Startimes ups its game in Africa and pitches a more ambitious vision as the key pay TV challenger while Wananchi keeps its powder dry

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One of the stand-out presentations of DISCOP 2014 was Mike Dearham, MD of Startimes’ Media Department, laying out a vision for this Chinese Pay TV company in Africa. DStv may be large and mighty but it certainly seems that Startimes will begin to give them a run for their money in the years ahead.

When Startimes first started, no-one in the industry was quite sure what to make of it or whether to take it seriously. As the outsider, it put together relationships with state broadcasters to roll out DTT in a growing number of African countries. But in the beginning there was only one bouquet at a bottom of the market price. Content almost seemed like an after-thought.

Times have changed and so has Startimes. Over time it built up its expertise in content and has recently employed Mike Dearham to head up what is effectively its content department. Dearham previously worked at DStv and distributor Cote Ouest. He has in turn employed Gary Rathbone, ex Supersports to be Head of Sports for the company, a brave move in world where any important sports content seems to be owned by DStv. There is currently one sports channel with two more to be launched.

DISCOP 2014:

Startimes is now in 23 African countries and claims to have 4 million subscribers, the biggest group of whom are in Nigeria. Initially it started as DTT-only platform but it has now rolled out DTH and says it also has 23 mobile multimedia transponders that can deliver mobile TV. The DTT platform has 200+ channels on the premium bouquet and the DTH platform 130 channels on the premium channel.

The company is now looking to collaborate with producers from the earliest stage of an idea and is looking for “culturally specific” content. The Startimes Group has a dubbing studio in Beijing and this has been used to dub some programming into local languages and a local production studio in Nairobi. It has also put in place African languages channels, including Swahili and Hausa channels. Indigenous language channels like Igbo may come later.

The issue for any Pay TV challenger in Sub-Saharan Africa is how do you find content? Local content exists but not always in the premium form that you might want it. So you find yourself commissioning content in a way that does not happen much elsewhere globally.

Quite where the boundary is for starting and stopping the commissioning of local content is hard to draw. I interviewed the CEO of Wananchi, Richard Alden during the Africast stream at AfricaCom.

He steered clear of broader visions and said although he was going to talk a lot on that day, he preferred to let what the company was doing tell its own story. Although he said he was reluctant to talk numbers, he did say they had 55,000 fibre/HFC cable subscribers and double that amount of DTH subscribers: this gives them a total of around 165,000 subscribers

He was fairly cautious about getting heavily involved in a greater level of local production, whilst stressing the things it has already achieved. He said it was hard to replicate things like its international co-production “Tales From The Bush Larder” but if the opportunity came along, they’d take it.

It is currently in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Tanzania with plans to go into Rwanda and Ethiopia in 2015. He said the company would not be rolling out across Africa but did not rule out making distribution deals with operators in other countries where it made sense.

The only other potential challengers to DStv are either only effectively in one country (MyTV) or are regionally owned (Azam TV). Only time will tell who will win this particular race but Startimes has certainly got itself into pole position.



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