Changing channels: MultiChoice SA CEO Calvo Mawela, right, and Naspers CEO Bob van Dijk sign an agreement. MultiChoice will not renew a contract with Gupta-linked ANN7. Supplied
Changing channels: MultiChoice SA CEO Calvo Mawela, right, and Naspers CEO Bob van Dijk sign an agreement. MultiChoice will not renew a contract with Gupta-linked ANN7. Supplied

A scant two months into his new role, MultiChoice SA CEO Calvo Mawela received a baptism of fire from the media over the company’s contract with the controversial 24-hour news channel ANN7.

The pay-TV group came under scrutiny after allegations that payments made to ANN7 and the SABC for its 24-hour news and entertainment channels were intended to sway government policy on digital migration in its favour.

"Nothing could have prepared me for this," says the Bushbuckridge-born Mawela, who seems to have eased into his new position.

Looking calmer than at the end of January, when he had to preside over the press conference at which MultiChoice shared the findings of its internal investigations into its contract with ANN7, Mawela says, "what I learned from the experience is to accept mistakes, not to be defensive, to always remain calm, open and truthful".

MultiChoice has canned ANN7 and will be replacing it with a new 24-hour news channel, for which it has opened bidding. At least 60 companies have shown interest so far.

Mawela says the bidding process is being handled by a third party and will close at the end of April. The new channel is expected to be announced at the end of July.

He believes that there is a space in the market for another news channel, to increase the plurality of voices. The preferred bidder for the new channel should be majority black-owned and MultiChoice will provide funding, just like it does with other local news channels eNCA and SABC News.

"However, giving the channel a place on our DStv platform and helping to broadcast it is where our influence ends. We don’t prescribe editorial policy as it is sacrosanct and we will not be involved in any way in the business," says Mawela.

He agrees with the Communication Workers Union that job losses at ANN7 need to be minimised as far as possible and hopes the new channel will employ some of them.

Mawela, who has been with MultiChoice Group for 12 years and has held several roles in the Naspers group of companies, including head of regulatory for MultiChoice across Africa until last November.

As MultiChoice SA CEO he has several challenges: restore faith in the company, strengthen its governance, attract new customers and invigorate the brand. Customers are unhappy about high subscription prices and many believe there are too many repeats of programmes.

Mawela’s strategy will be to maintain MultiChoice’s growth. It is under threat from nontraditional competitors: online on-demand streaming platforms.

"We are cognisant of competition and take it seriously. The entire MultiChoice team is working hard to ensure that we provide the best experience for our customers," he says.

"Our focus in the past year has been to offer our customers, and specifically our premium customers, more fresh content more often. We integrated M-Net Edge and M-Net into a single channel, with an extended prime time with no repeats from 6pm to 12am every day. We consolidated our movie offering so our customers see more new movies more often.

"And we asked our overseas channel partners to refresh their content too."

High data prices are an impediment for people to fully experience digital services like video on demand and music streaming. That is why we are looking at new ways to make our services more accessible
MultiChoice SA CEO Calvo Mawela

The group also offered several pop-up channels during the year. The most successful was the M-Net Movies Bucket List, which showed 100 movies "to see before you die".

MultiChoice has integrated the video streaming platform ShowMax, also owned by Naspers, into its packages. It is offered at no extra charge to DStv Premium customers, while all customers have access to DStv Now, an application that shows all MultiChoice’s content.

"We’ve done extensive research into what other pay-TV services worldwide are offering and we can confidently say DStv is still one of the most affordable services you can get anywhere in the world," says Mawela.

His key focus is on digital to ensure that the company finds cheaper ways to attract people to its digital streaming platform, DStv Now. This includes partnering with companies selling internet data services to offer customers cheaper data to stream live TV channels and download more content.

"This means our services are accessible anywhere," Mawela says. "High data prices are an impediment for people to fully experience digital services like video on demand and music streaming. That is why we are looking at new ways to make our services more accessible."

Mawela, an engineering graduate who spent several years at state-owned signal distributor Sentech and the Independent Communications Authority of SA before joining MultiChoice, says "having had roles in the regulatory division of the group exposed me to the whole business. So it didn’t take me long to decide when I was offered the position of CEO."

He says his poor upbringing made him appreciate money.

"I prefer to invest in things that have value. I am a modest spender. So I invest in property and shares and keep some money for rainy days."

Mzansi Magic is his favourite channel on DStv and his favourite show is Our Perfect Wedding: "it’s genuine and real".

He travelled to several African countries in his former post and says Lagos in Nigeria is his favourite for its " positive attitude and entrepreneurial spirit."

Business Day