Long reads


StarTimes’ African expansion plans

Michael Dearham

Michael Dearham

StarTimes media executive Michael Dearham tells DTVE’s Andy McDonald about the China-based company’s ambitious African expansion efforts.

Since making its first steps into Africa in 2007, China’s StarTimes has made a major mark on the continent’s digital TV landscape, now claiming more than five million digital terrestrial television (DTT) and direct to home (DTH) satellite subscribers across 16 countries.

However, with content localisation efforts underway, technological innovations – including mobile and multi-room viewing – coming through, and more markets to grow and expand its footprint into, the company’s media strategy is still evolving. Describing the vision of the company, Michael Dearham, media division vice-president of StarTimes, says that first and foremost  “it’s about positioning” – specifically, delivering compelling content and offering it at an affordable price.

Dearham says that StarTimes’ content strategy is based around “three pillars”: exclusive sports rights; high production-value Chinese content dubbed into local languages; and different types of indigenous-language content in languages like Swahili, Luganda and Yoruba. He claims these are key to setting StarTimes apart from its competition – namely Africa’s dominant pay TV provider, Multichoice.

“We’ve only been in Africa for seven or so years now. During this time this strategy has evolved, it’s grown, it’s refined to the point now where for instance we have got five sports channels and a year ago none existed. Now we have got numerous indigenous language channels – up to 10 or more,” says Dearham.

In terms of sports rights, StarTimes scored a major goal earlier this year when it agreed a five-year deal to air German Bundesliga and a three-year deal to air Italian Serie A football exclusively to subscribers across Africa, including in its largest two markets, Nigeria and Rwanda. Currently MultiChoice has the African rights to English Premier League football, which it airs via its DStv platform.

Meanwhile, Dearham says that tapping into Chinese content and dubbing channels from StarTimes’ home market is attractive to African audiences as the narrative style of Chinese movies and drama series are similar to African story-telling techniques.

When it comes to localisation, Dearham says this is the next step in StarTimes’ “content-building, multi-channel strategy.” Over the next year and a half the firm plans to build a new Kenyan HQ in the Nairobi suburb of Karen. This will house production studios, employ local talent and provide a location for StarTimes to dub content.

Though StarTimes already has offices in 16 countries, Dearham says the company now aims to improve local production capacity – first in Kenya with plans also afoot for Lagos, Nigeria. The firm currently has production studios and playout facilities in Beijing, though Dearham says “we’re going to immerse it locally”.

Alongside a strong content proposition, Dearham says that StarTimes’ aim is to ensure its pay TV offering is affordable and “address millions” of people that don’t have access to digital TV. In Nigeria, for example, StarTimes’ entry-level Nova bouquet, which consists of some 29 channels, costs just NGN600 (€2.65) per-month.

Dearham says that StarTimes’ vision is “to enable every African to enjoy digital television entertainment.” He talks of “levelling the playing field” and enabling everyone, not just an elite few, to access quality TV entertainment. This is something that the company is also keen to communicate as part of its marketing efforts, with StarTimes adopting what Dearham describes as “community-driven approaches” to communicating with the public. “In South Africa, for instance, we have got seven customer experience centres. These customer experience centres are hubs, embedded in the community,” he says. “It’s bringing a formerly elite and exclusive experience down to the ordinary man.

Third development phase

StarTimes’ positioning as an African media contender has been part of a gradual shift from its origins as a technology provider. Initially producing decoders, mobile phones, TV sets and digital projectors, StarTimes moved on to become a system integrator and platform operator. “Now we’re moving to phase three in development, which is becoming a media operation of note,” says Dearham.

To help take the company to the next level, StarTimes has been working on a number of developments – including its recently-launched Tenbre Play app. This acts as a personalised TV guide that lets StarTimes subscribers follow their favourite programmes, set reminders and chat. However, the app’s biggest draw is that it lets users watch video – including live football – from their mobile phones. Available for Android, with iOS to follow, the app aims to let users access content without using lots of data. “It’s supported by Chinese technology – it compresses the video image without sacrificing quality,” says Dearham. “We’re introducing it now in all of our country branches, promoting it heavily on our channels.”

Another new development currently underway at StarTimes is a new multiroom, media gateway that it is working on with content security firm Conax. The new whole-home solution will make it easier to share live TV and DVR within the home, without needing an internet connection, according to the two companies. “It is part of a platform innovation that allows you to access whatever image, whatever text, whatever audio [or] video through a gateway,” says Dearham. “It’s in the research and development stage now and will soon be introduced in Africa and beyond.”

Alongside these developments, Dearham says that phase three of its media plan includes consolidating its DTT base while challenging its larger rival MultiChoice in the DTH space. “Leadership positioning in DTT, challenger position in DTH,” as he puts it.

On the digital-terrestrial side, StarTimes aims to have a “geographical proliferation of DTT transponders” across its footprint, and to roll out to countries such as Camaroon and Madagascar, says Dearham. On the DTH side, the firm also has growth plans. One key market it is focused on is South Africa, following StarTimes’ takeover of failing pay TV operator TopTV there in 2013. “We are busy in the process of bringing this out of business rescue and of course towards recovery,” says Dearham, who was recently appointed CEO of StarTimes’ South African office, alongside his other duties.

He says StarTimes has a three-year plan for South Africa and that it is “determined to make a difference and provide content diversity within the South African media and television sector”. Beyond this, Dearham says StarTimes has ambitions to expand its DTH business across Africa, with a particular focus on countries including Zambia, Malawai and Zimbabwe. “DTH is very much key to our growth strategy,” he claims. “[We plan] to consolidate our position as leader on DTT and to ensure that our DTH business reaches critical mass.”