Almost African independents day - It's not what you do but the way that you do it

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A meeting of the South African Parliament's Communications Portfolio Committee offered the first glimpse of an independent television production sector struggling to assert itself against the old monopoly ways. With the exception of Nigeria, where they nearly always do things differently, Africa's independent television producers have almost no space in which to earn a living. Russell Southwood seeks to explain why this matter for the development of broadcasting on the continent.

In the olden days, there used to be a single, vertically-integrated telephone company. Now there are many companies competing and offering very different services. One outgrowth of liberalisation was a small but noisy Internet and cyber-café sector. The liberalisation of the telecoms market (particularly the mobile sector) in Africa has generated a significant part of the exceptional economic growth of some parts of the continent over the last five years.

Africa's broadcasting industry is just on the threshold of undergoing a similar liberalisation. If it is successful it will produce similar economic growth with an upsurge in the use of independent television companies. 

Take the example of the United Kingdom. Independent broadcasters banded together in the 1980s and persuaded the Government that it would be a good idea if 25% of the BBC's output as public broadcaster was sourced from independent companies. Almost simultaneously, Channel 4 was launched as an advertising supported broadcaster with a completely different production model. Instead of having all its own production and post-production staff, the new Channel had only programme commissioners. All its programmes (and the post-production work from them) came from the newly fostered independent television production sector. This sector has changed shape and size over time. Many of the smaller companies have been gobbled up as the sector consolidated. But it is now a significant area of employment in the UK economy.

Currently many African broadcasting companies are organisations that are both low on funding and any form of creative energy. With occasional exceptions, the local programmes they produce are competent rather than riveting. Indeed Nollywood director Lancelot Imasuen was quoted as saying in response to a question about his prodigious output: 'In Nigeria what we do is an offshoot of television. Back in the Eighties, some soap operas were very popular - Cock Crow at Dawn, Mirror in the Sun, The New Masquerade. And when the government's policies relating to the Nigerian Television Authority no longer favoured the production of those soaps, Nollywood was born. Nollywood is a direct offshoot of the television drama. If you ask a television series producer in the UK or US how many episodes he or she produces each year, would you be surprised if they answered hundreds?' Perhaps this is why Nigeria is home to the Nigerian Independent TV Producers Association although they have yet to find a place for themselves in the industry.

So if Governments and the broadcasters want to light a spark - both creatively and economically - they need to insist that a significant proportion of local production is produced independently and through this encourage the creation of independent post-production facilities. For the significance of Nollywood is that it is one small area of programming that seems to travel well across the continent. African broadcasters need creative energy and ideas that will produce some programmes that they can sell to each other. And with new input from a competitive Pay-TV market perhaps an African television programme market will begin to take the first tentative steps.

Those appearing before the Parliamentary Communications Portfolio Committee give some idea of the kind of difficulties that other African independent producers have to struggle with. The margins offered by the monopoly public broadcaster are low, somewhere between 6-10%. The Independent Producers Organisation President and CEO of Endemol South Africa said that his company's worldwide margins were 26%, whilst in South Africa one of the programmes it produces, Isidingo, had only a 6% margin.

SABC Group Chief Executive Dali Mpofu reportedly shook his head at this but perhaps he should "get out more" to know what really happens elsewhere. He told the Committee meeting:"Value and capital do not fall from trees. You invest something and get value." But as the only significant buyer of programmes, the SABC enforces short-term contracts and insists that all the intellectual property rights are its alone. It will be hard to co-finance programmes as happens elsewhere if the rights remain only with one party,

The SABC offered what will be a familiar defence to those that have already fought this war: we are trying and we're doing a little better than we were. SABC deputy chairwoman Christine Qunta said the broadcaster had assisted the development of many small black companies. CEO Dali Mpofu said the SABC had increased the local content of its programmes dramatically since 2003, from 70% to 83%. Qunta said under the SABC's funding model there was not much else that could be done. And perhaps this the nub of it.

The South African Government is keen to make the most of its hosting of the World Cup. It is spemding a great deal to make sure the physical infrastructure is in place. It would not take a great deal more resources to ensure that the Broadcast people resources were also in place. This alongside a higher quota of independently produced programmes would begin to foster the right kind of people resource development.

Further afield, the pioneers of IP-TV are discovering that they are in a content business but all too often the sources of exciting and watch-able content rest in the hands of monopoly owners. One such company operates in a country where there is a significant and reasonably well-funded state broadcaster but nearly all local producing talent ends up going to work in France.

Africa has to be creative about how it organises its state broadcasting in order that it can get creative to lay the golden goose egg the continent needs.