TopTV turns one: The analysis

2011-05-04 16:07
After a year in the business, TopTV has lost momentum, says Thinus Ferreira.

TopTV, South Africa's second pay TV operator, just turned one but did so without any fanfare, without any willingness to talk about the past year's successes and challenges, or what it's planning for the future.

It's undeniable that TopTV that started it's commercial pay TV service a year ago has brought major change to the South African TV landscape which is good for viewers. Yet TopTV has squandered a lot of the goodwill it had – and lost momentum. Thinus Ferreira looks at TopTV at one.

Keeping quiet

TopTV is keeping mum and CEO Vino Govender is hiding from the press. Weird, considering TopTV is a media company that's in the business of communication. They ought to know better. TopTV's deafening silence with the pay TV operator's first birthday since it started its commercial pay TV service a year ago is a far cry from 1 May 2010 when On Digital Media (ODM) sold out its first batch of 50 000 decoders on the first day. TopTV has since grown to 200 000 subscribers (its last publicly stated subscriber number), and has revolutionised and spurred competition within the pay TV industry with its subsidy model.

The price of TopTV decoders is now as low as R199 while subscribers get a full free installation that includes hardware and labour. It forced MultiChoice's DStv to adapt as well and lower decoder prices and up installation subsidies. Thanks to this novel approach South African consumers and pay TV subscribers will never again accept sky-high prices for television hardware.

TopTV brought South African viewers more choice and more TV channels – just over 50 – but has so far reneged twice on promises made by CEO Vino Govender to add channels besides the addition of an Indian bouquet late last year. TopTV's promises at the launch to add several more TV channels within six months simply evaporated. The absence of even one real sports channel – a main driver of subscription television but notoriously difficult since sports rights are basically all but tied up by other broadcasters – is a glaring drawback for TopTV. The last promise Vino Govender made in this regard was for a sport channel to start within the second quarter of this year, pegging it between April and June 2011. That promise is now also starting to fade.

Meanwhile TopTV has also pushed the launch of a digital personal video recorder (PVR) and the introduction of high definition (HD) channels out to 2012 by the earliest. Since TopTV's call centre crashed last May for weeks, unable to cope with the deluge of new subscribers, TopTV's customer service levels have remained less than stellar. TopTV's made no attempt to produce a monthly subscriber magazine, and didn't make good on its initial promises to commission local TV content for its self-compiled group of ''Top''-channels.

In addition, TopTV – through a lack of consistent communication and interaction with the industry – allowed a lot of the initial goodwill that existed towards the new start-up to dissipate. Sadly the operator's initial press conference and public launch event turned out to be its one and only press event to date.

M-Net's not the only player

From a consumer programming point of view TopTV is however proving that M-Net is no longer the only player in the game. Buzz-worthy, desirable TV shows include The Walking Dead, The Listener and soon the new Steven Spielberg drama Falling Skies. TopTV's mere presence in the South African market is also spurring innovation in general within the realm of TV technology, with MultiChoice investing heavily in high-end platform agnostic services (cellphone TV, TV through the web) while TopTV already pushed one software upgrade through its decoders to improve the on-screen electronic program guide (EPG) during this past year.

Unquestionably the hope is – from a consumer's point of view – that TopTV can not only sustain its existence, but also improve the issues that are tarnishing its rainbow logo. The better TopTV does as a pay TV operator in South Africa, the better it is for the pay TV market as a whole in the country.

If TopTV can manage to survive and flourish, it will benefit the entire TV industry and in essence (and most importantly) the ordinary TV viewer. It's the ordinary TV viewer who – irrespective of what they watch, through which platform, service provider or where – who deserves to benefit from the competition that arise and yields dividends when it comes to price, a profusion of choices, better customer service and the advances and innovation in TV technology. And if the one year old TopTV learns to talk, count it as an additional bonus.

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