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Antelopes in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. Picture: SUPPLIED
Antelopes in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. Picture: SUPPLIED

As WildEarth, a wildlife speciality channel, gets ready to leave DStv after a pay dispute, its chair has warned that it will be difficult for the business to survive without a presence on the MultiChoice platform. 

“DStv is critical because we’ve built a big audience. To move off there means the audience has to move with us,” Andre Crawford-Brunt, chair of WildEarth said.

The channel is facing off with MultiChoice for not getting  paid by the broadcaster. 

When WildEarth first appeared on DStv, management at the time struck a deal in which the channel would not get compensated for its content. MultiChoice, like a number of pay-TV operators around the world, pays to have film and television content on its platform. That can be in the form of individual movie titles, shows and events, or to have channels broadcast on DStv. 

When Crawford-Brunt took over the reins of the wildlife channel in mid-2022, he sought to change its arrangement with MultiChoice and be paid for its content like other broadcasters on DStv, like National Geographic. The pay-TV group had agreed to start paying for WildEarth’s content but recently reneged on this new agreement. 

As such, Crawford-Brunt and his team have elected to take the channel off DStv unless MultiChoice agrees to pay. 

WildEarth has been on DStv’s channel 183 since August 2020. It has 7-million unique monthly viewers and has a presence on 20 traditional and streaming platforms globally, including Free View, Samsung, LG, Roku, Canal+, eMedia’s OpenView and DStv. 

Over the years, the channel has had deals with National Geographic WILD, CGTN, Tencent, South African Tourism and BBC to license its content. 

“From a convenience perspective, building and growing our channel on DStv is the first prize. It’s the biggest pay-TV company in Africa. Being on that platform, building it together with them was our hope and desire. That’s what they promised us. That’s what we were working towards,” he said. 

MultiChoice has been pushing up its investment in local content for years, saying it is a major point of competitive advantage and a way to support SA’s film and television production sector.

In June, the group reported its local content library contains more than 76,000 hours of viewing, representing 50% of total general entertainment content spend for the year to end-March. The group spent R20.9bn on content in the period. That trend continued in the half year to September 2023, where spend on local content was up 16% from the previous comparable period.

Given the impasse with WildEarth, Crawford-Brunt questions how genuine the group is about this type of investment. 

‘Eye off the ball’

He says MultiChoice has taken its eye off the ball when it comes to operational matters and is instead focusing much of its attention on the possible takeover of its business by French broadcast group Canal+.

At the start of February, Canal+ made an offer to buy the rest of the company at R105 a share, or just more than R31bn, in what would have been the biggest M&A deal so far in SA in 2024.

The DStv owner snubbed the offer as too low for the business and its prospects, even though it is at the top end of the target price range that analysts and brokers have for the stock. Canal+ then raised its offer to R125 per share on March 5, valuing the deal at about R37bn.

In all this, Crawford-Brunt admits that DStv makes up the largest of its audience and advertising revenue. 

“Look, WildEarth will probably survive without DStv, but it will be hard because unfortunately corporate sponsors still use it. If you have a decoder it’s easy to just go to 183. Now we have to talk about other platforms,” he said. 

The chair says WildEarth has costs amounting to between R1m and R1.5m a month, which translates to up to R18m that the channel needs to stay afloat. 

“Over the last three years, WildEarth has spent R10m to be on channel 183. We haven’t received a penny from MultiChoice,” he said. 

Fundraising efforts from the public to support WildEarth financially have so far garnered over R4m with petitions for MultiChoice to pay to keep the channel on DStv gaining over 13,000 signatures online. 

MultiChoice did not respond to Business Day when approached for comment. 

The DStv operator is no stranger to disputes about its channel line-up. Over the past year, the group has been fighting to remove four of eMedia’s television channels from DStv.

At the end of 2023, the Competition Tribunal moved to keep those channels operating on DStv “for now”, one of the more recent developments in a string of legal bouts between the two broadcasters.

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