New interim CEO of South African satellite pay-TV operator TopTV, Eddie Mbalo, is committed to re-defining how local broadcasters should interact with the independent production sector.
Speaking to Screen Africa at the end of February, Mbalo said that local content was something that he had been fighting for throughout his career, first as an independent producer and more recently as the former CEO of the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF).
“It doesn’t matter whether TopTV has a mandated local content quota or not, we should know by now that in South Africa local content is king. The top 10 programmes in the last 10 years are local. TopTV will have local content and we’ll do everything we can to give audiences good quality,’ stated Mbalo.
He declined to give timeframes as the TopTV business is currently under review by the board of On Digital Media (ODM), owner of TopTV. (Mbalo was nominated to the board last year in June and appointed as chairperson on 1 August.)
“Broadcasters can’t keep commissioning local programming and keep 100% of the rights,’ continued Mbalo. “We have to give a slice of the cake to local producers at the back end. So we must look at all options and listen to the independent production sector’s viewpoint.
“It’s very important that the local industry establish itself as a business. The first thing that broadcasters need to do is be open to discussion. We should look across the board at genres and find creative ways of producing programmes.’
As to whether TopTV has any plans to establish an in-house production unit, Mbalo said: “In our review process we need to create capacity internally. But it would not be our intention to produce a lot of content internally.’
TopTV hit the news recently with the surprise departure of former CEO Vino Govender and the broadcaster’s thwarted plans to launch a bouquet of three adult content channels from Playboy.
“The immediate plan is for me to be interim CEO for between six to seven months only. We are currently looking at potential CEO candidates. It’s essential the new CEO has a solid understanding of broadcasting and pay-TV. The position is not necessarily restricted to local candidates,’ explained Mbalo.
Regarding Govender’s departure Mbalo said that Govender was very good at starting up businesses but did not have experience in broadcasting. “During the review of TopTV’s performance since its May 2010 launch, Vino and the board came to a mutual agreement to separate in order to seek for a new CEO to take the business forward. He remains an ODM shareholder.
“TopTV has sold 350 000 decoders into the market but only about 160 000 of those are active all the time. We are looking into why this is the case and need to improve our interaction with subscribers in every area. TopTV has a lot of good content but has not been good at marketing it effectively.
“Our business is based on a prepaid model and we are considering whether this is sustainable or whether we should have a hybrid prepaid / contract model. As per TopTV’s original projections, we need to have half a million subscribers by year three, two-thirds of which should be paying consistently, to reach break even point. Another issue is that we have heavily subsidised installations.’
Mbalo stressed that TopTV does not deal in porn. “We believe Playboy is a legitimate TV broadcaster and it is seen around the world. I’m told the channels are soft, X-rated material. These discussions started a long time ago, soon after TopTV’s launch. We have always looked at alternative entertainment as do all pay-TV operators. Adult content is broadcast on DStv and e.tv and we are wondering why it is a problem for us to do same.
“We’re still waiting for the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) to furnish us with reasons why it chose to block the adult content bouquet. For me personally it’s worrying that ICASA, as an institution of state, has given itself the authority to decide what South Africans can or cannot see on the screens in the privacy of their homes. It smacks of the old apartheid style.’
Since inception TopTV has been plagued by the fact that MultiChoice, owner of long time incumbent pay-TV service DStv, has consistently secured exclusive broadcast rights for the major sporting events
“If we find that MultiChoise is using its dominance to block development of the alternative subscriber base in South Africa, TopTV will approach ICASA and the Competition Commission. We’re watching developments in Kenya where MultiChoice is being investigated for whether its dominance is responsible for the closure of new and smaller operators,’ concluded Mbalo.
By Joanna Sterkowicz
Screen Africa Magazine – March 2012