Tech Q&A: InView chair Nick Markham on digitising a continent

On the back of our recent focus on the rise and rise of content, coupled with ever-increasing broadband and mobile network speeds, this edition of Tech Q&A looks at the impact streaming and On Demand content is beginning to have on the developing world.

Digital information, be that through the internet, TV or mobile connectivity, continues to transform the planet. The developing world, suddenly adopting mobile and hard-wired access to the World Wide Web, will fundamentally change the global look and feel of our digital experiences, with an estimated one billion new content creators coming online in the next decade.

Nick Markham is a senior broadcast and technology executive who is playing a major role in bringing a significant proportion of that one billion online. Following an executive career in broadcast, he is now chair of a company bringing affordable, digital TV to more than 200 million people in Africa and beyond.

And he’s doing it from an industrial estate in Northwich.

What’s keeping you up at night?

Well, what’s keeping me up at night, literally, is my 4-month-old kid!

Professionally, my life splits into two key focal areas. I’ve been a non-executive director for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government since 2013 and feel passionately about supporting the development of new policies around housing

In the private sector, I currently chair InView, which is an incredible company on an equally incredible mission.

What does InView do?

Essentially, InView exists to deliver digital TV solutions. The term “digital switchover” seems ancient to British audiences. In reality, much of the world is either still on the analogue system or has missed out on television completely. InView creates the technology (set-top boxes and the platform) and where necessary aggregates the content (free to air channels pay-per-view Video On Demand and content) that can create TV platforms, at scale and pace, anywhere in the world.

What was your journey to InView? 

This will either go down as the greatest achievement in my career or a “this guy is stupid” moment.

In my capacity as ITV’s Strategy Director, I partnered with The BBC, Channel 4 and others to create Freeview out of ITV Digital. Our goal was to form a compelling, free to air, advertising-led proposition.

Out of that, I saw the potential of pay TV on Freeview and helped start-up Top Up TV as Chief Executive. From our perspective, the market offered customers two options – ‘pay Sky for everything’ or ‘live with the free channels’. We wanted to create another tier, where customers could top up their viewing experience by paying for exactly what they wanted, be that a movie or a sporting event, without having to take on a full-time package subscription.

Marketing Top Up TV posed a couple of challenges. Chiefly the realisation that above the line marketing would be highly inefficient, given 50% of our advert’s viewers would be watching our ad for Top Up TV subscription via their Sky subscription!

Looking to innovative solutions, we purchased InView. Their technology allowed them to specifically reach Freeview customers who could get Top Up TV, giving us perfectly targeted marketing. And it worked, with InView advertising generating 50% of Top Up TV customer acquisitions.

Now, InView is taking our experience and expertise and taking digital TV across the globe.

InView’s biggest projects are in Africa. Why is that?

We really do have the tiger by its tail. InView is an amazing product and we’re selling it to companies around the globe.

We’re also working with national governments, including Nigeria. The opportunities are amazing. Nigeria is the world’s seventh most populated country. Bringing InView to a country is hugely challenging, but incredible. 80% of the Nigerian population will be able to access TV through our platforms, many for the first time, which has the potential to do immense good.

We’re already the industry standard in Ghana and Ethiopia, and we’re excited about another 200-million-person opportunity.

We’re a tiny company who beat Cisco to get this contract. Nobody believed we could do it. Already, we’ve set up call centres, TV licence fee collection mechanisms and launched a Freeview/Youview type platform. This is huge stuff for a small company, with significant risk.

Every channel is encrypted, and we own the payment gateways. Beyond that, we can put apps on the platform. What we see there is a phenomenal way to monetize it.

How much of this is an impact venture and how much is an entrepreneurial business?

It’s both, but the best kind of business because it will have a transformative impact – we’re bringing TV to sub-Saharan Africa, but we also have some very hard-nosed investors who want to see the money.

Sometimes, people say we’re a small company trying to swallow an elephant; big ambitions, but maybe bitten off more than we can chew. That challenge excites and drives me.

It’s helping to create a digital economy from the ground up through content, advertising revenue, set-top boxes, new ecosystems and business opportunities. InView’s success will be Nigeria’s success, in that it will support – and, in some cases, create – technology, broadcast, content, production and educational ecosystems.

What’s the TV market In Africa today?

It’s one of real extremes. The top 10% of the population are very wealthy and have DSTV (essentially, the South African Sky). Online television isn’t really there yet – only 0.5% of the population have fixed line, high-speed broadband connections, so the connection speeds just aren’t sufficient.

The next 50% have analogue TV and on top of that, you have a nascent middle class with second or third-hand iPhones. The bottom 40% don’t have TVs and often live below the poverty line.

You mention advertising revenues as a boon to the local economies. Given the maturity of Video On Demand, won’t sub-Saharan African TV just skip the adverts stage altogether?

That’s probably the question I’m asked most often!

Eventually they will, but right now there’s no fixed network with fibre etc. The high cost of mobile data means that advertisers have a way in.

Our strategy is to push TV – just look at the statistics and you can see that there are still a lot of people who are watching and will watch terrestrial TV.

The analogy I like is Netflix. It started out as a DVD rental/delivery subscription model, but then realised Video On Demand was the future. As broadband speed increased, they migrated more and more of their customers to their online proposition.

Our plan is similar – to tell all broadcasters in Nigeria to get their channel up into the linear space, but to also get them online.

It is a big job for what is, relatively speaking, a little company. We’re based in Northwich because our founders are from Wales and it’s the best middle ground for them and Manchester. We’re seen as a small company in an industrial estate in Northwich. People don’t seem to believe we can run 200 million eyeballs in Africa from there!

Video On Demand has totally changed our viewing habits, with “content” now the most important platform in the world for forming opinions. What is the future of content?

You can now go direct to the customer – so you can make better content consumers want to pay for. Previously, channels and commissioners were the kings of the screen. Now, content owners run the airwaves.

The business model has turned on its head. Previously, it was all about volume. Commissioners would create programmes that appealed to the masses. This made sense, as content creators were fighting for a very small number of prime-time slots. Now, in a world of Video On Demand, you can now commission a programme that may only be of interest to 5% of the population, knowing that that 5% will be so engaged and passionate about that topic, they’ll happily pay for it.

Quick Facts

Born: Haywards Heath, Sussex

What do you do when you’re not working?: I love playing and watching sport, I coach my son’s rugby team and recently and rather stupidly started playing again myself! I’m also looking after my 4-month-old baby.

What excites you about technology?: The one-to-one relationship. I can communicate or offer content on a totally individual basis. We can change society in ways that we’re only just beginning to understand. TV shows can take on taboos, and drive society for social good.

Who is your mentor?: David Chance. He’s credited as the brains behind Sky and development of the platform. He was involved in the formation of the Premier League. He was the chairman of Top Up TV and he’d negotiate in such a smooth, elegant fashion, he’d always get the outcome we needed. He also happens to be one of the nicest guys ever, and a great example of how nice guys can win.