Sorry, DStv, an improved PVR is not what South Africa needs

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This week, after much hype, Multichoice, the biggest paid TV provider in South Africa, unveiled its newest decoder for DStv, its satellite service.

The Explora, DStv says, will let people access content in a way they’ve never been able to, before. With DStv’s 124 video channels (and 73 radio channels), there’s bound to always be something to watch. But what if you’ve just been, you know, doing it all wrong? What if you’ve been watching Dexter out of habit, and not out of an interest in shows about serial killers?

That’s why Explora is here: to help you discover more content like that you’ve been watching.

I spoke to DStv’s CEO, Collins Khumalo, at the launch for the Explora this week. He’s a very friendly man, and we had a good discussion. I don’t have a DStv subscription. I told him this, when I put forward points about wanting to be able to pay less for DStv, while still retaining some of the better channels that actually have content I want. Personally, I’m only interested in having some of the latest TV series and a Supersport channel that has the odd rugby game and all the F1 races. (Side note – a dedicated motorsport channel, with 24 hour races, WRC, NASCAR, ALMS, and WEC would be great. But it’s a pipe dream.) I would add things like the Discovery Channel and History Channel, but the quality of programming for those (through no fault of DStv) has degraded over the last few years.

Collins explained to me that it isn’t financially feasible to give every viewer the channel bouquet they wanted. He then turned to Explora, and explained that it would let people discover new content – content they might not have known existed. He’s right when he says that content is difficult to discover, and he’s right about Explora making it easier to find content. But offering me a bouquet with only the channels I want is, according to him, restrictive. Instead of restricting choice, DStv wants to offer as much content as possible and let the Explora, with its new interface, help people find what they want.

R2500 for some more of the same, with a new interface.
R2500 for some more of the same, with a new interface.

Except, it’s not that simple. First, it assumes that people aren’t watching other shows because they don’t know about them. It could simple be that people don’t like watching bad TV. Then there’s the subscription cost: for the little programming I want, R625 a month is really a steep price. In fact, just reading tweets when DStv ups its subscription prices annually, I see more and more people questioning whether R600 is worth it. The cheaper bouquets instantly remove value, leaving no way to get the channels that have what I want without breaking the bank.

Also, let’s not fool ourselves: some people have no qualms about pirating TV series and movies, and R600 is the same amount of money you’d spend on an uncapped internet connection. Heck, you don’t even have to pirate movies and TV series.

American services like Netflix and Hulu cost $8 (R80) a month. Granted, some TV series are not available on Hulu, and Netflix doesn’t stock the latest blockbusters, but the killer difference here is that it’s all video-on-demand. If you feel like watching an 80s classic, just use the content filters on Netflix. It even has a great recommendations engine. simply search for it and hit play.

To get the same video-on-demand functionality, the Explora can either use Box Office, PVR, or Catch Up. But neither of these are true video-on-demand offerings. Box Office is a movie rental service that’s restricted to 30 films (on Explora; fewer films on older decoders). PVR means you have to record video to later have it on demand. And Catch Up still relies on content that has been aired in the past – a glorified version of the age-old rerun. There’s no way to get the newest movie or TV episode when you want it. You’re still tied to a broadcast schedule.

Collins explains that it’s not viable to roll out services like Netflix and its ilk in South Africa. In the US, where 20- to 30-million people use streaming services – no doubt, thanks to high speed connections being easily available – it’s easy to attain success. Offering something similar in South Africa would require higher subscription costs and new infrastructure – a data centre to host all that on-demand content. It also requires new licenses with content copyright holders.

The Explora is a very capable device. It offers South Africans a very powerful new way to consume content, and the new interface is sorely needed after many years of blue and grey dialogue boxes on DStv hardware. But while the Explora is eggs Benedict served up by Gordon Ramsay, it’s still just eggs. Before it, DStv gave us scrambled egg HD, omelette PVR, and plain old sunny side up satellite TV.

I’m tired of eggs. It’s time to go full continental. Or break with the breakfast tradition completely and serve something out of the box. Something unexpected.

Christo van Gemert

Christo van Gemert

Eleven years ago Christo started writing about technology for one of South Africa's (then) leading computer magazines. His first review? A Samsung LCD monitor. Hey, it was hot news, back then. Nowadays he gets more excited about photography, cars, game consoles, and faster internet connections. He's sort of an Apple fan, but will take any opportunity to remind you about his Windows-powered home theatre PC and desire to own a vanilla Android tablet.   Currently uses: Apple 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display, Apple iPhone 5, Microsoft Laser Mouse 6000, Audiofly AF78 Earphones, Xbox 360, Nikon D50.

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