For years, MultiChoice has been slowly and deliberately shifting its focus towards online streaming. It has made some large strategic bets and pumped billions into investing in what it terms its “over the top” or OTT services. This, as it attempts to defend and grow its linear DStv offering.
First, it launched Showmax in an effort to protect itself against the then looming threat of Netflix, and to better utilise its vast content library (both owned and licensed).
It has become more aggressive in investing in original content for the platform, and in 2020 launched Showmax Pro (at R449 per month), which included live sport. MultiChoice was very careful in what sport would be available – effectively the core football offering on its Compact package (which costs R429 per month) – to ensure it wouldn’t cannibalise its core satellite TV business.
‘Dishless’ streaming underwhelms
Soon thereafter, in August 2020, it finally began offering a “dishless” streaming version of DStv. This had been rumoured for years, and left the market underwhelmed when details were announced.
Its packages were exactly the same price as the decoder-based ones.
At the time, the group said it decided not to introduce separate price plans for the dishless product as this “would have added complexity for consumers”.
Finally, it launched a fixed-wireless internet service (where it wholesales MTN LTE) last year and said this formed part of its “ongoing evolution from a traditional video entertainment business”.
In June, it said one of its six core “strategic objectives” for this year was to “accelerate OTT capabilities” and “build OTT scale as rapidly as possible”. Much of this had been centred on its DStv app (which it renamed from DStv Now to better align it with its core service).
All of this makes its decision last week to limit paying DStv subscribers to just one concurrent stream across their four registered devices from next month all the more astonishing.
Currently, subscribers can stream concurrently on two devices. It said this move was being introduced in light of “password sharing and piracy” which are “challenges for streaming providers globally”.
The thing is …
The fundamental problem with this aggressive approach is that it blows the streaming-only or ‘dishless’ DStv proposition to smithereens.
Why would anyone subscribe to a service that limits them to a single stream? How is this practical in a household set up?
A couple living together would not be able to watch two different channels. In a larger family, going dishless would be entirely nonsensical.
Even for current (dish-based) subscribers, the value provided to customers has been sharply reduced.
Partners or family members will be able to watch a single other channel or piece of content different to whatever is being consumed on the decoder.
Of course, the way around this is to add additional decoders within a household and then pay MultiChoice an additional R110 per month from April for each additional decoder.
Why all this effort then to grow “connected video” or OTT services – in 2021, it saw 39% growth in monthly active users and 65% growth in “play events” – when its utility is now so limited?
At play here are the 1.4 million ‘premium’ segment and 2.8 million mid-market customers (this spans Compact, Compact Plus and Premium). Around 4.2 million households in all.
These are the two parts of the market that are not growing.
The premium segment has been in decline for years and has finally ‘stabilised’ to some extent (although subscribers are down 5% year-on-year in H1 2022).
The mid-market base (effectively Compact) is down 1% over that same period. There is some seasonality in the numbers but in the more recent six months, it is down from three million at the end of April to 2.8 million at the end of September. There are murmurs in the market that this base is under real pressure at present.
It could be that MultiChoice is not hitting its subscriber growth or churn targets, and that its market research showed how widespread the practice of password sharing actually is.
MultiChoice is not typically a company that acts rashly or, indeed, this rapidly.
Its limited technology stack has probably contributed to this decision as it is unclear whether it is even able to have separate limits for the numbers of concurrent streams to subscribers on different packages (distinguishing between Premium and Compact customers, for example).
It is certainly not currently capable of the kind of restrictions that Netflix has been able to test by identifying users who are likely not part of the same household as the account holder. If there was any promise that a software-based solution to this would be ready this year, one can surely not be certain that the group would’ve acted this aggressively. This is not software that can be built in a few months.
And so the market is left with ruthless new limits: a blunt instrument that punishes legitimate households – many of whom are paying nearly R1 000 a month – and ‘password sharers’ equally.
Will ending the practice of widespread password sharing suddenly stimulate new subscriber growth? One could see a scenario – possibly constructed by pricey consultants – in which this happens.
What of MultiChoice’s now stillborn streaming-only packages? And its fixed-LTE service? Will it ‘de-emphasise’ these in the coming months?
The market is not standing still. Netflix is investing significant amounts of money into local content. MultiChoice has to keep up, particularly with Showmax.
There’s BritBox (BBC and ITV content) to fill that niche. Amazon has started actively promoting its Prime Video service in the country. And Disney Plus will launch in South Africa in the middle of the year.
It is not exactly as though MultiChoice has the market to itself.
The uncomfortable truth – known for years – is that sport (particularly Premier League football and rugby) is the only thing holding the entire ‘premium’ edifice up.
Already second-tier sports like F1 and MotoGP have launched direct-to-consumer subscriptions, which has seen many of these local fans abandon their DStv Premium packages.
In the mid-market, is there any surprise that DStv is now the title sponsor of the PSL? Without the local league, what exactly would be the proposition?
The billion-rand question is whether the loss of subscribers in the mid-market and high-end will continue into the next financial year …
There aren’t too many obvious reasons for this move, and it just doesn’t seem that it will stem the decline. If anything, it’s likely to accelerate it.