Netflix to put Africa in focus
It may have started out as a better way to rent movies, but now Netflix is revolutionising the US film and TV industries. That's not news. The next big shift, however, is likely to be the transformation of content production worldwide, and Africa is squarely in the Netflix sights.
Netflix chief product officer Greg Peters told Business Times in Los Angeles this week that SA and Nigeria were among the many key markets in which it expected to make significant investments in content.
"We're looking to increasingly find storytellers from around the world, especially ones who haven't been able to tell the story they want because traditional production partners are not willing to tell it, or they can't find a big enough audience," he said.
"Our job is to provide a platform, both a production platform and then a distribution platform, because we are really good at finding audiences that are much, much bigger than any storyteller has ever been able to find before.
"We're going to invest in every part of the world, including Africa."
Peters emphasised the need for fresh stories, as opposed to those that repeated traditionally popular formulas.
"We feel like it's exciting that we don't have a lot of restrictions. We want compelling stories, a strong vision, authentic storytelling, that can come from a whole different range of formats. To open up storytelling in ways that were not opened before."
Peters was speaking at the end of a two-day Netflix event called Labs Day, which exposed a small group of media from around the world to the inner workings of the business.
Peters revealed that, when he joined Netflix in 2008, he was one of just eight people working on streaming. At that stage, the company was making most of its money from distributing movies on DVD through the mail, with subscriptions and orders managed entirely on the web.
Netflix was founded in 1997 to address CEO Reed Hastings's frustration with fees for late returns of rented movies on VHS tape. A $40 (about R570) fine that global video rental leader Blockbuster charged him for the late return of the Apollo 13 video is regarded as one of the most expensive customer-service mistakes in business history.
Within 10 years, Netflix was driving Blockbuster into bankruptcy - even before the newcomer moved into streaming.
It had quickly switched its business model from the traditional movie-rental approach to one based on an unlimited subscription, and that proved to be ideal for the fledgling streaming team.
"You could fit all of us into one small conference room. But we had this dream of bringing it in a way that was easier, more accessible, faster for our members to connect with by using streaming," recalled Peters.
"That was a lofty dream, but back then we sort of had humble beginnings. We were only available on the PC. That was the only place you could stream content. The kind of content we had, which was, frankly, quite limited at that point in time, was just licensed content, and we were only available in the US."
Gradually, more content was added. More devices were added. Within two years, the streaming business was ready to expand internationally.
"We launched first in Canada and then in Latin America, and then moved to Europe in 2012 in the UK and Ireland, and expanded from there until about three years ago. We actually launched in one day in 130 countries, making us available in 190 countries around the world.
"While we were expanding internationally, we were also growing our capabilities as a content producer from six years ago when we launched, first, House of Cards, to today where we are producing content, shows and movies around the world in over 30 countries."
Peters headed international development at Netflix before taking on his current role. In that capacity, he oversaw its global roll-out, including the day of the streaming big bang, January 16 2016, when it went fully global, and also arrived in SA. That global sensibility today helps drive his product focus.
"We have more than 139-million members around the world. The majority of those members are from outside the US, and that ratio is going to get bigger and bigger in the years to come.
"And you see that shift also in the kind of original programming that we are doing. You'll see more of these shows from around the world."
For traditional pay-TV providers such as MultiChoice's DStv, this strategy poses a far bigger challenge than endless TV series and cheap binge-watching - which already pose a massive threat in themselves.
Years ahead of DStv
Though DStv has rolled out massive infrastructure to support more than 13-million satellite subscribers across Africa, Netflix is able to leverage the networks built by numerous internet service providers and mobile operators.
It uses the world's leading cloud computing platform, Amazon Web Services, to achieve global roll-out, instant updates and instantly localised content.
This means that, in technological flexibility alone, it is years ahead of DStv. The SA-based service is responding rapidly to the challenge, building on its own streaming services, Showmax and the DStv Now online version of its regular bouquets.
But MultiChoice also recognises the need to compete more aggressively in streaming, particularly once the next generation of mobile connectivity, 5G, becomes widely available across Africa.
More specifically, it must compete in the arena that Netflix is now making its playground: original content.
Already, the US company has aired its first South African Netflix original, shortly after acquiring its first Nigerian production. And this is just the beginning, as Netflix begins to make these two key MultiChoice markets its own.
Said Peters: "We've actually built a home for the world's best artists to do their work and then to connect that work with audiences in a way that's never been possible before. And we're really at the earliest stages of what we can do, what we can bring to both our members, consumers, as well as creators."