JOHANNESBURG — When AT&T’s stock tumbled this month, driven by a decline in the pay-TV subscriber base it acquired with its 2015 purchase of DirecTV, it looked like another stark sign of how cord-cutters are upending an industry. Already pay-TV has lost 3 million subscribers in the past year, according to estimates by market analysts at SNL Kagan and New Street Research.
But while the forecast looks bleak for pay-TV operators in the U.S., bullish growth continues to define the African market, where subscriber bases are expected to grow steadily in the coming years. That’s opened the door for a host of new players to enter the fray—a hot topic for TV execs gathered at Discop in Johannesburg this week.
“We see real competition in the pay-TV market, where [South Africa’s] MultiChoice is still the dominant force,” says Patrick Zuchowicki, general manager of business event organizers Basic Lead. Thanks to the aggressive expansion of China’s StarTimes Media Group and South Africa’s Econet Media, though, “they feel the heat.”
According to Dataxis, the number of pay-TV subscribers across Africa reached 23.7 million in the second quarter of 2017, an 18 percent jump from the previous year. The research firm expects the total subscriber base for the continent to approach 35 million by 2022, nearly doubling since 2016.
With less than 10 percent of African TV households subscribing for pay-TV services, there’s plenty of room to grow. Despite the obvious hurdles, including widespread poverty and large parts of the continent that remain off the electrical grid, GDPs across much of Africa have been inching upward, creating a broad consumer base with disposal income to spend.
Prices, meanwhile, are coming down. Upstarts like Zuku and Azam have shaken up the East African market, setting off price wars that have helped attract new customers. Econet’s multiplatform Kwesé TV network has established a foothold in 25 countries, thanks in part to savvy moves like the recent deals it’s signed with Viceland and ESPN—a key factor on a continent where premium content, particularly in the lucrative arena of sports rights, drives profits.
StarTimes has aggressively expanded across the continent since making its African beachhead in 2007, shaking up a market long dominated by MultiChoice’s DStv, whose subscriber base it’s eclipsed in fast-growing markets like Nigeria. By maintaining cozy relations with African governments – and providing many with the technical knowledge and physical infrastructure for the switch to digital transmission – the company continues to push into underserved territories.
The continent as a whole, however, has been slow on the uptake when it comes to DTT, which accounts for just 24 percent of African pay-TV subscribers, according to Dataxis research analyst Sa Eva Nebie. “The digital transition in Africa is slower than expected, and very delayed because of its costs, a certain lack of political involvement in some countries and the prices of decoders,” says Nebie. “If the demand is too low and political intentions are not strong enough, satellite can remain the major distribution channel.”
OTT services, meanwhile, are still in their infant stages. While the number of mobile platforms is rising and African telecoms are aggressively trying to drive widespread consumer adoption, Nebie predicts they’ll “remain marginal in the next 5 years.”
But that doesn’t mean the main pay-TV players will be watching from the sidelines: this year Kwesé TV partnered with Netflix on the launch of its Roku-powered OTT service, Kwesé Play, while South African media conglomerate Naspers merged its Showmax streaming service with MultiChoice’s DStv Digital Media, in an effort to streamline their African operations.