’Open and receptive’ to working with global producers

Chief content officer Akash Bhatia
Territorial reach Poland, South Africa, Kenya, Sub-Saharan Africa for a full service; UK, US, Canada, Australia and many others for a limited service
Content breakdown 98% acquisitions; 2% originals
2018 originals Tali’s Wedding Diaries

As South Africa-based SVoD service Showmax begins to roll out a pipeline of originals across its three major markets, it is “open and receptive” to working with global producers, including the likes of BBC Studios.

Launched in 2015, Showmax has expanded aggressively over the past two-and-a-half years, extending its service – which includes output deals with the likes of Universal Studios and MGM – across most countries in Africa, and creating bespoke, originals-led offerings in South Africa, Kenya and Poland.

Interim content boss and chief financial officer Akash Bhatia, who was a key buyer at the BBC Worldwide Showcase in Liverpool in February, says the platform is looking to “work closer together with the BBC beyond the licensor/licensee relationship”.

As BBC Studios extends into territories such as Australia, where it has won an ABC commission and launched a production arm, a similar relationship with Showmax is increasingly viable.

“We really love what we see on BBC3,” Bhatia says. “BBC Studios is figuring out how to launch content for channels outside the corporation. As soon as that firms up, we will be in conversation.”

“If I compete on huge production budgets, I am going to lose that battle every day of the week. But what I can do is offer shows that are more relevant locally”
Akash Bhatia, Showmax

Owned by Cape Town-based tech investor Naspers, which is the single largest shareholder in Chinese digital giant Tencent, Showmax’s strength is laser-focused “hyper-localisation”.

“If I compete on huge production budgets, I am going to lose that battle every day of the week. But what I can do is offer shows that are more relevant locally – that is tougher to replicate if you’re operating by remote control, like some global SVoDs,” says Bhatia.

However, Showmax – for which a monthly subscription costs about $6 (£4) – will only localise in “pragmatic” markets that align well with parent group Naspers and its capabilities.

Poland, for example, presented an “ideal ecosystem” for growth. The service launched there in February 2017 and now counts linear broadcasters and global SVoD services as its main rivals.

“Naspers had a long history of operating large local businesses in Poland, such as [eBay rival] Allegro and a payments company, which made launching an SVoD service – where people have to pay with credit cards – much easier,” says Bhatia.

Meanwhile, Naspers’ extensive footprint in Africa, where it also operates pay-TV channel DStv, enabled Showmax to grow quickly, with Kenya and South Africa emerging as key markets.

Because mobile data is still “ultra cost-prohibitive” across the continent, the service introduced data-optimised product Showmax Select. A third of users now access the service via mobile, while other viewing is split between smart TVs and browser-based platforms.

Local success

Showmax launched its first original, a mockumentary comedy called Tali’s Wedding Diary, in South Africa in December.

While the entire 8 x 20-minute series “would not cost as much as a single episode” of some of the US dramas available on Showmax, it attracted double the viewers of anything else on the platform on its first day.

Meanwhile, in Poland, Bhatia points out that there is “a two-horse race between Showmax and Netflix” for SVoD customers. “Our originals there represent less than 1% of the catalogue, and yet they drive north of 20% of viewing.”

One of the anchors in the Polish strategy was launching a live-streaming capability that could be leveraged with the right kind of format.

NBC Universal’s Saturday Night Live fitted the bill and a Polish version was launched in just three months. “A show of that kind hadn’t been attempted in Poland, but we wanted that feather in our cap – to show we could pull off such a high-intensity production,” says Bhatia.

“However, SNL on linear TV has commercial breaks – on SVoD you don’t have that privilege. The show meant we had to brush up our production chops relatively quickly.”

SNL Polska also allowed Showmax to create a writer’s room and build the necessary technology for more live programming in the future. Other originals in Poland include serials in the comedy, mystery and crime genres, and an adult animation.

A pipeline of 20-25 projects are currently in development across South Africa, Poland and Kenya.

Bhatia is on the look-out for comedy and “deep, character-driven dramas”, as well as sci-fi , but warns against “localised copycats of international titles”.

“My least favourite pitch is, ‘This show is like ‘The Big Bang Theory meets The Walking Dead’,” he says. “Those pitches are difficult because we want creatives to stretch the way they think, rather than box themselves in.

“The less formulaic, the better. We want creators to anchor themselves in the local story.”