The popularity of Pay TV in South Africa has very little to do with modernity and improved living standards and everything to do with the monopolisation of how South Africans appreciate their favourite game, writes GOPOLANG BOTLHOKWANE.
In 2007, the South African Premier Soccer League (PSL) sold its broadcasting rights exclusively to Pay TV giant SuperSport for a cool R1.5 billion. Under the deal, SuperSport was to have exclusive broadcast rights to all PSL matches, as well as internet broadcast rights. At the time of the deal, Pay TV was mostly a luxury to most South Africans and the content was mostly foreign. It was flooded with American content and very little was relatable to ordinary South Africans. A working-class household could mostly do without access to Pay TV mainly because what is now only accessible through Pay TV subscription was mostly available on public broadcasting platforms.
Once, the South African Broadcasting Corporation was a content king with smash hit shows and record-breaking ratings, but terrible governance stifled the corporation’s spectacular performance. This also ultimately opened doors for other private corporations like Multichoice to take a shot at dethroning it by bidding for some of its content, and private corporations are not bound by public broadcaster restrictions. Their first and foremost priority is the bottom line, meaning they must exploit whatever content they have access to, to the last rand.
And that is exactly what SuperSport and its parent company Multichoice set out to do after purchasing PSL broadcast rights in 2007. Multichoice’s Pay TV service, DSTV soon after the deal, went through a complete overhaul with new sports channels and increased local sport content. The launch of the new PSL season on SuperSport coincided with the launch of new DSTV products like the Drifta and the Walka, all meant to give subscribers a better experience of their favourite shows (read soccer games).
After the success of the South African deal, SuperSport and Multichoice were caught by a confidence that emboldened them to explore uncharted lands, buying sports broadcasting rights from Harare to Lagos. SuperSport is now Africa’s biggest sport broadcaster, boasting some of Africa’s biggest leagues like the Nigerian Premier League. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, goes the saying, and Multichoice’s journey as Africa’s king broadcaster began with a single signature for South African soccer rights.
The 2007 deal changed Multichoice’s fortunes beyond its wildest expectations. This has a lot to do with the fact that attached to the broadcast rights was a culture. A culture of how South Africans appreciate soccer; a culture which Multichoice has been able to exploit to further entrench its monopoly of broadcasting South Africa’s favourite game. To its credit, Multichoice has done exceptionally well, raising the bar of broadcasting and production and giving the PSL its money’s worth.
However, as with all things private and paid for, Multichoice’s quality comes at a price. Because it enjoys an almost complete monopoly of broadcasting South Africa’s favourite game, Multichoice is now armed with enough excuses to justify ridiculous price increases. The 2007 deal has also enabled Multichoice to throw money at other forms of content (mainly the increased investment in local content), adding new channels dedicated exclusively to local content on DSTV.
Modernity and South Africa’s growing middle class are often credited for the rise and popularity of Pay TV in South Africa. While this is true for those who can afford it, for many ordinary South Africans reaching into their already tiny pockets to pay, Pay TV subscription is mostly done because most of their favourite content which was once freely available on the public broadcaster is now only accessible through Pay TV. This was not because modern-day technology dictates this as a requirement, but because they could be sold and resold for profit.
With multiple sponsorships of different tournaments and teams, the increase in premiership club grants to different teams and the elevation of broadcast standards, the 2007 deal was not a loss for the game, but for the fans who make up the culture of appreciating the beautiful game. It was an almost daylight robbery of that culture. Fans went from being guaranteed the beautiful game on the public broadcaster at the cost of a TV licence, to having to add subscription fees to any already stretched out budget.
The premiership sold more than some TV rights in 2007; the premiership sold a culture. Multichoice knew that when you purchase a culture, you purchase a guaranteed profit line. The popularity of Pay TV has very little to do with modernity and improved living standards and everything to do with the sale of South Africa’s soccer culture for a profit.
Gopolang Botlhokwane once in a while runs with a camera and a notebook trying to capture the lives of ordinary South Africans for The Daily Vox.