Fury as MultiChoice broken promise spells end for WildEarth on DStv – André Crawford-Brunt

WildEarth, a beloved channel on MultiChoice renowned for its captivating African stories and wildlife content, faces imminent removal from DStv. Having been a staple on MultiChoice for over three years, WildEarth has become a household name, entertaining and educating a global audience. Despite prior assurances from MultiChoice, the company has failed to uphold its commitment to fund WildEarth, prompting WildEarth’s decision to remove itself from DSTV at the end of April. In response to the decision, a petition has been initiated by a viewer to rally support for WildEarth, and a fundraising campaign has thus far managed to garner R4.7 million ($250,000) in just 72 hours. The Chairman of WildEarth, André Crawford-Brunt, said in an interview with Biznews that he hoped that MultiChoice would reconsider its stance and honour the earlier commitment it made to fund WildEarth. Without that, WildEarth can’t afford to stay on DSTV. Crawford-Brunt described it as a David versus Goliath scenario whereby WildEarth, with 72 people, is standing up to MultiChoice, a multi-billion rand company. He said MultiChoice purported to support local content and creative talent in South Africa and are prepared to pay for channels like National Geographic and Discovery, but not for great content from South Africa like WildEarth. This channel has enabled audiences to see a little piece of Africa from their couches, he said, and has grown over the past three years to become a household name. WildEarth is being “dismissed by a big corporate in a White Ivory Tower,” he said. If you want to join the petition, you can sign up here.

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Edited transcript of the interview ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

00:07
Linda van Tilburg: I am Linda van Tilburg for BizNews. An extremely popular channel, channel 183 on MultiChoice called Wild Earth, could be removed because MultiChoice does not want to pay to continue hosting this favourite channel of many South Africans that brings our natural heritage into homes around the globe. The streaming platform has recently been in the news because of the offer of Canal Plus.

00:31
Linda van Tilburg: To buy all the shares it does not own in the group for roughly $1.7 billion. And to tell us more about this and a petition that’s going around to keep Wild Earth on MultiChoice, we have the chairman of Wild Earth, André Crawford-Brunt, in the studio. Hi, André, and thanks so much for joining us.

André Crawford-Brunt: Thank you for having me, Linda. It’s a pleasure to be with you. So what’s the story? What is happening between Wild Earth and MultiChoice?

00:58
André Crawford-Brunt: Well, firstly, I just want to caveat anything. MultiChoice is an amazing company. It’s one we all know and love. It’s been around for a long period of time, has an amazing history. And it’s subject of a bid at the moment from a French company, Canal Plus, who’ll be looking to merge with them. And actually today, there was a recent announcement that a local businessman, Patrice Mutsepi, might be a part of that merger, and they’re looking to invest significantly according to them.

01:27
André Crawford-Brunt: The Wild Earth channel has been on MultiChoice for a little over three years now. Linda, the previous management predating my involvement with the company negotiated to be on the channel. In fact, we paid in about 10 million Rand. What a lot of people don’t realize is that, you know, you subscribe to MultiChoice, pay them money, and they use that in certain cases to acquire content or sport.

01:55
André Crawford-Brunt: In the case of Wild Earth, we actually had to pay a whole host of fees in order to be able to broadcast on the channel with the hope of being able to sell advertising. I think in that period of time, you know, we’ve grown this to be a household name, effectively representing all the things that, you know, both ourselves and MultiChoice groups stand for.

02:23
André Crawford-Brunt: And Wild Earth was a household name for many people in COVID who obviously couldn’t get out. And this was their one point of escape, being able to see a little piece of Africa from their couch. And we’ve effectively grown the largest safari vehicle to across multiple platforms globally now, have a huge audience. But at the heart of everything we do, we’re an African company taking African stories to the world. Obviously, this is not a cheap or easy endeavor to do. We’ve been a pioneer in…

02:50
André Crawford-Brunt: Media, a pioneer in live broadcasting and interactive television. And over the last year or two, I’ve been working really hard with MultiChoice group to build a relationship that we can improve on that experience. Got to a point a couple of weeks ago where they agreed they would pay us an amount, given the challenges we’ve had around our burn to stay on the channel. And despite those assurances, as of last week, they reneged on that promise.

03:18
André Crawford-Brunt: We employ 72 local South Africans. We were obviously depending on these funds coming in. And I made a bit of a brave call, which was, if you allow people to take advantage of you, their hope was we would just stay on the platform while they navigate this merger and are under pressure to cut costs. And I decided that if they weren’t prepared to pay us, that effectively we needed to come off DSTV. It was just too easy to keep providing something to them for free.

03:48
André Crawford-Brunt: A viewer, a very avid viewer launched a petition. We’ve received well over 700,000 responses to that. And we also conducted our own survey, Linda, back in December, where we went out to local DSTV viewers. 10,000 people responded to that survey. 76% of them voted us, you know, one of their top three channels on DSTV.

04:17
André Crawford-Brunt: Of the viewers said that we were their favourite local content channel. So we know there’s a huge audience for what we do. People are passionate about what we do. There’s a huge need for what we do in light of the world that we live in, which is a need for more non-political, family-friendly, educational content that helps people escape. And we think we tick the boxes on every level.

04:45
André Crawford-Brunt: You know, from someone who’s worked and grown up in a big corporate, I understand the politics, but frankly, the call I had with the senior executive from MultiChoice yesterday, you do the right thing regardless of the cost. You know, you’re subject to a merger now, or someone who’s looking to acquire your company. You’re putting out statements like we support local content. This merger is going to help us do more of it. Yet Wild Earth, who’s the producer of more local content than any other platform, we produce…

05:13
André Crawford-Brunt: 10 and a half or 11 hours of live content every day as a local South African company, employing local South African people, taking these stories to the world, encouraging tourism, can be binned by a big corporate because someone sitting in an ivory tower or sitting in an office in London can make a decision that this doesn’t fit the short-term goals and needs of a big corporate. And frankly,

05:40
André Crawford-Brunt: You know, the launch of this petition is really to draw attention to that. You know, if you say you’re going to do something, you’re a big corporate, you have a responsibility turning around, having told us you would pay for us. They’re not doing that. You know, is, is, is, is in my, you know, in, in, in my view, not only disingenuous, it’s, it’s dishonest representing to viewers, you invest in local content. Are you looking to invest more? And exactly the same day you’ve just delivered that message to us, I feel is, is, is, um,

06:09
André Crawford-Brunt: Is also particularly wrong. So away from launching the petition, which the viewer did, which we’d love people, as many people to support as possible, and I’ll share the link with you if you wouldn’t mind sharing that. We also launched a fundraise, and we know people are passionate about the product. As you said at the outset, we’ve raised about a quarter of a million dollars in a little over 72 hours, you know, from amounts from 10 Rand up to over a million Rand to keep the channel going.

06:39
André Crawford-Brunt: Look, we find ourselves at a predicament. Obviously, it would have been our preference to stay on MultiChoice. You know, what we do, we think ticks the box and businesses, big business supporting people who are really doing good, not hiding behind the facade of a big corporate structure, I think is something that needs to be shone a brighter light, be shone on it.

07:07
Linda van Tilburg: So they don’t want to pay for Wild Earth. But they are paying for National Geographic, National Geographic Wild and Discovery and other overseas channels.

André Crawford-Brunt: That’s actually a great point. African content comes from Africa, surprisingly. DSTV and MultiChoice’s viewers are also, they’re African. So what happens in the wildlife spaces, African content gets produced here for a dollar. It gets sold at a dollar 20 to the likes of some of the players that you mentioned.

07:35
André Crawford-Brunt: MultiChoice then acquires it back in dollars from these big players. And that doesn’t make any sense. You know, you talk about supporting local content, creative talent, local companies, you know, Wild Earth epitomizes that our cost of doing this is much lower than anyone and don’t believe us. Just look at the petition, look at the viewers, look at the surveys we’ve done.

08:03
André Crawford-Brunt: They reference something called TAMPS, which is the audience measurement system, which is as okay because the dinosaur age. Where there are a number of set-top boxes that exist in a certain number of homes. And obviously being a niche channel, they’re trying to extrapolate that data from, I think it’s 1000 or 1400 homes, they watch the viewing habits of people, and then extrapolate what the audience is for advertising purposes. You know, this is so backward when you consider that 20% of the day is load shedding, the sample size is so small for a niche channel.

08:31
André Crawford-Brunt: And they’ve never done any granular work around, you know, the type of dedicated audience that you get on an outdoor or wildlife channel. And we know from the work we’ve done, we know because of the platforms we’re on internationally, the big streamers, we get that data every day. You know, last night on the Roku channel in the US, we did close to 900,000 minutes of viewing. And I know that 76,000 people watched our content. So yeah, African stories, you know, African content comes from Africa.

09:01
Linda van Tilburg: So is MultiChoice telling you that it doesn’t have enough viewers? What is their reason for not paying for it?

André Crawford-Brunt: MultiChoice is telling us they don’t have the resources. But in short, if I read between the lines, they’ve got away with paying us nothing for three odd years. After applying a huge amount of pressure, they then agreed.

09:28
André Crawford-Brunt: To come through with a notional amount. And I’ll be embarrassed to tell you the amount, or we’ll tell you the amount. The amount is 6 million Rand for a year. So half a million Rand a month, which if you extrapolate just across the 10,000 viewers that filled out the survey ranking us as either, you know, the top, you know, quartile or decile in terms of being their favourite, you know, they’re making between five and 10 million Rand. Now, admittedly, those viewers watch a wide array of content. Most people watch sports on MultiChoice. That’s why you have it.

09:58
André Crawford-Brunt: The internet is disintermediating a lot of that. There are 120 million channels on YouTube. So MultiChoice have their own problems to navigate. But this is a 50 billion grand giant. They are the true Goliath in the space. We’re a little David of 72 people who feel very passionately.

10:27
André Crawford-Brunt: And I think the one thing they’ve miscalculated here is people who love nature, people who love wildlife are normally people who are

Linda van Tilburg: pretty strong around their views, around the environment, doing the right thing. And hence, you know, the 7,000, 7,500 petition responses that we’ve had. And we easily think that’ll grow to be towards 10 to 20,000 in a reasonably short period of time, particularly as this gets more airtime and people start to understand what’s actually happening beneath the hood. They hope we’re just gonna go away.

10:58
Linda van Tilburg: So if MultiChoice doesn’t change their position, will you have to take, have to pull it off DSTV?

André Crawford-Brunt: Yeah, we will come off DSTV at the end of April.

Linda van Tilburg: End of April? Is that the date?

11:53
Linda van Tilburg: And we know of your other business interests. Why did you become involved with Wild Earth?

André Crawford-Brunt: It’s a long story, Linda. And I often ask myself why. One, I’m a deeply passionate South African. I love this country. I think the more I got involved in seeing, Wild Earth is a pioneer in what they’ve done, live interactive broadcasts.

12:49
André Crawford-Brunt: And I feel very strongly that the world needs more of this, not less. So in my own small way, and I do none of the work, I’m not involved in any of the creative part, I think if I do have a skillset that’s trying to motivate, to mobilize and, and being passionate, you can hear my voice, I’ve been talking or shouting a lot in the last few days, trying to get, you know, get the message out around, you know, the position we find ourselves in, but I feel very strongly that if you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else will.

13:18
André Crawford-Brunt: And I feel there’s an army of people, and I think MultiChoice have underestimated just how big David is in this case. And continuing to hope the problem’s gonna go away or putting their head in the sand as they have been is a huge miscalculation on their part, I believe.

13:47
Linda van Tilburg: Are you hoping they change their minds and actually start paying for the service?

André Crawford-Brunt: Yeah, my hope is that the penny drops with someone senior there, although I have been interacting with some senior people.

14:17
André Crawford-Brunt: It is inconceivable in my view that they could or should let this channel die because it’s one that

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