African streamer Showmax relaunched on Monday with a focus on an expanded content lineup, including local originals, Hollywood hits and English soccer, attractive pricing and plans to “change the game” in streaming on the continent.
Its success so far caught the eye of people in London, Philadelphia and Hollywood, so that in early 2023 its owner, African pay-TV powerhouse MultiChoice Group and Comcast’s entertainment arm NBCUniversal and its European pay-TV unit Skyunveiled a partnership to “bring some of the world’s best content and technology to streaming customers” across sub-Saharan Africa “at a time when Africa is approaching an inflection point in terms of broadband connectivity and affordability.” The new Showmax group is 70 percent owned by MultiChoice and 30 percent owned by NBCUniversal.
With its relaunch, the streamer has switched to using NBCU streamer Peacock’s technological platform. After all, since its 2015 launch in South Africa, Showmax has expanded to 44 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and it has its eyes on growth ahead. “Core to the success” of its streaming ambitions is a “technical platform that is robust and built to scale,” Showmax has highlighted, touting the Peacock platform’s support for live and on-demand content, “including the biggest live sporting events.”
Simon Murray, principal analyst at Digital TV Research, has highlighted that unlike in the maturing U.S. streaming market, “African SVOD will see plenty of growth in the coming years.” While Showmax so far does not provide subscriber figures, Murray previously highlighted that it is free to many of MultiChoice’s top-tier satellite TV subscribers, estimating in a Monday update that the streamer ended 2023 with 1.5 million paying subscribers and that it would reach more than 3.66 million by 2029.
That compares with Murray’s estimate that Netflix will hit 6.9 million subscribers in Africa then. “SVOD is a battle between Netflix and regional player Showmax,” the analyst concluded.
Showmax CEO, and MultiChoice South Africa CEO, Marc Jury has predicted “a big year” for the streamer on the back of its Monday relaunch.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Jury addressed the growth opportunity for streaming in Africa, the benefits of working with Comcast and its businesses, as well as Showmax’s increased original content budget at a time when Hollywood players are cutting back.
Showmax says it wants to “change the game” for streaming in Africa. What goals does that include and how does the relaunch allow you to accomplish them?
It comes back to our core purpose as a business, and that is reimagining streaming for Africa. So we’re an African business with its roots here, so we understand the market better than anyone else. And we want to reimagine the game by making it effortless to access and afford the stories that our customers love and that people across the continent love. So it comes down to four big pillars how are we reimagining the game [namely content, accessibility, technology and affordability].
We’re going to make it about the best storytelling, and that’s a combination of the best of international and the best local. We’ve seen a lot of people and companies talking about the fact that they’re cutting back on local content spend, including a number of global OTT players. That’s a real USP (unique selling proposition) for us. That’s a key point of differentiation. We are doubling down on our spend and producing local content across multiple markets in Africa.
We also want to make it accessible. That’s the reason why we’ve gone for strategies for mobile devices. When you look at the mobile phone penetration across Africa, there are hundreds of millions of mobile phones – 450 million mobile devices. Certainly, for people over the age of 18, I think there are more mobile phones than there are people. Accessibility is important. People are on the move all the time, they spend a lot of time on public transport. And so most of the video entertainment streamed in Africa is done on a mobile device.
Making it effortless to access is another pillar. The new platform from Peacock is beautifully designed, the look and feel, the playback is really positive. We’ve had incredible feedback in all of our consumer testing. We want to make it as effortless for customers to find the content they love and then just keep feeding in that content as we learn more about their viewing behavior in the coming months.
And the last one is around affordability. We are taking the best content from both around the world and locally and offering that across multiple devices at 89 rand ($4.65) a month [down from 99 rand ($5.18) so far]. You’ve got the English Premier League mobile offering for 69 rand ($3.60) a month for all 380 games of the world’s best [soccer] league, which is mind-blowing. And so affordability is a big factor for us. And it’s a big part of that story of reimagining streaming for Africa.
So the four pillars are creating the best and most loved stories, making sure it’s accessible, making sure it’s effortless to access and affordable. Those are the four key elements that we’re going to hang our hat on and we’re going to keep reiterating to the market for why we will be the number one streaming platform in Africa.
What have you found in terms of consumers’ appetite for African versus international content? Is one of them a bigger acquisition driver, while the other is more of a retention tool or how do you think about their respective roles?
It depends on the user and the different markets. We treat Africa as one, but there are 52 markets in sub-Saharan Africa, all of which are completely different from one another, including in terms of cultural needs. That’s where our expertise comes in. We built a big pay-TV business over 35 years across the continent. The ability to deeply understand the needs of the different customers is fundamentally important. So in some markets, international content will rate really well, while in others it doesn’t rate as well and so they rely on us producing local entertainment to ensure it’s relevant for customers in that market. We sometimes are dubbing international content into local languages. There are lots of different nuances across the different markets and all the more reason why being African for Africans is so fundamentally important for us.
In Hollywood, a lot of the streaming and content companies are cutting back on original content development and spending. In contrast, Showmax has for this year mentioned a 150 percent increase in original output to more than 1,300 hours. Do you expect this will continue to be a growth area and why?
That kind of investment and doubling down is what’s needed for us to differentiate ourselves from a Netflix or Amazon or others. They are focusing primarily on big international shows. We know, given previous data points, that the local content is what resonates best. So we will double down on our spend on local content. Continuing that is one of our commitments as a brand that we are making to the market. It’s very, very important that we keep differentiating ourselves. We have the ability to leverage that content across multiple platforms. So if it goes on Showmax first, it can appear on [our direct broadcast satellite service] DStv later. That’s another added advantage – our ability to utilize and leverage the group’s position across Africa.
You have had success with past originals and have 21 new Showmax originals launching in February alone, including adaptations of two local bestsellers, Angela Makholwa’s serial killer thriller Red Ink and Catch Me A Killer, based on the memoir of Micki Pistorius, South Africa’s first serial killer profiler. You also have high-school drama Youngins, university drama Wyfie, crime drama Koek, comedy Ekhaya Backpackers and Nigerian documentary series Free Men, among many others. I don’t want to force you to choose between various babies, so to speak, but any show that encapsulates particularly well what Showmax is looking for when it comes to original programming?
It would be very hard to call out one specific piece of content because we are creating so much local content now and we are really catering to very different needs. Different shows work very well for different people. It’s lovely to see the creativity in the local industries. And as we play such a big role in driving the video entertainment economy across the continent, it’s a big part of our commitment that we want to invest in it and help it to grow. When you see the talent of storytelling across Africa, it really is something special, and we love being part of that journey.
How key was it to bring in Comcast and its NBCUniversal and Sky brands and strike that partnership deal that is helping drive the Showmax relaunch via additional technology, content and other expertise? And how did you pickComcast?
This leads perfectly into our strategy to be the number one streaming platform in Africa. You take our content, our mix of understanding and local knowledge, and you back that up with what is a complement, the Peacock streaming technology platform, and you’ve got an absolute winner. They’ve got thousands of engineers who are working on updates and continue improving the experience on the platform and its ability to scale. They’ve proven themselves in a live environment, and live streaming is not an easy thing to do. You’ve seen various streamers really struggling in that space. Peacock has an amazing live-streaming capability. You saw the NFL numbers [for the exclusive Kansas City Chiefs-Miami Dolphins wild card game]. They had 16 million concurrent views at one point, and they peaked at upwards of 25 million unique viewers. The fact that they’ve proven themselves to be able to cope at that scale without any impact on the streaming experience is critically important. When you look at our live Premier League offering, there are over 250 million Premier League fans in Africa. Now we are offering it to them at an incredible price point. And we are expecting significant take-up of the streaming mobile offering, so we need to be able to withstand those levels of demand.
When you look at [Comcast] as a partner, the idea came about between the chairman of MultiChoice in Imtiaz Patel and the now-chairman of Showmax Andrea Zappia, who was then a very senior Sky executive. The discussions between the two of them really sort of laid the foundation for the partnership. Whenever you partner with someone new, you’ve got to make sure that culturally you’re aligned and that you can work closely together. And it’s been an amazing success story. When you bring two different cultures together, and I suppose the African needs versus First World market needs are very, very different. So, they’ve learned a lot from us, and we’ve learned a lot from them. To date, it’s been very, very successful.
You mentioned already how big and diverse Africa is. Are there any core markets, such as South Africa and Nigeria, that you target for subscribers and when you develop local content because of their size or the ability of content to travel from there to other parts of the continent?
We’ve got a very clear rollout plan over the next five years. So we are targeting 44 markets across sub-Saharan Africa, as it stands today. But we’re focusing our marketing and local production on certain key markets that will grow over time. So to start, it will be South Africa and Nigeria as the two key markets. And in the next few months, we will expand that to ensure that Kenya becomes a key focus. Over the next 12 months, we will start to include Zambia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania.
In all of those key markets, we will have an expanded presence, particularly from our marketing material. That strategy has worked very well for us in the past, and we’ve got no doubt that it will work very well. Markets depend on a number of different metrics, including the size of the population, so the business opportunity and the cost of data for live streaming is very important. In those markets, the general cost per gigabyte is certainly trending downwards and people have a propensity to stream live video content or go to on-demand video content in those markets. We look at all of those factors.
Hollywood giants pushed into streaming a few years ago and are still chasing profits, which has led to adjusted strategies and expectations. Where do you see Africa stand in terms of the development stage of the streaming market and its upside ahead?
We are still very early in that development phase. And we keep talking about this notion [at MultiChoice] of hunting like a pack because we have the traditional satellite pay-TV business, and then there’s a growing younger audience that is more in tune with video streaming. And so those businesses can play a very, very good role closely side by side. From a streaming perspective, numbers are climbing and climbing very rapidly and a lot of that has got to do with mobile phone penetration, smartphone penetration, cost of data coming down and, I suppose, availability of choice and different platforms with really, really good, compelling content.
Is there anything that you often find yourself explaining about African market dynamics and consumer behaviors to people from Comcast or others coming to the continent who don’t know it as intimately as you?
I think the biggest one is how people pay for content, which is very, very different. In many First World markets, it’s card-only. This is where our market knowledge and expertise, our ability to take off-platform payments for DStv comes in. [Showmax has been working with MultiChoice joint venture partner Moment, which is developing what it says is “the broadest pan-African payments network” with more than 200 partners, such as banks, mobile money providers, retailers and payment schemes.] We’ve been able to leverage that experience and knowledge and bring it into the Showmax environment.
You don’t realize that until you walk around in the informal sector in an African market and just see how that informal trade works, how people are exchanging money and goods for services and products. That is so fundamentally different from the First World. So that has been a big eye-opener for Peacock and one of the key points of differentiation we’ve got. We’ll expand on that ability to take off-platform payments.
Let’s talk about the Premier League of English soccer, or football, as you call it. Can you give me a sense for how popular it is in Africa and why?
Football itself is the world game. African people across the African continent love football. So number one, football is the biggest sport across all African markets by a country mile. And people love watching the best. It’s also helped by the time zone – we’re on the same time zone. And then there are the compelling stories and storytelling around the Premier League that is second to none. We refer to it as unscripted drama. It’s about the best players, the best managers and lots of money pouring into it. So there’s this constant news and storyline from one week to the next, and that’s hugely compelling for an African audience.
This year is probably going to be the tightest finish in the Premier League close to since inception. So it’s just a phenomenal product that people across the continent absolutely love. And there are a lot of African players that play in the league. That resonates with people across the continent as well. So we’ve made sure that we we invest in the Premier League rights for a long time to come.
Do you plan on continuing to lead Showmax for the long term? When you took over the CEO duties in addition to your MultiChoice CEO role in September, it sounded like it may just be a temporary added role…
It was in an interim capacity to see the team through this launch phase. But for the time being, I certainly will remain and focus on making sure that we get through this migration phase, we get through the initial rebrand and relaunch and then that we take it to market in a number of these key territories and show a seamless experience for customers.
There has been a diaspora service available for Showmax in foreign countries. Is that staying available with the relaunch?
On the old legacy platform, we had a Showmax offering that targeted the African diaspora in many markets across the world. Unfortunately, in our movement from one platform to another, we’ve had to close that down for the time being, because the Peacock tech platform is not just an app upgrade, it’s a completely new platform. That’s why migrating all of our existing customers onto the new platform is such a big focus for us.
So for the time being, unfortunately, we’ve had to close down that offering, but we are licensing a lot of our content to various streaming platforms and or pay-TV platforms and partners in Europe. Longer term, it certainly is something that we are reviewing, given that there was disappointment from customers. We want to make sure that we enable for them access to our content going forward, whether it be on our own platform, or whether we do a bigger licensing deal with an OTT platform that they can access in other markets around the world.