Ghana: Metro TV’s CEO Tallal Fattal on reality show Football Academy and launching new DTT channel

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Metro TV’s CEO Tallal Fattal started life as a pop performer and came to television through running an advertising agency. He still makes albums but his main passion now is his television station, Ghana’s first private Free-to-Air channel. Some African stations have a programming format that would be easily recognisable from the 1970s. But Fattal is not a man to let the grass grow under his feet. He devised the local reality Football Academy and is in talks with its sponsor MTN about an African roll-out. Today Africa, tomorrow the world as he is also in discussions with a European reality show producer about selling the rights globally. He’s shifted the stations programme balance to sports and news and with the latter he is taking on state broadcaster GBC in area of its strength. In October this year he’s launching a digital Free-to-Air channel based on his existing Metro Plus offer and is organising to import cheap digital TVs for the Ghanaian market. Russell Southwood interviewed him on a recent trip to Ghana.

Q: How did Metro TV get started?

Originally I ran an advertising agency doing TV commercials and this blossomed into doing TV productions for Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC), the public broadcaster. When the airwaves were liberalised, we said to ourselves we have the goodwill and clients so we started Ghana’s first privately owned TV station. Originally it was a joint venture with GBC’s GTV but they are now a sleeping partner.

Q: What sort of programming does the station run?

Originally ‘quality family entertainment’ was our mission statement. In 1997 we were only broadcasting at the weekends but by 1999 we had started daily broadcasting and we went nationwide in 2006. We were the first broadcaster in Ghana to deliver our broadcasts by satellite (on NSS 10) as a Free-To-Air Channel and with a few exceptions programmes are not encrypted. We are an urban station with a reach to all the regional capitals and their environs.

Q: What about in the rural areas?

There’s no current justification for spending more on extending coverage but we have a bigger market share than GBC and want to retain our existing profile.

In 2005 our programming shifted from entertainment more towards sports and news. The current mix is about 50% sports, 30% news and 20% drama and entertainment. We managed to secure the broadcasting rights for the Premier League, the UEFA matches and the FA Cup. However, that changed in terms of the Premier League this year but we still broadcast matches 24 hours later. We also have eight matches from Euro 2008.

We own two local footballs teams, Zaytuna in the Chartered Premier League and Kade Hotspurs in Division One. We want to create a Five-a-Side League next year.

We introduced the first football reality show, the MTN Soccer Academy, on which we whittle down 8,000 footballers to four players and then select a winner. MTN is talking about doing Soccer Academy across Africa and we are talking to a European reality TV show producer about licensing the idea worldwide.

The first prize was a two weeks trial with Chelsea. (Unfortunately none of the winners were signed up.) We are also doing a boxing league and own the global rights for the Black Stars of Ghana.

Q: What impact did the programme shifts have on your audience share?

The move to sports and news stabilised our audience. According to market research agency Steadmans we have a 30-33% share of audiences during the week and a 55% share at the weekend. Public broadcaster GBC and the Free-To-Air privately owned channel TV3 both have a 30% share with 10% shared amongst the rest.

We have three news bulletins a day: Good Morning Ghana and Good Evening Ghana twice a day. This month we’ve started running a breaking news belt between 11 in the morning and three in the afternoon with national news punctuated by regional inserts. We have a compact outside broadcasting van that goes out to the region’s to broadcast live news. We want to become a leader in news. It’s much tougher (than sport) but it’s a challenge we’ll make work.

The 20% of time allocated to drama is smaller than it used to be but it’s quality programming. We run a programme called Thank God It’s Friday presented by Ghanaian satirist KSM. We’re also running episodes of American Idols along with African and Mexican soaps. Next year we’ll be commissioning a drama series called Class Mates that will be produced by us but will be a collaboration with local production companies.

Q: Is there an independent production sector in Ghana or is all production done in-house by the television companies?

There are 10 companies supplying all the television stations and some do event management. In addition, there are about 20-30 companies doing commercials and small programmes.

Q: What is happening to advertising spend?

The situation in Ghana is best described as economies of scale. We are 20 million or so people so our ad spend is growing. I don’t actually know the exact figure currently but it used to be US$20 million and it is now US$100 million plus. But ad rates for a minute run between US$400-700 a minute and I’m sure we can still do better than that.

Q: What level of discounting is there?

20-25% depending on the volume of time taken. We give 50-70% on early bird deals and can also give bonus spots worth US$100,000 on orders worth US$100,000.

Q: Who are your biggest advertisers?

The mobile companies, food and beverage companies, and importers and exporters.

We have Metro Plus in Accra where through an exclusive affiliate deal with Setanta, we offer 12 hours each of Al Jazeera and sport on UHF.

Q: What are you doing about the digital transition?

We will turn Metro Plus into a DTT channel by the end of the year and want to do six channels. The broadcast regulator NCA says that the whole digital transition will take five years and have given our plans the go-ahead.

Q: Do you have Pay-TV plans, either by satellite or IP-TV?

We have a licence but decided to relinquish it to go into DTT. But it’s been good for Multichoice to have a competitor. GBS (the local name for GTV whose brand initials had already been taken by GBC) is a strong contender and the market has expanded.

We’ve been thinking about IP-TV for two years but the market’s probably about the same size as for mobile TV: in other words, it will be a small market. But there’s definitely a market for a US$5-10 a month subscription and that’s a massive market and that’s where DTT comes in even though it’s been pushed as freeview.

Q: When are your set-top boxes going on sale?

We’re planning that it will be October 2007. We’re also looking at manufacturing digital TV sets in China which would sell for US$90.