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SA streaming becomes a flood

With last week’s South African launch of BritBox and a new streaming offering from MTN and eMedia, video-on-demand has taken another leap, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK



The launch of the British video-on-demand (VOD) service BritBox in South Africa last Friday (6 August) represented yet another leap for the streaming revolution in South Africa.

Coming in the wake of cinema chain Ster-Kinekor receiving a deadline extension for its business rescue plan the week before, the arrival of yet another competitor for consumer attention reaffirmed the online entertainment shift.

BritBox is a dedicated streaming channel that combines the content of the United Kingdom’s leading TV series producers, the BBC and ITV. At the same time, it has emerged that Amazon Prime Video has made massive inroads into SA, thanks to Vodacom offering it free to subscribers since late last year.

According to JustWatch, a global service that tracks streaming services and provides a guide and search engine for consumers, this has allowed Amazon Prime Video to draw level with Showmax in search enquiries, with each of the services “owning” the attention of a quarter of the market. Netflix remains well in the lead, at 35%.

Neale Dennett, BritBox new markets launch director, said last week that it was not necessary to wrest attention away from the competing streaming services.

“We don’t see BritBox as an alternative to other streaming services and have seen elsewhere that streaming subscribers increasingly elect to more than one VOD service. BritBox has a very clear proposition as the home of the best and biggest collection of British programming, together all in one place, and we’ll be marketing the service to South African audiences on this basis.”

South Africa was selected as the sixth global launch territory for BritBox, which is already available in the UK, USA, Canada, and Australia, with 2-million subscribers signed up. However, it was not only the common language that placed it ahead of the queue of countries waiting for the service.

“From their experience of operating linear channels in South Africa, both ITV and BBC were aware of the strong demand for a breadth of British programming and interest in British on-screen talent, and that this has not been well served recently,” said Dennett. “A large amount of premium and classic British programming has not been available to SA audiences, and we think BritBox can deliver a really strong offering of recognisable favourites, plus new and exclusive programming to subscribers from launch.”

New titles include season six of the UK’s most-watched drama series of the 21st century so far, Line of Duty. The first five seasons are available on Netflix in South Africa, but the sixth season is unlikely to launch on the streaming giant, due to the arrival of Britbox. Other new and upcoming series include Professor T, Wedding of the Century, Annika, Deadwater Fell, The Larkins, Up, and fresh seasons of established favourites like Manhunt, Unforgotten,  and Endeavour.

BritBox CEO Reemah Sakaan said the company’s research showed a clear appetite from viewers of diverse backgrounds for premium British programming, expertly curated and available on demand.

“It’s quality content that’s effortlessly watchable,” she said at the service’s launch announcement last week. “British TV and film has grown exponentially as a cultural export in recent years, with productions and talent frequently scooping BAFTAs, Emmys and Oscars, and regularly recognized as some of the best in the world for quality and escapism. Our TV is no longer niche but has come firmly into the mainstream, plus there’s a definite rise in nostalgia viewing, which is finding completely new audiences. It’s a rich time to be in British TV.”

A seven day free trial will also allow South Africans to rediscover old classics like Blackadder, Absolutely Fabulous, Inspector Morse, Poldark, Fawlty Towers, and Midsomer Murders.

Dennet stressed that the vast majority of content available on BritBox at launch – more than 85% – will be exclusive at launch and not available on any other services in South Africa.

“We’ll continue to add new and exclusive programming weekly.  This will include premium drama and comedy that has aired for the first time on BBC or ITV during prime time slots in the UK in 2021, or programming that will air later this year and quickly come across to BritBox as exclusive territory premieres.”

Steven Cohen, founder of FutureTV, which combines all paid streaming service into a packaged solution for South Africans, believes the timing is perfect for BritBox, despite the plethora of options available.

“During lockdown, the demand for Future TV increased by 30% from the previous year,” he said. “Most clients have Netflix fatigue and require greater content variety as online streaming increased.”

Cohen developed an aggregator platform on Future TV called The What’s New Channel, which offers a comprehensive guide to the top-rated series, movies, and music available for streaming, updated daily. It offers 30 channels, both subscription-based and free, including six live news channels.

“I developed this app as there is so much to watch and many of my clients couldn’t recall which show is where. Future TV automatically updates all our client devices with new streaming channels as soon as they become available. Clients do not need to search for new channels and content as everything is automated.”

Because FutureTV allows content creators, businesses, educational institutions and venues to distribute their own TV channels via TBs and mobile devices, it provides an insight into the categories of content that are in demand but not necessarily served by commercial streaming services.

“One of the biggest contributors to our increased demand stemmed from education institutions,” he said.

Even the SABC has recognised the challenge posed by the shift to streaming, and last November teamed up with Telkom to launch the TelkomONE video-streaming platform. In June 2021, it added free catch-up functionality across its SABC and other free-to-air channels. While a Catch-Up service has been available on the DStv streaming app for some years, it is only available to paying subscribers, making this the first time a South Africa catch-up feature is provided at no cost to streaming viewers.  Any SABC 1, 2, 3, SABC Sport or SABC Education show is accessible via the service on smartphones, laptops and PCs.

“You can’t get much better value than providing a zero-cost catch-up service across already-free streaming channels,” said Wanda Mkhize, executive for smarthome and content at Telkom. “TelkomONE’s vision is to provide the widest selection of content, at the most affordable price, and backed by unmatched functionality.”

Mkhize said a growing catalogue of local TV “box set” shows was expected to exceed 1200 hours soon, with full-length series on offer including Shaka Zulu and Bedford Wives.

Vodacom, too, is constantly adding to its streaming offerings. Last week it launched an audio streaming service, Vodacom Sports Radio. It announced it would provide live audio commentary of all 380 English Premier League soccer games of the 2021/22 season, starting next Friday (August 13). Vodacom subscribers will have access to pre-match banter, post-game discussions, daily news updates, highlights packages, podcast content, and in-depth player and club information.

Mariam Cassim, chief officer of Vodacom Financial and Digital Services, said: “Like many of our other digital services, Vodacom Sports Radio’s mission is to democratise access to football in order to achieve inclusion for all fans.”

Vodacom’s rival, MTN, also made its latest streaming move last week, with an announcement by eMedia that it would launch an online viewing platform called eVOD in a three-year partnership with the mobile operator. In 2017, MTN shut down its VU service after it failed to gain traction. Four years later, the market appears ready.

MTN South Africa will offer eVOD to 32-million customers, who will be able to watch dramas and movies on a mobile app developed by eMedia. Free and subscription models will be available, but paying subscribers will be allocated only 4GB of free data for the service.

“Entertainment and viewing has evolved with On-Demand video,” said MTN chief digital officer Ernst Fonternel. “We share the same belief that everyone deserves the benefit of connectivity and entertainment of their choice.”

  • This article is adapted from a version that first appeared in the Sunday Times on 8 August 2021