African 24 hour TV news channel project to start investor fundraising

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This week CNBC announced that it would be offering a channel devoted to business news from Africa. But a more ambitious project may be just around the corner to launch a 24 hour African news channel. Russell Southwood spoke to Salim Amin, CEO of Camerapix, the man behind the idea.

Q: What does Camerapix do?

Camerapix was set up in 1963 by my Dad as photo agency. It then moved on to do film and video. We now have three sides to the company.

The first of these is the TV side of the company which does things like broadcast work and documentaries. Then there’s the archive company that has the pictures of my Dad and his partner Duncan Willets. There are 3.5 million images taken over 20 years and 10 years worth of video. They photographed every aspect of the continent and its marketed as a business for those who want images from the continent.

Q: Is it online?

We’re not online and that is a problem in this day and age. We lose out to agencies like Getty because they are digital and the picture editors simply have their URL in their bookmarks. We need resources to get digital but we are currently doing it in bits and pieces.

The third company is Camerapix Publishers which does guides, coffee table books and in-flight magazines. We do the in-flight magazine of Ethiopian Airways.

Then there’s the Mohamed Foundation which runs a training school and is set up as an NGO in memory of my Dad to train African journalists. It has graduated over 60 students and 95% have got employment. We only take 17 students at a time and train them in broadcast journalism.

Q: How many people work at Camerapix?

We employ 30 people in all the different parts of the company. Our turnover is probably close to US$600-700,000 a year and we have a 12% profitability, We’re not a huge company but we are the biggest company of its kind outside South Africa and we have the biggest reach of any production house on the continent except North Africa. Our crews all depart from here and have been to just about every continent. We work for all the major broadcasters including CNN, ABC, BBC and CBC. Whether you need fixing or filming, we can sort it.

How did the idea for a 24 hour African news channel come about?

There were two previous attempts. There was the African Broadcasting Network which was just a concept. And then there was TV Africa that went on air in South Africa for a short time. The idea of the latter was to broadcast and distribute through local TV stations. It was recycled content. Both used up a lot of money and went under.

So the idea started at News Exchange, one of the biggest broadcast conferences in the world. I was usually the only person there from Africa. And every year there was a session on Africa and there were no Africans in it. So I got a bit pissed off and ended up suggesting an African News Exchange. The next year News Exchange was held in Portugal and it had a session on Arab media with channels like Al-Jazeera. A light bulb went off in my head and at John Owen, the Conference Producer looked at each and nodded. Why not put together a channel? The British Council helped us put together an event that was held in Ethiopia in December 2005. It brought together 65 prominent TV people on the continent and global broadcasters and we all agreed that we needed to put the practicalities into place.

So myself and my Managing Director Daniel Rifkin worked on putting it together, trying to raise funds. It’s been us moving on alone, looking for seed funding. We didn’t want anyone to have control of the channel.

Q: What sort of shareholding structure are you proposing?

There would be a maximum of 20% for any one investor. We’d put about 15% of the shares into the hands of employees so that there was some sense of ownership and loyalty. We want to raise $50 million which would be enough to run for four years. We’d open 46 country bureaus and operate in two languages, English and French. We’re still playing with the figures but we’d be cash positive in five years. And after that, we’d float on the African stock markets. We want a transparent ownership to guarantee the integrity of the channel.

Q: Where would the service get its revenues?

There would be various streams. It would be possible to get it as part of a standard subscription on DStv and GTV and we would get a percentage of that subscription revenue, the exact amount depending on the deals done. Currently DStv has a monopoly and can demand what they want but that’s changing. We’d get advertising from companies with a continent-wide presence like banks and airlines. But one key distribution means would be mobile TV and it would be the largest revenue generator. If it’s affordable, people will demand local news. There would also be sponsored programmes by NGOs. For example the Gates Foundation might pay for a series of shows or documentaries on HIV/AIDS.

Some material will be sold to international broadcasters. Many of them have reduced their presence and if there’s quality material, they’ll use it.

Q: What number of viewers will it attract?

That depends on the kind of model used. We could give the signal free to all the continent’s terrestrial broadcasters, especially for their “dead” slot between 12pm and 9am. At present they simply rebroadcast things like CNN and BBC. If we had all those slots, then we might be able to have 150 million viewers.

Q: I understand you’re trying to get it off the ground in a small way ahead of a full-blown launch?

One of the advisory committee members is AllAfrica.com and it’s looking at doing video online. It may start life as a channel there and they can do the Internet side of it. We can provide content from across the continent. We’ll start slowly using local people around the continent.

Q: What’s the competition? CNBC has just launched a 24 hour business news channel for Africa (see Broadcast below).

CNBC is purely a business channel. And there’s SABC Africa that has been renamed SABC International. SABC’s problem is that it should have been the leader in this field but it’s Government-funded therefore it’s not independent and it’s compromised. Also it’s largely South Africa-focused. That said, there are South Africans who are interested in investing in this channel.

Q: Where have you got with the fundraising?

We are finalising the business plan and have discussed the concept with a number of investors. They have said:”Give us the figures and we will get you the money.” The funding came through to do the feasibility work. Within the next month, they’ll be a solid business plan.

Q: Where will you get the commercial management needed for a channel of this sort?

Invariably this may come from outside the continent. We need to pick the best people for the job. The people telling the stories have to be African but the people behind the scenes can be black, white or yellow so long as they can do their job. Initially I will be closely involved but I will come back to Camerapix because it’s my company. I will hand over to someone younger with vision and it will need to evolve over time.