Ferial Haffajee: Television’s great disruptor gets disrupted

I am hooked. I can’t wait to get home to get my fix. Of Netflix, that is. I bought the device that delivers internet TV, via streaming, a while ago, but only managed to sign up a couple of weeks ago. 

This took me less than three minutes and will cost R100 a month because I chose a single device option. The subscription goes up in price if you choose multi-devices. And since I signed on, I don’t think I’ve watched anything else on the MultiChoice DStv platform except a bit of news now and then. 

Until then, my only experience of Netflix had been bootlegged versions of Narcos delivered on a memory stick from a friend. The series, about Colombian drug-dealer Pablo Escobar, was gripping. It’s a Netflix original and when I heard that Narcos Series 3 was available, that had me signing up at Netflix.com.

Since then, I’ve watched local movies like Catching Feelings, the brilliant new Trevor Noah stand-up comedy called Son of Patricia and all of Narcos 3. I am now on Narcos Mexico, an offshoot of the successful debut.

I guess viewers like me represent MultiChoice’s worst nightmare, because we embody the disruption of the African satellite giant’s operations. (It’s also probably why this column is late for my editor is a bit cross – blame it on Netflix and chill).

In its annual results, MultiChoice took heat for saying that it was being disrupted by Netflix, which it found unfair because the US internet entertainment conglomerate does not pay much tax or face the high regulatory burden of local operators. But that’s exactly what is happening. MultiChoice’s business model is being disrupted as more people sign up to Netflix and ditch MultiChoice.

The news is too important for me to do so yet. For many other viewers, it is the successful SuperSport channels which keep them subscribed. 

But that too is changing as sports rights are increasingly auctioned to internet streaming services. If I was really committed, I could probably stream my favourite news channels or catch the news via social media feeds on Twitter and Facebook where news now breaks first.  

Disruptions all round   

MultiChoice, which is about to separate from holding company Naspers and list independently, is now being disrupted, just as it - in the guise of M-Net - completely upended broadcasting when it provided a glitzy competitor to the incumbent public broadcaster, SABC. 

How will the company respond?  For one, it is getting slimmer. MultiChoice has undertaken a restructuring with some job losses. And there have been reports that it may slash subscription rates. Netflix has entered the market at a fraction of the cost of a DStv subscription, either compact (basic) or premium. 

Earlier this week, reports suggested the company may also ditch the decoder as satellite television becomes increasingly obsolete. The dish, linked to a decoder, is so ubiquitous across South African that you cannot imagine the landscape without them, so the reports by Business Day made me sit up and take notice.   

While Naspers’ streaming TV company, Showmax, was first offered as a subscription service, it’s now free to premium customers.  I’ve signed up to that too, but my first scroll-throughs suggest Netflix is the superior service. It has a pretty sophisticated algorithm which picks up what I like and makes me a personalised viewing schedule. 

This should be scary as hell, but I quite like it and the algorithm is often right. 

The revolution in broadcasting could become exponential if the governing ANC can exercise regulatory authority to quickly and rapidly bring down the cost of data. 

Has 2018 marked the beginning of the end of MultiChoice as we know it?  

* Naspers, which owns Fin24, announced its intention in September to list Multichoice separately on the JSE. The new company will be named Multichoice Group. 

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