Lifting the Lightbox lid: a look inside Telecom’s new digital venture

After Telecom was legally precluded from using the ShowmeTV name, the industry has been curious as to what moniker would be introduced as a replacement.

Since that debacle three months ago, Telecom’s digital ventures (TDV) unit has been very cagey about releasing any further information about its online TV offering.

However, on Tuesday evening (24 June), the blanket of secrecy was finally lifted, as Telecom sent out a press release along with a specially prepared TV dinner to a range of reporters.

Given that the New Zealand media circle is pretty small and that gossip tends to bounce around quite freely, it’s impressive that head of programming and local content Maria Mahony and her team have managed to stop the name, Lightbox, from leaking to the press.      

“It’s a really tight group working on it, so that probably helps,” she says. “But also, we really didn’t want to release the name without any other information because then it would all be about the name, whereas today we can tell you a little more about what we are.”

So what exactly is Lightbox, how does it work and who is it for?   

“It’s an online TV service based a subscription model, so you can pay one fee and then watch everything that’s available. It’s not tiered or anything. The first 30 days are free, then you can pay $15 for every 30 days after that … It’s for everyone, not just Telecom customers.”

In many ways, what Mahony describes is almost identical to the subscription video on-demand service (SVOD) that Sky announced last week. And while Mahony admits that it will be interesting to see what Sky offers, she doesn’t find the emergence of competitors surprising.     

“We never thought that we’re going to be alone in the market, because this is where TV viewing is going. At this stage, Sky has obviously been quite limited in what they’ve told us, but it will be exciting to hear what they are going to roll out.”

Going toe to toe with Sky, a seasoned broadcaster with a formidable budget, will however not be easy for a digital start-up, even if it has the backing of a telco giant. And while Mahony acknowledges that Sky could turn into a strong competitor, she says that this is a very different playing field.   

“The actual Lightbox team has a lot of media and entertainment people, so we have the experience. Online TV is a different game to linear TV, and we’ve done research to back up what we’re doing,” says Mahony, who previously worked as a channel manager at TVNZ for over two years.

But regardless of the teams behind the offerings, most Kiwis are going to make their subscription choices based entirely on the content offered by the respective players—and this is something that Mahony is well aware of.

“We’re committed to making this a proper media business, and we have the budget to be able to secure content. Of course, it doesn’t matter how flashy the technology is. What we’re going to be judged on is the content.”

Early reports suggested that Telecom was throwing in the region of $10 million at securing broadcast deals, and this has enabled the Lightbox team to land some popular shows.  

“What we’ve revealed today is simply a flavour of what is to come. So with 24 and Vikings, we want to show that we will have exclusive content and premieres on Lightbox. But then with shows like Mad Men, we want to show that we also have quality content that’s already established.”

While she places emphasis on the fact that Lightbox is screening some premieres, she explains that ‘being first’ isn’t necessarily the most important factor when it comes to the offering’s content strategy.

“I think it will play a part. It’s always nice to have something that you control exclusively, but I don’t think there’s a feasible business case anywhere that allows you to buy all the exclusive content produced for one service. But what is important is that you to provide a very attractive catalogue of established shows to bolster up the service.”

Mahony also says that another key differentiator of the offering lies in the flexibility that the service offers users. 

“We talked to New Zealanders and asked them how they would want to watch content, and they said ‘I want to be able to watch it on my time, when I’m ready, without ads … so, what we’ve done is added full seasons on the service, rather than releasing the content episode by episode. And, also, where it’s critical to the plot line, we’ll have the whole series.”

According to programming head, this decision came about after an extensive amount of research, a word that is often repeated throughout the interview.

“We’ve done home visits, we’ve done online research, we done focus groups, and we’ve also researched how people view content online. So whether it’s on New Zealand sites or torrenting, there’s no judgement. It’s just about seeing how Kiwis are watching and how the trends are working out … I just keep harping back to the research, but that’s really how we know that we’re in the right place.” 

Another insight Mahony obtained from her research was that Kiwi-produced content tends to do well both locally and internationally. And while she admitted that she was currently in talks with local distributors, she would not confirm or deny whether any deals for local shows had been penned yet, simply saying that more would be revealed at a later stage. 

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