How Africa’s Streaming Service Landscape Is Evolving: A Q&A With Showmax CEO Yolisa Phahle
Eight years ago in August, African pay-TV giant MultiChoice Group launched streaming service Showmax in South Africa. Since then, it has expanded to 44 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, with a Showmax diaspora service also currently available in more than 30 international markets worldwide.
Showmax has made a name for itself with original content and not only caught the eye of people on the continent, but also those in London, Philadelphia and Hollywood. Earlier this year, MultiChoice and Comcast’s entertainment arm NBCUniversal and its London-based European pay-TV unit Sky struck a partnership that “will bring some of the world’s best content and technology to streaming customers” across sub-Saharan Africa “at a time when Africa is approaching an inflection point in terms of broadband connectivity and affordability.” The partners’ new Showmax group is 70 percent owned by MultiChoice and 30 percent owned by NBCUniversal. A Showmax relaunch is scheduled to happen before the end of the company’s current fiscal year ending in March 2024.
“The SVOD sector in Anglophone Africa is evolving into a battle between Netflix and local player Showmax,” Simon Murray, principal analyst at Digital TV Research, highlighted in a recent report. “Rich in local content and sports rights, Showmax now has access to NBCUniversal, Sony Pictures and HBO content,” making it the only place in Africa to stream such hit shows as Succession, The Last of Us and The White Lotus.
Unlike in the maturing U.S. streaming market, the expert sees subscriber gains ahead. “Bucking the U.S. trend, African SVOD will see plenty of growth in the coming years. Africa will have 18 million paying SVOD subscriptions by 2029, up from 8 million at end 2023,” he estimated. “Despite this fast growth, SVOD penetration will remain low, with only 7.7 percent of TV households paying for at least one subscription by 2029.”
Murray estimates that Netflix, which is available in more countries, had 3.5 million subscribers in Africa as of the end of 2022, will reach 4.1 million at the end of 2023 and finish 2029 with nearly 7.6 million subscribers. Showmax, which is “free to a lot of [MultiChoice’s] top-tier satellite TV subscribers,” meanwhile, “seems to be taking off following a few content deals,” Murray says. He estimates it ended 2022 with 1.1 million paying subs, will finish 2023 with 1.5 million and reach 4.4 million paying subscribers by 2029. Behind that, he sees Amazon hitting more than 3.1 million subs, followed by Disney+ with more than 1.5 million.
Showmax CEO Yolisa Phahle started her career in music, as a classical pianist and violinist. She recorded and toured with the likes of Soul II Soul, Duran Duran and Jamiroquai before moving into television in 1998 as a host, producer and sound and vision mixer for the BBC.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, she explained how the streaming business in Africa, in contrast to Hollywood, is still in its early stages, how her team is investing more in original content, the growth outlook for the continent, the partnership and investment from Comcast and how Showmax wants to “change the game for Africa.”
How is Showmax in Africa looking to compete against global giants with a lot of money, such as Netflix?
Obviously, SVOD is a very competitive industry, and there are some very strong global players, and they do have deep pockets and very good international content. So at Showmax, we have really focused on the fact that we are the only SVOD service that is 100 percent dedicated to African audiences. We feel that what we are trying to do is slightly different, because we are not playing to a global audience, we are playing to a local audience. And as a business, [MultiChoice has been] operating in Sub-Saharan Africa for over 30 years. We have paid a lot of school fees, but we have also managed to get more things right than we have got wrong. And the one thing that we are really good at is producing local content in local languages. This is a big, big advantage.
If you think about it, even here in England, while people watch American content, Korean content, watch Money Heist or the latest Spanish drama, basically, English people want to watch English content. They want to see themselves, they want to see their realities, they want to see their hopes, their dreams, their fears, and their history. We have taken that simple concept and are applying it to our entire strategy for SVOD in Africa. Our audiences want to see themselves, they want to hear their languages, and they want to watch programming that talks directly to them. And there is nobody else that is doing that to the extent that Showmax is.
Now with our new shareholder NBCUniversal’s long-term commitment and their great international content, we can actually be bigger and bolder.
You are referring to the news earlier this year where NBCUniversal and Sky owner Comcast struck a partnership with Showmax, with NBCU owning a 30 percent stake in the new Showmax group. How will getting more Hollywood and other programming change your mix of local versus international content?
For the last three years, we have spoken excessively about our local content. And we have seen that it is these local Showmax shows that drive the conversations, that create the old-fashioned water cooler moments, or the new sort of like social media trends in Africa. There have not been any shows that have had more talkability in the last year than Adulting (a drama about four male friends on their journey to find love and success in modern-day South Africa), than The Real Housewives of Lagos, The Real Housewives of Nairobi, and these have been Showmax local productions.
But now, we also believe that we have an equally strong international lineup of content, which with our investment means that we can actually go out there and spend money and time talking not just about local content, but about our international content. And if you think about NBCUniversal and great shows or great movies like The Equalizer, Minions, The Fast and the Furious, these are huge franchises that are massively popular in our market.
On top of that, we have also got deals with Warner and others. We are still the only place in Africa where you can get HBO’s new stuff, as well as the library. So our new strategy is really like Showmax 2.0, it’s on steroids.
I think people do associate Showmax with great local content, but our audiences are incredibly sophisticated and want to be connected with the rest of the world. So they want international content as well. Now we are going to tell everybody: HBO, Warner, Sony, NBCUniversal, it’s all here on Showmax.
How does international sports content fit into your strategy?
We will have the English Premier League (EPL) live for people across Sub-Saharan Africa. The EPL is the biggest league in the world. Its following in Africa, particularly in Nigeria, is off the charts. And what is really exciting is that if you look at the players, so many of them actually come from African teams or are the children of Africans or Afro-Caribbean. So it is actually something where in Africa we have a tremendous sense of ownership.
You have said the relaunch of Showmax, turbo-charged by the Comcast deal, would come by the end of your current fiscal year ending in March 2024. Any more insight into the timing or branding?
We haven’t announced anything more. [We are putting] time and investment into strategizing, looking at the context, looking at the future, and seeing how do we come back with Showmax 2.0. The reason why we kept the name Showmax, even though so many other things are changing, is because that brand does carry a lot of equity, and people do associate it with local, but now we want to build out on that. Essentially, we can change the game for Africa. We are going to make sure that everybody in Africa can have access to the best content, whether it is local or international. So we are very excited about it.
How different and how similar are the countries of Africa. People sometimes talk about Europe as one market, but then also highlight that there are many differences across that continent.
I think it’s the same with Europe and Africa. At certain times, there is a real feeling that Europe and the European Union is like a conglomerate of countries that have certain similar challenges and definitely opportunities as a continent. And there is some sort of love and there also are maybe some kind of old European beefs that continue. In Africa, there is definitely a desire for unification on a continent level, there is definitely a feeling that as a continent we are the sort of final frontier, there is still a huge amount of development that can take place, there are populations which are growing faster probably than anywhere else in the world, GDP is increasing per capita on an annual basis. And I think, as a continent, in an economic case, there is this huge amount to celebrate, and people do buy into that.
But, if you flip the coin, it is also a massive continent. Nigeria alone has over 200 million people. I think we are forecast to have probably the biggest population in the world within the next 10 to 15 years. We also know that we will have the biggest number of young people in the world. But there are also differences. In South Africa alone, there are 11 official languages. You don’t have that in the U.K., and the population is about the same. So there are big regional differences, and we celebrate those differences.
How does that translate to your content on screens?
What we are doing at Showmax is really about a hyperlocal strategy. We want to be able to produce content not just in [the African language] Yoruba, but in Hausa and in Igbo and in Pidgin and in more languages. It is the same story in East Africa where Swahili is the language but the Swahili spoken in Kenya is not the same as the Swahili spoken in Tanzania. And if you want a brand to appeal to the hearts and minds of your audiences, then you have really got to speak to them, to make that possible.
In South Africa, we love watching the best of Nollywood. And in Nigeria, we have seen that with some of our great South African productions like Adulting audiences have really tuned in and enjoyed watching, but nothing hits home as much as The Real Housewives of Lagos in Lagos. That will be the chart-topper.
How do you translate content into different languages? Do you subtitle or dub?
We do a combination. What we love to do is produce in the local language for the local audience, but there are times where we will dub. So we have dubbed content from Turkish into Swahili or from Turkish into Afrikaans. Increasingly, as our platform capabilities improve with the new [NBCUniversal] Peacock platform, we will make subtitles available in different languages, we are definitely looking to improve the options. Because what we have noticed with SVOD is that even when it is an English show, a lot of people just want the subtitles on anyway. The ability to have subtitles, the ability to watch on your own, the ability to watch on your headphones on your phone means that subtitles are almost becoming something that people expect.
Are South Africa and Nigeria Showmax’s core markets?
Nigeria is a very big market with over 200 million people. It has probably got the biggest population in Africa. But [streaming] adoption is not just a factor of the population, it is actually tied to the internet and the penetration and cost of the internet and Wi-Fi. And it is also around how much programming we have got that is local for that market. So I think it is fair to say that we have really focused primarily on Nigeria and South Africa, and then on Kenya. But going forward, we are going to look to focus more broadly. And we are going to look to produce local programming in more languages, for countries outside of those three main markets. There are other big populations in Africa. We have to look at the economy of the country, the cost of broadband, and the connectivity, because you can have a big population, but if it is a rural population, they might not have access to internet.
Does most of your streaming audience watch on traditional TVs and how big is mobile phone usage?
It is a bit of a mixture and also depends on the program. But we are seeing growth in the number of people choosing to subscribe to mobile subscriptions. That number has increased significantly over the last few years. As we move further and further away from a typical sort of pay TV audience and into more of the mass market in Africa, we probably will see more mobile consumption. But there are a good number of people who really see SVOD as a lean-back experience.
We cater to every single viewer. So we have super-high-quality HD, we even had 4K when we had the [soccer] World Cup last year. So if you have got a big TV, and you really want to watch it with top production values, you can. If you have got fixed fiber, there is no problem. But we actually move all the way down to 100 megabits an hour, or even lower, so that people who are very data conscious can also enjoy watching. One gig [of data] can give them I think up to 10 hours of viewing. So we are really building something which is bespoke for our audiences, and African audiences are very, very diverse. There are people with high disposable incomes. There are people who, even if they haven’t got high disposable income, really want to watch their show in the best quality. And there are other people who really have to keep a tight watch on their data usage.
I saw a recent report that said that SVOD in Anglophone Africa is basically a battle between Netflix and Showmax. I know you don’t typically publish subscriber figures, but MultiChoice in a May investor event mentioned that paying Showmax subscribers saw an average growth rate of 26 percent year-over-year for the last four years. Any data you can share about the competitive dynamics?
Our ambition is to be the number one SVOD service in Africa. Everything we do, every investment and decision is because we really do believe that we can be the number one SVOD service in Sub-Saharan Africa. I can also say that over the most recent years Showmax has been growing paying subscribers faster than any of our competitors. So we are very, very pleased with the traction that we have been getting. Anecdotally, Showmax is, I think, becoming increasingly a top, the top, consideration for people, and that really is driven by the programming.
Tell me a bit more about your original programming investment.
We have been making an incredible investment in local content. The MultiChoice studios that produce shows for us are a real center of excellence with a sense of excitement and pride in being able to build an African business that creates jobs in Africa, that provides opportunities for the local industry and to also build global profiles. Because a lot of the programming we are producing now is finding itself onto platforms outside of Africa, a lot of our writers and directors are building bigger careers and are now working with Hollywood and the film and television industry in the U.K. That is a really positive network effect that we are creating. So for us, it is not just about building our business, it is actually about building our communities and building our economy. We have got this very strong higher purpose.
Hollywood streaming services have started cutting back on content and other spending in a maturing market where profitability has been coming into focus. Will Showmax continue spending more on original content and how different or similar is your situation?
We are going to put more money into originals, because our business is not at the maturity that these other businesses have reached. We are still in the starting blocks in our market. I think globally, on average, SVOD penetration is something like 25 percent or 30 percent. We are not even in double digits. So these businesses that are now saying they are cutting back are in a different part of their growth cycle. For us, we are going to increase our original content, not cut it back.
Do you expect that the Comcast/NBCUniversal partnership and investment will lead to more African content becoming available in the U.S. and beyond?
For us, the primary market is our market. We want our industry to do better, we want to attract investment into our market. To do that, we also have to take our content, our stories to the world. One of our big [upcoming] shows, Spinners (about a 17-year-old driver in Cape Town trying to get out of gang life via Spinning, a South African extreme motorsport), is a co-production with Canal+ and made it all the way to the CanneSeries competition, becoming the first African series to actually be selected, alongside massive productions from Hulu and HBO and everybody else. Audiences are actually hungry for great shows.
Now, there is a lot more enthusiasm, I think, for people to view content that is in a genre that they love, whether it is action or rom-com, but perhaps set in a different country. That trend started with Nordic Noir, and it has continued. We have seen Turkish content traveling, we see Korean content traveling and, increasingly, we are seeing content from Africa traveling. We are trying to think and work with our partners to see how we can actually take our stories to more people, but really because they are great stories and it is good business for everybody.
What else does the Comcast/NBCUniversal partnership bring to the table for Showmax?
First of all, they have invested in the business, so they actually believe in the business. We see a lot of consolidation globally, with different media companies coming together: Discovery and Warner, they are all pulling themselves together. So for Comcast, this was an opportunity that they believed in. So there is the investment part.
Second, there is a content piece to this. We are thrilled to have NBCUniversal and Sky, not just as part of our drama and grownup programming, but DreamWorks Animation is also an NBCUniversal studio, and we want to be something to everybody. We know how important it is to keep kids happy. So, having access to DreamWorks and great movies is going to be really beneficial for our subscribers.
And finally, there is the technology benefit. We are building a product that we believe will scale to millions and millions over the next 10 years. We need a robust, best-in-class platform, and Comcast has the Peacock platform. It is a tried and tested platform, and it does scale. They have thousands of engineers working on a daily basis to keep up with consumers’ expectations. So that really, really did make sense to us.
So we get to have a more scalable [platform] with more engineering capacity and more capabilities. We are going to have great international content, and we have also got investment which we are putting into local content and everything else we do.
I want to ask you about that local content a bit more. You have programming in more than 20 African languages, which has been a key selling point. In 2022, African fare accounted for seven of the 10 most streamed titles in South Africa, eight of the top 10 titles in Kenya and Nigeria, and nine of the top 10 in Ghana on Showmax. Overall, local content viewership on Showmax hit 57 percent in the fiscal year ended in March. Showmax’s most popular series so far is The Wife, of which I read your users have watched more than 50 million hours. Tell me a bit about the show and why it has connected with audiences so well.
The Wife is the story of a family-owned taxi business. The taxi business in South Africa is not like a black cab taxi in the U.K. Taxis are the way people get to and from work in South Africa. It’s basically public transport, but they are privately-owned businesses. So everybody in South Africa, in some shape or form, has to interact with taxis. Either you are in a taxi, you are waiting for somebody to come in a taxi, you are a driver trying to negotiate your space on the road with taxi drivers who are very charismatic riders. It is a big part of the economy. If they go on strike, nobody can get to work. They have a huge impact on everybody’s life.
So this is about a family that owns a taxi business, and how do I put this? Let’s say they have got very strong family values. Don’t mess with their family, right? It is called The Wife because in this series, you see a number of women who become wives of these taxi drivers. So essentially, it is a love story, and everybody loves a great love story. That is one reason. Second, it is just incredibly authentic. It is this taxi world. There is, unfortunately, a lot of violence there, so the show gave us the opportunity for some really spectacular action sequences: there are a lot of car chases, quite a lot of shoot-outs, fights. There are some bad-boy characters. And I think as women, unfortunately, the attraction to real baddies is something that hooks viewers in. It essentially deals with many of the issues that South African women and men encounter on a daily basis.
It is in Zulu, and Zulu is the biggest language group in South Africa, so there was a sort of very strong pull for a large section of society. It also has great music. We have teamed up with local artists, as well as engaged someone to write a score to picture. The production values are really good. And there is really great casting – lots of new faces, as well as some old faces. So, really great acting and directing, and we spent a long time on the script. Everything just came together on that production.
Was there any source material for The Wife?
It was an adaptation of a very well-loved novel [by Dudu Busani-Dube]. So that was a risk because when you adapt a novel, you have to make changes. It generated a lot of conversation because there are the book loyalists who really were very upset every time the story on screen deviated from the book. And then there were the others who said, “we love it like this.” And there were huge debates around when we introduced the cast. “I never thought Hlomu, the lead character, would look like that.” Or: “In the book, it says that this guy has got googly eyes, but the actor you have cast hasn’t got googly eyes.” So there was a lot of conversation before it even landed on screens. And we were very nervous actually because it was such a popular book. There was a risk that people could just dismiss it, but everything came together.
In the U.S., streamers have started rolling out price increases more regularly. How do you think about pricing and packaging and doing things differently with your planned relaunch?
We are thinking seriously about pricing and packaging. We are not really ready to share details and what we are going to be bringing to market and how. The things you quite rightly mention are been given due consideration. The thing to remember is that we are at the beginning. Simplicity, if you can achieve it, is very good, particularly when you are starting to try something new. What we see now in the U.S., U.K. and other parts of the world is they have passed that scaling stage, and now it really is about optimizing. We need to always optimize, but our business, versus Netflix in the U.S. or in the U.K., is early in that journey.
With Showmax celebrating its eighth birthday, is there anything that you are particularly proud of or surprised by when looking back?
We are really proud of the reception to our increased focus on local content. In South Africa, The Wife was a breakout show for us. It changed everybody’s perceptions of Showmax, it drove huge awareness and brought us really, really significant growth in terms of acquisition. We have been able to follow that show up with another show, Adulting, which was a very different genre as opposed to an epic telenovela. But again, it sort of pushed us to a new level and audiences’ expectations of local storytelling to a new level.
Showmax series have also won awards in Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, while Rise: The Siya Kolisi Story, a documentary about the first Black rugby captain to win the World Cup in 2019, won the Audience Award at Tribeca. Plus, crime thriller series Reyka was nominated for two International Emmys…
It’s nice, because producers really like Showmax as a place where they can get their stories told, but also get those stories made really well. And then our marketing team really puts everything they have got behind it. We as Showmax do absolutely everything within our power to make sure that as many people as possible get to see content. And then not only do many people get to see it, but people absolutely love it.
Anything else we haven’t discussed yet that would like to share or highlight?
We are selling SVOD, right? But we see it is far more than that. Our purpose at Showmax is essentially to change the game for Africa. It sounds kind of like a big ambition. But in Africa, people watch and consume way more video entertainment than they do on average in the rest of the world. So TV and SVOD is a huge part of people’s lives. We watch it to be entertained, but also to be informed, and we also watch it to be educated. What we really want to do is give people a sense of their ability to shape their future and be represented and have their say and connect audiences. Historically, getting access to great sports, great local content or great international content has been a challenge for many, many, many people. And with Showmax, we want to change the game. We want to make sure that as many people as possible in Africa can get that access, be able to educate and inform themselves, be able to build communities. We want to basically feed our industry and help build our economy. It really is for us about being good corporate citizens. We believe in the future of Africa. Yes, we have got challenges, but we have got so many opportunities. We hope that our spirit and our passion for our continent, and what is possible, will be felt by our audiences.
Credit: The Hollywood Reporters