Over almost three decades, MultiChoice has become Africa’s undisputed leader in video entertainment.
The company both aggregates and produces shows for its richly diverse audience with millions of voracious TV viewers across 50 countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
With its success in Africa secure, MultiChoice is fast positioning itself as one of the leading co-production partners on the planet — and certainly the best on the continent.
The MultiChoice Group was formed in 1995 from the subscriber-management branch of M-Net, Africa’s pioneer pay-television company. Its multiple distribution platforms, which include Africa’s premier sports broadcaster, boast a subscriber base of nearly 21 million households, as well as millions of viewers (the exact number is undisclosed) who stream videos on-demand.
Despite production stoppages and travel restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Group managed to produce 19% more content hours in the financial year ending in March than in the previous year. And, according to the company’s recent financial reporting, its core headline earnings — a key indicator for the Group — was up a meaningful 32% year on year.
“It’s fair to say that nobody in Africa produces in as many geographies as we do,” says Yolisa Phahle, CEO of General Entertainment and Connected Video at MultiChoice. “We are reliable, we do what we say, people trust us, and people love our brand. We’ve built good relationships with the people that we historically license programming from and are increasingly co-producing with.”
One recent success is “Trackers,” the group’s first co-production with German broadcaster ZDF and HBO’s sister channel, Cinemax, which distributed the series worldwide outside of South Africa and Germany. Adapted from the critically acclaimed and wildly popular South African crime novel, the five-part television drama garnered rave reviews and was a hit with audiences around the world.
It also broke records on MultiChoice’s channels at home — the series was simultaneously screened on the Group’s flagship, M-Net, as well as its internet-based subscription video-on-demand platform, Showmax — earning pride of place as the Group’s best performing show of 2019.
“Generally speaking, if [a story] doesn’t resonate in its home market, it doesn’t find an audience in the rest of the world,” says Phahle.
Filmed entirely on location in and around Cape Town, South Africa, with an impressive cast of local and international talent, “Trackers” definitively proved the global appeal of African stories, as well as the world-class production capabilities available in South Africa.
“It really was a wonderful experience for our cast and crew,” says Phahle. “And, with a combined budget from multiple broadcasters, the production had room to breathe and the opportunity to do things until the director and cast were happy.”
MultiChoice’s success is a direct result of the company’s commitment to deliver high-quality content to its large and varied audience — an audience that on average, by the company’s internal calculations, watches up to seven hours of television daily. Given that an estimated 60 percent of the continent’s population is under the age of 25, young African viewers consume nearly twice as much TV as their demographic counterparts elsewhere in the world.
“Our audiences are very sophisticated,” says Phahle. “I have lived and worked in the U.K., and I have worked in the U.S., and I can honestly say that our audiences are extremely discerning.”
While the South African government offers competitive tax incentives and funding for qualified productions from the Department of Trade and Industry, Phahle credits MultiChoice’s experience producing content for such a diverse and knowledgeable viewer base, as well as its wide reach, as the real incentives for co-production partners.
“I think people do appreciate and can see value in what Africa’s creatives bring to their productions,” says Phahle. “Of course, when you make something, you want audiences to get to see it. So, if we’re a co-producer, then we’re obviously going to broadcast it.”
Next up for MultiChoice is “Reyka,” the Group’s hotly anticipated co-production with Serena Cullen Productions, Quizzical Pictures and Fremantle. An eight-part thriller about a child abduction in the bucolic Midlands region of KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa, the series wowed audiences at the June 2021 Monte-Carlo Television Festival.
“‘Reyka’ captured us instantly with its rich characters, thrilling narrative and distinct sense of place,” says Rebecca Dundon, vice president of scripted content for Fremantle’s distribution division. “It is precisely the type of authentic drama Fremantle seeks out, supported by local and international world-class talent.”
Julie Hodge, executive producer at Fremantle, says “Reyka” feels “truly multilayered.” She expects viewers will discover a world of tropical coastlines and sugarcane plantations they have never seen before.
Hodge adds, “We were enthralled by this strong female character whose freedom was taken from her at the very same moment that South Africa as a country received it, and how it has affected this very modern woman with who she is today, in all aspects of her life.”
Phahle is particularly enthusiastic about “Reyka’s” strong female lead, played by South African actor Kim Engelbrecht. Says Phahle, “For me, it’s wonderful, wonderful, wonderful to actually have a well-known [local] actress who our audiences have also seen in an American series as the star in our first original co-production.”
With success, however, comes even higher expectations. That means bigger budgets and ever-higher production values. “It makes business sense to work with somebody in another geography so we can share the costs,” Phahle says.
As for other drivers behind the push to do more co-productions, Phahle reiterates the mission: Bring new and exciting content to African audiences while simultaneously elevating the profile of African filmmaking globally.
“We’re looking to work with people who will bring different skills to complement the skills that we have in our industry in Africa, and help us take the wonderful stories and the wonderful creatives of Africa to audiences worldwide so that we can elevate our creative industry locally and globally,” says Phahle.
“That’s the real thinking and passion behind why we do co-productions.”