Showmax – the great African storyteller

Showmax, with its mixture of local and international content, is quietly creating a massive industry in which the African, at long last, is the star. Profile by Anver Versi.

Perhaps one of the most significant emotional lifelines during the pandemic has been having access to a multiplicity of content on our TVs, smartphones and tablets.

The ability to enjoy, for a small financial outlay, thousands of hours of entertainment – films, dramas, telenovelas, documentaries, comedies, sport, news and talk shows – has kept most of us sane and connected during the long periods of lockdown and isolation.

In this regard, Africa, which is often deficient in many other aspects, has been abundantly provided for – thanks to its own native-born-and-bred broadcast giant, the South Africa headquartered MultiChoice Group.

I believe that dollar for dollar, the wealth of content provided by MultiChoice brands – DStv, GOtv, and Showmax, each with its own specialised genres and additional brands – represents the best value for money of any similar system anywhere in the world.

One of the treats of my frequent visits to African counties before the pandemic and during my stays in Ghana and Kenya, was to sit around with friends on weekends and relish the feast of sports that was provided by DStv.

We could watch virtually all English Premier League games, the Spanish, Italian and French leagues, wall-to-wall international cricket, rugby, Formula 1 and even local championships. I felt deprived when I returned to the UK and had to make do with a few games at the weekend on Sky, and a very restricted cricket diet – and had to pay twice more for it!

Then if you were still in the mood for more entertainment, there were international films, current affairs and news programmes, including the BBC, to watch. Showmax, which is MultiChoice’s video-on-demand streaming service (based on internet transmission) rolls out a plethora of international, locally produced and co-produced drama, serials, telenovelas, reality shows and even bundles sports in some markets. All its content is mobile phone friendly, given the preponderant access to mobiles in Africa.

DStv is available in 50 sub-Saharan countries, while Showmax goes to a total of just over 70 countries, 45 in Africa; and to the diaspora communities in a number of countries including Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK.

Programmes are broadcast in 17 languages – with Ethiopia’s Amharic one of the latest to be added to the list for DStv and GOtv subscribers.

World-beating company

But while we focus largely on the content that we most enjoy, we tend to forget that the whole MultiChoice system is a world-beating combination of advanced technology, exceptional content and brilliant management.

The company has over 20m subscribers (there was a 50% spike in active streaming users in South Africa during the strictest lockdown); was listed on the Johannesburg Stock exchange in 2019 and its current market cap is over ZAR 55.1bn ($3.9bn). It is a massive African success story.

But talk to the top management echelon and they tell you they are “only just getting started”. I had a Zoom chat with Nkateko Mabaso, the Group Executive of Programming – he oversees all commissioning for the MultiChoice Group; and Candice Fangueiro, the Head of Content in Africa for Showmax, who is in charge of acquiring, producing, and distributing all films and content on the streaming platform.

Later I had a fascinating interview with Yolisa Phahle, CEO of General Entertainment at MultiChoice, which can be read in the article ‘We want to be Africa’s most loved storyteller,’ says MultiChoice CEO Yolisa Phahle.

As I talked with the three top executives, I began to get a glimpse into the sort of forward thinking, determination and energy that has propelled MultiChoice to such heights since it was established in 1994. It grew out of another pioneering venture, M-Net – one of only two pay-TV channels outside the US then – which was set up in 1986 as the brainchild of Koos Bekker, later to become the legendary billionaire chairman of the giant South African media conglomerate, Naspers.

The coming of satellite TV gave wings to the MultiChoice brand as it flew over and made landfall in one African country after another and now, with Showmax, is slowly and steadily winning territory in the rest of the world.

While its sports and related channels are now very well established, the focus is increasingly turning to locally produced content in local languages, which is causing a quiet revolution across the continent.

A scene from Is’thunzi.

The cast of the second series of Is’thunzi. It was described as “one of the most compelling programmes on South African televsion” by the Mail & Guardian.

Telling the African story

Africa has long been a recipient of Hollywood and Bollywood films and TV dramas and series set in other continents, telling stories of other people in other languages. Showmax sets out to tell African stories in African settings and in African languages.

It also features content from the major Hollywood studios and platforms such as HBO and Hulu, but what sets it apart is the local content. In the process, it is of course creating a vast film making industry, nurturing acting, directing, scoring talents as well as technical expertise in cinematography, set and costume design, editing, etc.

“The hyper-local strategy really is about producing content in the language that our audience speaks in all our key markets,” says Nkateko Mabaso.

The backbone of local content, says Nkateko, is the telenovela. It’s a genre first developed in South America and consist of a single story with weekly or daily episodes that could run for a year or more before coming to an end – unlike soaps, which can go on indefinitely.

“The telenovela gives viewers the opportunity to consume local on a daily basis,” he explains, adding that there are also dramas, which are generally produced for weekly viewing, movies, and reality shows as well.

Nkateko Mabaso, Multichoice’s Group Executive of Programming.

Nkateko Mabaso, Multichoice’s Group Executive of Programming.

Currently, they work with local talents to produce local language content in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda, Angola and Mozambique. Showmax has content in English, Afrikaans, isiZulu, Kiswahili, Sepedi, Setswana, Sesotho and isiXhosa.

In Africa, the Showmax catalogue consists of Hollywood, British, Kenyan, Nigerian, South African and other African content. Outside Africa it consists of Showmax  Originals, kykNET International, M-Net, Mzansi Magic, and Via content, targeted primarily at an expat audience.

It has premium children’s entertainment provided by The Walt Disney Company Africa, ViacomCBS Networks EMEAA, BBC Africa, Warner Bros. Africa and more. It is also the only streaming platform in Africa on which to view HBO content such as Game of Thrones.

Candice Fangueiro says that through Showmax Diaspora, “We have the ability to take our South African, English, Afrikaans and vernacular content, as well as our Nigerian and Kenyan content and other African content to the expats that live outside those countries. Digital really opens up that multiple crossing borders, crossing continents opportunity for us.”

International co-productions

More recently, MultiChoice, with more film makers around the world getting interested in Africa, has engaged in international co-production. “The biggest, that launched our co-productions proposition, is Trackers, an adaptation of award-winning South African author Deon Meyer’s book,” says Nkateko. The co-production with HBO “has been a massive success for us. And we’re building on that success with a few more titles that we are developing with Fremantle as a partner.”

This year, a Showmax co-production with Canal+, a crime procedural set in Kenya called Crime and Justice, has been a hit in places like Ghana and Nigeria as well, showing that local content ‘can travel’ outside its national areas.

“So you start seeing these crossovers,” says Nkateko. “Local telenovelas, like The River, Gomora, The Queen, are highly consumed in the likes of Nigeria and Kenya. So there is absolute crossover – you get a real flavour and a real taste of African content across the continent.”

A major historical epic, Blood Psalms (pictured at the top of the page), dubbed the African Game of Thrones because of its scale, is in the works. The co-production with Canal+ is produced by acclaimed South African filmmaker Layla Swart and Jahmil X.T. Qubeka. It is expected to be a massive hit, not only across the continent but outside it as well.

Candice Fangueiro, Head of Content in Africa for Showmax.

Candice Fangueiro, Head of Content in Africa for Showmax.

In our interview with Ben Amadasun, Netflix Director of Content for Africa, we examined the success of Netflix’s African originals on the global film and TV scene. Do they see Netflix as a rival?

“I think it’s complimentary,” says Candice Fangueiro. “Where there’s competition, it’s healthy, because it bolsters the need to consume content digitally and helps improve standards across the board.”

For African film creatives, nothing could be better. “The competition among rival platforms,” said Layla Swart, producer of Blood Psalms, in a magazine interview, “is lighting a bonfire under the broadcasters / streamers and content creators alike. I believe us to be entering a golden age of African content creation, where the world can be exposed to work from this continent on a scale that has never been seen before.” 

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