DSTV Media Sales: Price Fixing, Market Power and Two-Sided Markets

Leveraging market power in two-sided media markets

Jason Bell

DStv Media Sales (Pty) Ltd (DMS) was recently found to have been involved in anti-competitive behaviour and has admitted to price fixing as well as fixing trading conditions. This comes after an investigation by the Competition Commission of South Africa which commenced in November 2011 where it was concluded that, through a company called Media Credit Co-Ordinators (MCC), associated media agencies were offered discounts for early settlement of their accounts of 16.5% for payments made within 45 days whereas non-member agencies were only given a 15% discount.

DMS noted that this was a “long-standing” practice in the media industry. The Competition Commission found that the practice restricted competition in the industry “as [the agencies] did not independently determine an element of a price in the form of discount or trading terms”. In settlement of the matter, DMS agreed to a remedy with several components amounting to approximately R180 million in value in terms of the various commitments that were agreed. First, an administrative penalty amounting to R22 262 599 was also levied against the company. Second, an additional R8 million is also required to be paid to the Economic Development Fund over the next three years. The third aspect is to provide bonus airtime of 25% for every Rand bought by smaller media agencies which meet specific criteria, up to an annual cap of R50 million for three years (amounting to R150 million). This is intended to help small black-owned media agencies to enter, participate, and compete in the market.

DMS, which is a subsidiary of Multichoice, was established in 1995 and was originally called Oracle Airtime Sales (OATS). The company handles the sale of commercial airtime (which refers to advertising slots) and on-air sponsorship and currently has offices in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Lagos with agents in Kenya, Ghana, and Angola. Airtime is sold on over 70 commercial pay-tv channels as well as the two terrestrial M-Net channels. Time slots are typically sold in a group of multiple slots with prices per slot varying depending on the exact time period that the slot falls into (i.e. primetime or not).

This is not the first time that Multichoice and related firms have been investigated for anti-competitive conduct across the region. In an earlier article in this Review, it was noted that two complaints were lodged with South Africa’s Competition Commission regarding the exclusive rights Multichoice’s subsidiary SuperSport holds over premium sports content. In that case it was alleged that Multichoice’s refusal to give downstream competitors access to their exclusive sports content is anti-competitive. Similar complaints were also lodged in Egypt relating to tying and bundling of exclusive content and in Kenya regarding exclusive agreements on content sharing. Multichoice was accused of abusing its position as market leader in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Nigeria where a lack of competition within the pay-tv market allowed Multichoice to increase its fees. This resulted in consumers in Zimbabwe purchasing their decoders and paying their fees in South Africa due to it being relatively cheaper.

From the recent case against Multichoice, it appears that Multichoice has been able to leverage its position as the dominant player in the pay-tv market in Africa into a position of market power in the media sales industry as well. Control in the advertising market may serve to reinforce its position in the primary pay-tv market as well. This is consistent with outcomes in two-sided markets where there is a high degree of market power in one primary market. Two-sided markets refers to “where two or more groups of customers are catered for through a platform and one group’s utility increases as the number of consumers on the other side of the market increase”. 1

Multichoice is dominant in one market (subscribers to pay-tv) and appears to have leveraged this position into the adjacent market (on-air airtime sales and sponsorships) that is closely related to the main business of the firm. This has allowed Multichoice to use its large subscriber base to indirectly gain market share in the media sales industry. Media agencies will prefer to buy time slots from Multichoice because Multichoice boasts a large subscriber base of close to 10.4 million households in Africa. This poses a problem in that rival firms are unable to provide competitive offerings and as such are not able to build their subscriber base because consumers are drawn to the larger platform.

It appears that through MCC, the arrangements in the industry favoured some market players while at the same time restricting other firms from operating and competing in the market. In light of the investigation by the Competition Commission, DStv Media Sales released a statement saying that it had revised its policies regarding agency settlement discounts across all platforms as from 1 May 2016, which is a positive development. A cursory assessment of Multichoice South Africa Holdings (Pty) Ltd financial reports suggests that the fines along with the financial commitments under the remedy are a small proportion of the profits of the firm. As such the penalty and remedy are not likely to have a deterrence effect. It is therefore important that emphasis is placed on further reducing the barriers to entry into the market and giving greater assistance to smaller enterprises which the remedy, if correctly implemented and monitored, seeks to achieve.

  1. See Robb, G., Tausha, I., and Vilakazi, T. (2017) ‘Competition and regulation in Zimbabwe’s emerging mobile payments markets’; in Klaaren, J., Roberts, S, and Valodia, I. (eds), Competition Law and Economic Regulation: Addressing Market Power in Southern Africa. Johannesburg: WITS University Press.