African media fragmentation piles the pressure on radio and TV stations as they scramble for audiences

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Once upon a time everyone knew what television and radio were and they played a key role in people’s lives. Particularly for urban Africans they were the soundtrack to life, the sports match in the bar and the common conversations about television programmes. Nowadays in the more liberalised of African countries there are more television and radio stations than you can remember the names of and for the smaller group of the more well-off, there are pay TV channels, time-shifting and DVDs. And all that’s before you take into account SMS information services and the Internet which are eating away at the edges of the audiences. Russell Southwood looks at the fault-lines.

Dakar will shortly have 7 television stations, not including the three Pay-TV channels you can get if you can afford them or can pirate a service. Lagos has 13 television stations and perhaps three main Pay-TV channels. Kinshasa has over 40 television stations, many of which simply show pirated television content. In this circumstance, no channel will get more than 20-30% of audience share on a regular basis.

Pay-TV may seem a very modest presence in most countries but because it is widely watched in public places, it audience reach is understated by its subscriber numbers. Furthermore, piracy means that a large number of additional subscribers (sometimes double the number) are watching without paying for content.

Vernacular radio has exploded and the number of radio stations is exponentially larger than for television stations as many of them are much more local. Uganda has 150 stations and Kenya over 90. But whilst radio might have a wider and deeper audience reach than television, the fragmentation makes it difficult for advertisers to reach their audiences.

The standard broadcasting formats that seemed to serve so well in less competitive times are now being taken apart and put back together by the viewers and listeners themselves. Legitimate and pirated DVDs provide a steady stream of relatively cheap entertainment, particularly of films. Recent releases may command a better price but three relatively old action action movies (Bruce Lee, Stephen Seagal, that kind of thing) can be bought for around US$2. PVRs, streaming and catch-up downloads will all become a reality as part of the dividend of cheaper bandwidth in 2009.

Middle class Africans are using a growing array of devices. Laptop use is growing as sales of this kind of computer begin to equal those of desktop PCs. High-end smart phones like Blackberries and iPhones are increasingly visible. One African carrier has 800,000 high-end phones on its network.

These devices are not just for doing work or making phone calls. They have become media in their own right. Recent surveys show that in North Africa 3-7% of the population cited SMS as one of their most used daily information sources. Likewise the Internet is set to have a much greater impact with the spread of broadband subscriptions.

According to Alexa.com, Facebook and You Tube are already amongst the Top 10 sites in the African countries that it analyses. Again based on survey work, between 1-8% of the population used the Internet daily across a range of very different countries. With cheaper international bandwidth, these figures will increase slowly but surely. Mobile Internet will become cheaper and play an increasingly large role in people’s lives.

Current ad spend on the Internet and SMS is tiny but ad money will migrate as it gets larger. This is money that will most likely be lost to newspapers which seem the most vulnerable as the media landscape’s tectonic plates begin to shift.

So what can the African broadcaster do faced with all of this? There are two ways to stay in the game: by using new media to extend the appeal of interesting content across all platforms and by stealing new media’s best ideas and using them to survive. Unfortunately too few TV stations have invested in convincingly local TV content that might well provide the adhesive that would keep viewers eyeballs glued to the their channel.

This article is a summary of a more detailed analysis in the recently published African Film and TV Yearbook. A list of contents can be found by clicking on the following link: http://www.balancingact-africa.com/yearbook.html

The second part of the Yearbook contains a full listing of African film and television companies broken down by country as well as a section with useful international addresses for anyone in the sector in Africa. There is also two specially focused listings: one looks at Film Location Agencies and Screen Commissions across the continent and the other lists companies and education institutions providing film and television training.

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