MTN recently launched its own Netflix-like video on demand (VOD) service it calls FrontRow, which lets subscribers stream movies and series to their browser or Android mobile phone.
Users can also rent movies at two price tiers: R15 for older films and R27 for more recent releases.
In South Africa, MTN FrontRow competes directly against Vidi, the online VOD service that Times Media launched on 10 September 2014.
It also competes against products like the Altech Node, DStv BoxOffice and Catch Up, and iTunes Movies.
Until fairly recently (2012) South Africans were completely starved of legitimate online video options. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that South Africans found alternative means (usually by violating copyright laws) to get content they may not have been able to watch otherwise.
These less-than-lawful means that are of concern to content owners, distributors, and VOD operators can be broadly categorised as follows:
- Unlicensed downloading using BitTorrent or Usenet.
- VPN/proxy “piracy” which lets South Africans access services such as Netflix and Hulu.
This means the likes of MTN FrontRow and Vidi also compete against more established international players, such as Netflix, in addition to one another in South Africa.
The questions then is: does MTN FrontRow offer a service that will not only appeal to newcomers to online video, but also convince South African pirates to adopt a legal option?
Looking at pricing first, MTN FrontRow is already off to a rocky start relative to its competition.
MTN is offering subscriptions to FrontRow for R179 per month for the first three months during its launch promotion. After your first three months, the price goes up to R199 per month.
Not only is Vidi cheaper at R149 per month, MTN FrontRow is also more expensive than Netflix ($7.99) and an unblocking service such as UnoTelly ($4.95), which together cost around R151 per month (at R11.70/$).
The subscription fee is also not the only price that needs to be taken into account.
Like Vidi, Altech, and DStv, MTN also offers “transactional VOD” rentals on newer films.
At R15 for older movies and R27 for more recent releases, MTN’s prices are pretty much in-line with the competition.
Something MTN offers that no-one else currently does is a 10GB mobile data bolt-on bundled with a subscription to its VOD service.
Similar to the base subscription, MTN is running a promotion that offers FrontRow with the 10GB bundle for R399 per month for the first three months. The subscription fee goes up to R499 per month thereafter.
While this offer is unique, it’s usefulness seems limited.
MTN estimates that 10GB gives you about 28 hours of viewing, but depending on the resolution of the content our calculations indicate that you could be looking at half that viewing time if your connection is fast enough.
High quality video content is large and, assuming resolutions of 720p, 10GB gives you around 5 to 10 movies worth of data (or 14 to 20 episodes of TV shows).
One area in which MTN FrontRow and Vidi are both weak is support for platforms specifically designed to connect to TVs.
While MTN FrontRow works in many desktop browsers and on Android devices, there are apps for Netflix and Hulu on various media boxes, video game consoles, and TVs, in addition to mobile platforms and PC support.
To watch content from FrontRow on a TV, you’ll need to connect it to PC that supports High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection and that is running the correct software.
Like many online VOD services, MTN FrontRow uses Microsoft Silverlight. This means FrontRow is restricted to Silverlight-supported PC platforms and browsers.
On Android the minimum requirement is just that your device runs version 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” (or newer) of Google’s mobile operating system.
Though MTN FrontRow’s platform support might be limited, its user interface is responsive and functional on the devices it does support.
Transitions from one menu to the next are smooth, and content begins playing quickly after it is selected.
However, one thing that is glaringly absent from the FrontRow website is the ability to change or cancel your subscription.
Instead, you have to phone the MTN call centre and the only number provided on the website (083–123–5360) is not a toll-free number.
Queried about this, MTN said that subscribers can call any of MTN’s contact centres to make changes to their FrontRow subscriptions: 808, 173, and 1555.
Update: MTN SA’s chief marketing officer, Larry Annetts has said that the unsubscribe option will be available on the FrontRow website from 29 January 2015.
Unfortunately, MTN’s call centre operators don’t seem to be familiar with this new product at all.
To their credit, despite not knowing about it, the support agent I spoke to helped me cancel my subscription.
Updating or cancelling your subscription is really something that should be possible to do from the website, but MTN couldn’t give an indication on whether this feature will be added in future.
Content: Black Sails
The last word on MTN FrontRow is also arguably about what’s most important for a VOD service: content.
At launch, the selection of content was limited, but this is not unusual for a fledgling subscription video service.
Though it has many of the same movies and series as the other recently launched local VOD players, MTN FrontRow currently has notably fewer. It also might only have one or two seasons of a show where other platforms have many more.
Like Vidi and Node have expanded their content catalogues in the months after their launch, so FrontRow will also have to add more content.
However, there is one show in particular on FrontRow that’s worth noting, as no-one else in South Africa currently has it: Black Sails.
Black Sails is an American series written as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island and mainly features British, Australian, and South African actors. It was filmed in Cape Town at Cape Town Film Studios.
The first season of eight episodes, each about an hour long, debuted on VOD services on 18 January 2014, with the second season set to start on 24 January 2015. It has already been renewed for a third season.
After watching the first three episodes, it was apparent that Black Sails is a solid show for MTN to have to help differentiate it from other entertainment services in South Africa.
The story is compelling, the performances are great, production quality is high, and on top of all that it even has local ties.
In short: MTN has found a good show that appears to have been overlooked by South Africa’s purveyors of TV content.
Whether this will be enough to spur initial interest in MTN FrontRow remains to be seen, but it is certainly a promising start.
|The Bottom Line: MTN FrontRow|
|The Good||The Bad|
Review disclosure: the reviewer signed up for the service with his own credit card, which he finances from his salary. He wasn’t charged (possibly because he was one of the first 1,000 users), but even if he were billed, the delicious food and coffee he gets at the MyBroadband offices more than make up for it.