Jan du Plessis


The Electronic Media Network, or M-Net, was established in 1985 as South Africa’s first private subscription television service. Its first broadcast, in October 1986, consisted of just one 12-hour channel.
M-Net has grown significantly over the course of the last 25 years and today it operates an array of general-entertainment and niche channels, which reach more than 2.5 million subscribers in 41 countries across Africa.
It wasn’t always easy in the early days of M-Net. Few in the South African media industry at the time believed that M-Net could reach its target goal of 30,000 subscribers. Headlines in the press declared, “Pay TV will not succeed in South Africa” and “Battle of the box begins” and “Gloves off in TV warfare.”
And indeed, in the first test broadcast, which was of a rugby final match, the first commercial, “Quest for Zero Defect” from National Panasonic, aired with no audio.
But M-Net remained focused on its goal and by February 1987 had installed 8,226 multi-user decoders in apartment blocks and won a contract with the Protea Hotel Group. By March, individual decoders were available and M-Net started broadcasting to private homes, and by October it had reached 50,000 subscribers.
The key to M-Net’s success was its simple TV recipe: blockbuster movies and must-watch sports. Initially the pay service’s audience consisted predominantly of affluent white households. But with political and economic change in South Africa over the years, M-Net’s audience has become much more diverse, and so has its programming. Today it offers a bouquet of channels that cater to different age groups and viewing tastes. Besides acquiring the best programming from around the world, M-Net has invested significantly in local productions, whether its own Studio 53, or adaptations of renowned international formats such as Big Brother and Idols.
Jan du Plessis, who started at M-Net as head of acquisitions and today is director of channels, explains the reasons for M-Net’s success.
TV MIDDLE EAST & AFRICA: M-Net’s motto is “Where magic lives.” What key factors have contributed to the magic and to the viewer loyalty M-Net has gained over the years?
DU PLESSIS: A dynamic, forward-thinking vision, supported by both international and local content providers, coupled with a very hard-working team and a quality-driven platform provider, are among the key factors that have contributed to the magic and viewer loyalty M-Net has gained over the years.
TV MIDDLE EAST & AFRICA: As the TV landscape in South Africa becomes more competitive, what is M-Net’s mission?
DU PLESSIS: M-Net’s mission is to remain at the forefront of the consumer’s mind by continuing to live by and provide precisely that which our motto depicts, “Magic.” This will be achieved through the implementation of market-leading content strategies, made available in various ways, on multiple platforms and to a wider reach of the market.
TV MIDDLE EAST & AFRICA: Has TopTV’s entrance into the pay-TV market had an impact on M-Net’s strategy?
DU PLESSIS: Competition is always good for the market and the entry of TopTV to the arena has ensured that M-Net continues to strive towards the provision of unique world-class quality entertainment offerings for our different target markets who are served by our 30 channels.
TV MIDDLE EAST & AFRICA: What is the role of imported programming in M-Net’s offering?
DU PLESSIS: The demand for international content is very high and therefore international features and series play a very important role in M-Net’s content offering. Our relationships with all of the main studios and independent suppliers are integral in providing top-notch international features and series on the M-Net platforms.
TV MIDDLE EAST & AFRICA: What has been your strategy for original productions? What do you want to offer your viewers and which productions have been most successful?
DU PLESSIS: M-Net offers several niche channels for different target audiences across Africa and creates original productions to fulfill the viewing needs of all our subscribers. Creative, Afro-centric productions that can travel well across the globe form a part of this strategy. One of our most exciting productions to date is the groundbreaking new soap The Wild, which was launched [this year]. The half-hour soap is filmed entirely on location and revolves around the drama and intrigue at an African game lodge.
TV MIDDLE EAST & AFRICA: How has M-Net helped the local production and filmmaking communities?
DU PLESSIS: M-Net is very supportive of the local production and filmmaking communities. We provide funding and creative support to various projects.
To mention a few of our efforts: We have provided greater opportunity to entry-level filmmakers by commissioning “bubblegum” movies. By doing this, we have created more jobs for local actors and film crews. We have invested more than R8 million ($1.1 million) in licensing local content owned by local independent production companies, and we have commissioned more than 170 local productions for our channels in the past financial year. We’ve also created new opportunities for on-screen talent. A number of celebrities now have their own shows on Mzansi Magic [M-Net’s local entertainment channel]. And finally, we have [trained] young industry talent by means of CSI (corporate social investment) projects, such as the TAG Awards and M-Net New Directions, which give young people and newcomers to the industry [the chance] to see their work on television.
TV MIDDLE EAST & AFRICA: Are there plans to add more channels to the M-Net lineup?
DU PLESSIS: M-Net always has exciting plans up its sleeve to ensure that we continue to adapt to the latest trends and possible changing tastes of our viewers.
TV MIDDLE EAST & AFRICA: How are you extending M-Net’s program offering onto digital platforms such as online and mobile?
DU PLESSIS: M-Net provides content to platforms such as DStv Mobile and DStv on Demand and supports the growth of these new platforms wholeheartedly.
TV MIDDLE EAST & AFRICA: What are some of the major issues affecting the South African TV market?
DU PLESSIS: Major issues include broadband and technology advancement constraints to keep up with the international market.
TV MIDDLE EAST & AFRICA: What opportunities and challenges do you foresee in the next 12 to 24 months?
DU PLESSIS: Opportunities and challenges are part and parcel of our game. However, M-Net foresees the evolving television consumption model as an opportunity to keep the magic flowing with transmedia initiatives being the key in cross-platform consumption. A challenge will be to keep up with consumers’ evolving needs on different platforms.