winslet who you might know from Titanic, is it a seminal movie directed by Steven Spielberg and if you enjoyed Jurassic Park now you will love this?
I think it's so difficult for people sometimes to decypher what this show is and is it something they will enjoy. So we've literally looked at our communication in terms of our EPG; in terms of the way in which we tell people on-air why they should watch a show.
It's not just about telling people "this new show is starting", you need to give people a reason why they may be interested in watching, which means you have to give some context, content and genre info. So we've worked very hard on that level.
Also, I think with social media and more and more people being online and reading our website updates we are now a lot better at saying "You know guys, Suits is on a mid-season break, but watch this space, we will tell you as soon as we hear it's coming back, but this is happening in the meantime".
So it has been like you say a concerted effort to try and make sure that people are feeling the value of what we're trying to do here.
Then I was wondering, it still seems amazing to me that - maybe I'm behind the times - that I'm in Africa and this is Africa, how difficult was it to persuade American distributors and studios to give the content to M-Net for broadcast or was it not an issue?
What's happening here is on par with TV markets like New Zealand and Australia and I thought studios would be more scared of Africa and South Africa and to have their content be seen here as well in that way?
Yolisa Phahle: It wasn't that easy because I think every content owner's biggest concern is around possible piracy and the security of their content.
So, we basically had to satisfy the studios with regard to our systems, the security of our systems. We actually recently had a visit from the guys at HBO.
The senior management team came over here and inspected our processes, and we showed them our systems, and we explained the lengths that we go to to protect the content and to make sure that the right episode is broadcast at the right time.
To them that's very, very important. I think over the years many people before me have worked very hard to build strong relationships and strong partnerships with these studios.
They love South Africa, in fact. Most of the guys from whether its HBO or Sony or Warner Bros. have and do visit South Africa.
So once you actually come to our country and you see the infrastructure and you see the sophistication of our audiences and the attention to detail that MultiChoice and M-Net are focusing on, a lot of those fears have been allayed.
But it remains a concern, and we continue to refine our processes and make sure that everything is as it should be.