M-Net: 30 years of entertaining SA

Yolisa Phahle is the CEO of M-Net. (Picture: Supplied)
Yolisa Phahle is the CEO of M-Net. (Picture: Supplied)

When asked how M-Net has remained so resilient over the past 30 years, CEO Yolisa Phahle explains that one thing that M-Net has done very well is position itself as a channel of “firsts”. 

When M-Net launched in 1986, it was only the second pay-TV channel in the world at the time. Over the past 30 years it brought South Africa its first soap opera, Egoli, launched the very successful Afrikaans channel kykNET, and Mzansi Bioskop is the first 100% local movie channel. 

“This is a company of innovation and a company of firsts. For us it’s really always about looking around both locally and globally to see what we can bring that will surprise and delight audiences.”

The art of storytelling, which Phahle thinks is key to M-Net’s success, is something she is passionate about and familiar with, having started her career as a musician. 

“I loved music and realised quite early on in my life that music is a hugely powerful communication tool and the greatest songwriters of our time, whether it’s Bob Dylan or John Lennon, have in many ways had a more impactful influence on the zeitgeist than politicians, teachers or parents. I was intrigued with how popular culture reflects the zeitgeist, and secondarily how it can actually mobilise people in incredible ways.”

This realisation led to her following her passion and becoming all consumed with how a story can be told through music. And this is perhaps one of the reasons she is the perfect fit for furthering M-Net’s vision of bringing stories to South African audiences. So how did she go from being on stage to running the show?

“As a musician I was quite lucky because I played for some very successful bands. We spent a lot of time at radio stations and in television studios getting interviewed. Then I became even more infatuated with the media and realised that media has a huge role to play. Back then (it’s all changed now, of course), they really were the primary curators of what people could see and hear about.”

Phahle has been with M-Net since 2005 and became CEO in 2015. 

Competing in an on-demand environment

The million-dollar question is how companies like MultiChoice, and a channel like M-Net, are adapting to the changing media landscape. 

“Today, everything has changed. When I was a child and you wanted to watch the news you had to do so on a television, and that was it. Today you can read or watch the news on your phone, tablet, or create news yourself.” This power shift, whereby consumers now have a larger voice and more choice is very interesting and positive in many ways, believes Phahle. 

“As broadcasters it forces us to become more consumer-centric and, ultimately, we have to make sure that the stories we are telling are compelling, relevant and resonant.”

So how has M-Net risen to the challenge of the Netflix era, where consumers are spoilt for choice?

For Phahle, the M-Net vision has not really changed. They still want to ensure that they tell the best local stories and bring people the most anticipated, critically acclaimed and talked about international content. 

“So for me everything to a degree still starts and ends with the story. Obviously that story needs to be disseminated, and that’s where technology plays a part.

“We don’t know what the delivery mechanisms will be in the future, but the trend suggests that people have an increasing appetite for consuming relevant content that educates them, informs them and reflects their current reality as well as their desired reality.”

She believes that remaining focused on this 30-year vision of telling stories that add value and enrich people’s lives will take M-Net into the future, albeit in a more competitive environment. 

Growing the audience

As a business, DStv is still growing subscriber numbers, according to Phahle. A lot of this growth is coming from the middle market, which wasn’t previously being served in terms of content until recently. In the last four or five years, M-Net has started producing programs in Zulu and Tswana, which, she points out, are really talking to the majority of people in the country. 

Investing in local content is clearly a priority, with R1.7bn being spent on this by M-Net and MultiChoice in the 2016 financial year. Mzansi Bioskop, for example, has produced over 300 local movies since 2010. 

It is this push for local content that helps set M-Net apart, and something that Phahle finds important.

“It really is about adding meaning to people’s lives and if you look at the response that our programs generate on a weekly basis, and how they have the country talking, that is hugely enjoyable because people are talking about local actors, local stories, local businesses. We’re talking in local languages. And I think all of that is very important as we try and build a healthy democracy, and try to build an economy,” she says.

According to Phahle, M-Net has been responsible for many new production companies, and many of the actors and presenters that started out with them now own their own companies and are employing others. 

This is all very encouraging, but cannot be viewed in a vacuum, given the difficult economic environment businesses are facing. 

Says Phahle: “Although there is growth, as with all businesses the economy is an issue and the currency devaluation affects any business that has costs in dollars. Lots of our costs such as our international content is paid for in dollars, so that does put pressure on the business.” 

So what do the next 30 years look like for M-Net?

Phahle believes the continued focus of telling great stories will be integral to taking M-Net forward and ensuring a great future, “because there will always be a need for great stories that have still to be told, and there are many more local languages that are still to be used to tell those stories”. 

This is a shortened version of an article that originally appeared in the 1 December edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

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