Wednesday, June 28, 2017

In the past year, MultiChoice literally added 1 712 new DStv subscribers per day. I asked a TV expert to help explain why - and here is what she told me:

Pay-TV uptake in South Africa continues strong growth and with the DStv subscriber base that's grown with another 625 000 subscribers in the past year, a TV expert says it is because the SABC is in crisis while DStv is more creative with content, that it's driven by sports rights, and that watching pay-TV is a family activity that's cheaper than other out-of-house activities.

MultiChoice added another 625 000 DStv subscribers in South Africa in the past year according to the latest Naspers annual results for the year until 31 March 2017 that was released on Friday. 

That is equal to a whopping 1 712 new DStv subscriptions that South African TV households signed up for per day over the past year, despite DStv raising subscription fees every year, falling consumer confidence, worsening economic conditions and with retailers struggling to get consumers to open their wallets.

While South African consumers are tightening their belts and cutting back on expenses they not just loathe getting rid of their direct-to-home (DTH) satellite pay-TV but more are ditching the public viewing fare from the SABC and parting with their hard-earned cash to sign up and pay monthly for subscription television.

MultiChoice that doesn't operate a loyalty programme in South Africa, now has a massive 6.36 million pay-TV subscribers in South Africa (11% growth compared to the previous year) as paying viewers are boosting the viewership figures and ratings of a flurry of pay-TV channels ranging from Al Jazeera and Animal Planet to SuperSport and Zee World.

"Watching TV is a leisure experience that can be enjoyed in a family setting and might be comparatively less expensive than leisure activities that take place outside of the house," TV expert and academic Dr Alexia Smit from the University of Cape Town's Centre for Film and Media Studies told TVwithThinus.

"It's much cheaper than dinner and a movie, shopping or going to a bar. This might explain the retention of DStv numbers as people cut down on other leisure activities," she says.

Dr Smit, with a PhD in Television Studies, says DStv has been very clever in the way that the pay-TV behemoth has grown its audience share.

"They've put a lot of effort into producing packages that are accessible to a large audience of lower to middle income South Africans. They also invest a lot of resources into audience research and retention."

"Sport cannot be overlooked. Many South Africans buy into DStv to have access to important sporting events. It is also worth noting that not all DStv viewing takes place in the private home but also in bars and community spaces where access to sports matches are key."

"In many cases the SABC cannot afford the rights to key sporting events like the Protea's recent tour of New Zealand or Premier League soccer.

Dr Smit says DStv subscriber uptake is also driven by culturally relevant content.

"DStv's Mzansi Magic and Vuzu TV channels offer original programming that is carefully designed to appeal to the needs and desires of South African viewers, particularly those understood to be part of South Africa's so-called ‘emerging black middle class’."

"DStv is providing a style of programming that fills certain gaps for local audiences who have a hunger for representations of themselves and their interests. Shows like Date My Family and Our Perfect Wedding are pitched in a way that really works," she says.

She says these shows "don't offer a didactic 'rainbow nation' message. They are about love, families, consumption, aspiration, leisure, tradition and local culture" and that this programming is the result of  very careful audience research.

"While people in the top end of the market might be lured away by free downloads and competitors like Netflix, there isn't much competition in the pay-TV sector when it comes to accessing original local content, though the switch to digital TV might start to threaten this."

Many DStv shows also have a remarkable online life, says Dr Smit. "There is often a Twitter storm that accompanies the first airing of episodes of Date My Family and Our Perfect Wedding. I believe this online culture might drive a certain amount of desire for access to this programming."

She says the growth in South African pay-TV subscribers "is not necessarily about TV viewing becoming more popular. Rather pay-TV viewing is seen as affordable for a larger segment of the population". 

"The SABC is in a deep state of crisis. It is likely that this has had an effect on programming quality and audience engagement," says Dr Smit.

"Aside from the institutional difficulties the SABC has been experiencing, we must also factor in the difference between the role of a public broadcaster and a pay-television network."

"The SABC is beholden to a public service remit so the SABC has historically been tasked with producing programming that is educational or aligns with the interests of the nation. DStv is a commercial broadcaster with an expansive array of options and much more freedom with regards to the kind of programming they distribute."

"They have the capacity to cater for niche audiences in a way that the public broadcaster cannot. They are also free to develop local content that does not need to share a public service message."

"I think audiences may appreciate a shift away from the more didactic address of the SABC. I think DStv is a lot more creative with local content and more responsive to audience needs but this has to do with having a lot of resources and using them well."

"If the SABC really wants to compete for viewers they need to find ways to put real money, support and infrastructure behind producers of local content, they need to invest in ways of understanding the changing needs of their audiences and they need to get access to more key sporting coverage," says Dr Smit.