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The tech behind the TV screen

Powered by cloud, AI and machine learning, digital transformation at Africa’s largest broadcaster, MultiChoice, is embedded in everything it does.
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Vincent Maher, MultiChoice.
Vincent Maher, MultiChoice.

“What are you watching at the moment?” A question, or at least some variation of it, posed in many a social setting. This is probably because series-watching has become a bit like a national sport. We follow our favourite shows with the same enthusiasm as diehard sports fans, we have lengthy debates about plot twists and character development, and we are constantly on the lookout for the next series, movie or documentary to pique our interest.

Vincent Maher, group executive for digital at MultiChoice, is tapping into this trend.

Describing himself as a corporate entrepreneur working in the technology and media space, he oversees all the digital frontends that customers engage with, including everything from the DStv app and website to the interactive components that make live voting on reality TV shows like Idols or Big Brother possible. “My focus is on identifying what the trends are, coming up with ways to absorb them into our business, and working out what we need to learn early enough so that we understand where we have to be investing our time and energy.”

Digital transformation, for us, is a layered process of continuous improvement.

Vincent Maher, MultiChoice.

Talking about some of the tools that make all of this happen, he says the company is already leveraging emerging technologies like cloud, artificial intelligence, notably machine learning, and is keeping an eye on blockchain as a solution to enhance how it manages digital asset ownership. Unsurprisingly, he’s also focusing his attention on cybersecurity.

Continuous improvement

“Our digital transformation journey is very much about understanding where we need to be setting the benchmark and where we should be following others because we never want our customers to think that they can get better service elsewhere,” he says.

Big demand doesn't mean big bucks

Demand for live and on-demand video content has increased significantly in recent years, markedly so in the last two years due to pandemic-related lockdown mandates. Several new local market entrants (eVOD (e-Video-On-Demand), Vodacom Video Play, TelkomONE) have come to the fore looking to capitalise on consumers’ insatiable appetite for series, movies and sport. But just because more people are using these services doesn’t mean that the industry’s biggest players are cashing in. How is this possible? It all comes down to password sharing, which means that more people are accessing streaming, but fewer are paying to do so because they’re using existing accounts to log in. In an effort to curb the trend, MultiChoice alerted subscribers that it would limit DStv video streaming to one device at a time from the end of March. Similarly, albeit adopting a somewhat different approach, in April, Netflix announced its intention to address the password sharing issue by potentially charging an extra fee for accounts being used by multiple people outside of the home.

“Digital transformation, for us, is a layered process of continuous improvement.” He adds that it’s not a single project or initiative, but, instead, it’s embedded in the brand’s operating model.

By way of example, he outlines that the company’s cloud migration is about so much more than just moving things to the cloud. Rather, it’s about becoming cloud-native so that it has the ability to build and scale apps within a modern environment. “You’ll hear this from other CIOs and tech leaders – just lifting and shifting into the cloud doesn’t always deliver the speed and efficiency you’re after,” he says.

Talking about cloud, Maher explains that the flagship programme – called 'Vibranium' – is a multiyear programme that runs on Azure and aims to bring all the business’ data into a single environment to improve decision-making. Before, data was stored in many different places and was, at times, hard to access, but with Vibranium, the data is available as and when different business units need it. One particularly sexy application of this is the use of Microsoft’s technologies to enable an AI engine that automatically creates sports highlight clips for the web and social media. Before, humans would have to sit and watch a football or rugby match before cutting the highlights clip, but now it just happens automatically, he says. “We broadcast an insane amount of sport, so this really saves a lot of time and effort for us.”

Maher says a critical aspect of success is making sure that viewers are exposed to new content. As such, it’s imperative that solutions are in place to enable customers to find new TV shows and movies to watch. The brand’s personalised recommendation engine powers these content discovery efforts. This engine leverages various algorithms and data models, as well as machine learning and big data, to provide viewers with a banner of recommended shows based on their unique viewing habits.

Marketing matters

For Maher, it’s vital to give customers options because everyone is on a personal digital journey. “We’ve created an omnichannel self-service capability so that our customers can pick and choose how they want to interact with us based on their own preferences.” This means that they’re engaging with customers using everything from USSD to Telegram. In fact, Maher notes that Telegram is the preferred self-service channel in Ethiopia, where people favour this instant messaging service over WhatsApp. “It’s really about being where the customer wants you to be, acknowledging that everyone is not in the same place when it comes to their readiness to adopt digital into their lives. Some people still want to pay for their DStv subscription in cash.”

Smart tech behind SuperSport Schools

The SuperSport Schools programme aims to broadcast as many school sports matches as possible, drawing in a younger audience and encouraging them to interact and engage with the SuperSport brand. According to MultiChoice’s Vincent Maher, all of this is made possible by installing cameras on hundreds of school sports fields across the country and then using AI to put together live broadcasts of school sports matches that can be viewed via the SuperSport Schools app. “This technology uses a combination of video and audio recognition to package a really good-looking sports broadcast from games countrywide with zero human input.”

Understanding this, he is currently working to automate the brand’s digital marketing and communications strategy. Using a marketing cloud platform to enable hyper-personalised interactions with customers, MultiChoice is freeing up the marketing team’s time so that they can focus on more complex challenges, he says. “The success of this initiative hinges on getting our data into pristine shape, and making sure that it’s in the right place, so that these systems can make decisions in real-time. In digital, data is the centre of the game, and your capabilities are based entirely on how well you can use your data.” This transforms marketing from being a mostly creative process into a more scientific one.

An old hand in the digital business game, Maher believes that MultiChoice is poised to evolve from being a media and entertainment business into being a technology and platform business. “In this business, the thing that determines whether someone is going to use your product or not has very little to do with tech; it’s about the content. Content is still king and it will be in this space forever. The tech is there to add value by allowing you to help people discover the content you have on offer.”

* This feature was first published in the July edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.

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