DISCOP: Africa’s first media market attracts over 400 people to Dakar for three day meeting-fest

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Africa’s first full-blown media market started with a bang last week in Senegal’s Dakar. Over 400 people came to the event to either sell programming or buy it and Dakar’s Pullman Terranga was like an ant-heap as people moved between a seemingly endless succession of meetings. Both large and small distributors were there selling international content but there were also a small number of companies (successfully) selling local African content. Russell Southwood was there and wanted to find out what’s happening in the market.

Because DISCOP was held in Dakar, there were a great deal more francophone participants than might have been the case had it been held in an Anglophone location. Indeed all the main country language groupings - including Arabic North Africa, the lusophone countries and Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country Equatorial Guinea - were in attendance.

Media markets outside of America took off when American producers were no longer able to raise 100% of their production budgets in their home market and increasingly turned first to Europe and then other emerging markets to make up the shortfall. So in a time when the US TV industry is probably in the worst shape that it’s been for a decade, there was a sharp realization even amongst major producers of the need to find secondary revenues in new markets.

On the African side of the transaction, the media market gave tangible evidence to those who might only of previously dreamed of it that there was value in African programming, both for sales across the continent and internationally. The channels launched for the African diaspora in Paris by Thema were one type of example and the existence of new channels like Vox Africa and The Africa Channel were other examples. But there were also individual producers like Kenya’s Mediae (Makutano Junction), South Africa’s African Soccer, Ghana’s VTV and Senegal’s Picture Box who were all attracting interest and business.

International distributors were puzzled to find people not always turning up for arranged meetings but most discovered that the gaps were filled by people just coming by unplanned. A small number of companies seemed very tentative. One TV company had no prices for its programming as it said “we’re just looking at the state of the market”. Another was only able to give prices for its films if you e-mailed it after the market was over.

Kenya’s Citizen TV was there and told us that the last available audience data from the Steadman Group showed that it now had number one audience share in the all-important 6-9pm slot. It has built this position by investing in local content and developing shows that have garnered a strong following.

However it is one of only a handful of TV stations on the continent to invest in building itself this position through making its own shows. Outside of South Africa and Nigeria, there are almost no production budgets and relatively low rights acquisition budgets. But without having some distinctive local content (not just studio-based news and talk shows), African TV stations will struggle to keep market share. Local content always pulls the best audiences. The Nigerian Government clearly wishes to encourage this trend as it has passed legislation insisting that all TV stations only show local content between 6-10pm every evening.

One of the local content “pearls” of the event was DStv talking about its African film library. Through running its Africa Magic and Africa Magic Plus channels, it has acquired a significant catalogue of titles and has the potential to become the “MGM of Africa” in distribution terms.

Interestingly, Canal Plus has no francophone equivalent of these “made in Africa” channels although it would clearly like to if it could find the material. The problem? Francophone African countries make films that win prizes at European festivals but do not have the kind of instinct for the commercial jugular that Nigerian film-makers display.

Many African TV stations seem to be stuck in the “barter zone” where they essentially sell off short-term risk to anyone who will pay. There is an uneasy triangle of programme-makers, sponsors or advertisers and TV stations. The sponsor fronts the production budget in exchange for largely exclusive branding and the programme maker and/or the sponsor take a cut of whatever other advertising revenues can be found.

But as conference speaker Karina Etchison, VP Sales Europe, Africa and Middle East, Telemundo Internacional pointed out “you lose strategic control” and it “may become a bit addictive.” STV’s President Daniel David from Mozambique was complaining about precisely this loss of control: sponsors were insisting on keeping branding for products that were not available in his country and excluding local advertisers. He suggested the creation of local barter syndicates to address these problems.

But there is a bigger issue with whole African production ecology. Most TV channels produce in-house so there is no independent production and post production sector outside the larger markets. In-house production does not always breed creative ideas. New breed production companies like Gabon’s Buldof are seeking to bridge this gap by offering sponsors professional formats, an element of media planning and multi-platform delivery (including SMS and Internet).

But carving out a unique programming niche will have to be achieved under the most intense competitive pressure. Dakar itself 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.

The impact of Pay-TV competition from MMDS distributors like Excaf and Delta has forced Canal Plus to offer a low-cost bouquet in the market. But there is a tension between what conference speaker Mactar Sylla described as content being offered as in “a superstore” where you could buy what you wanted and the allegations made by the association of francophone TV companies that one of the Pay-TV channels has key premium content locked up.

The licence for Youssou NDour’s Future Media TV station is said to be two months away. Mamadou Baal, Directeur de la Television for the Government-financed RTS channel admitted on a Vox Africa TV round table that the pressure was intense but thought himself lucky to have a Government that put up some of its funding.

Further afield Lagos now 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: there is no market research to identify how many people watch any of these channels. In this circumstance, no channel will get more than 20-30% of audience share on a regular basis.

Viasat’s entry into the Free-To-Air market in Ghana has certainly ruffled feathers in what was becoming a rather stable market. One local channel was muttering darkly that it had forced up rights acquisition costs and another was saying that the Government-run GTV was bringing down ad rates and were the only ones with national coverage. And there is still another channel to be launched: watch this space. It’s tough staying upright on a rolling log but if you don’t like the sport, stay at home.

Liberalisation has had a different impact in different countries. In places like Senegal, Ghana and Kenya, the new TV stations are largely independent of the Government but in places like Gabon, liberalization has merely meant the sharing out of business opportunities amongst the business elite, where ownership is closely associated with the ruling party.

There was much comment about LC2’s behaviour with the premium Africa Cup of Nations rights. African TV stations found they were offered them at a silly price and then just before the event, it came back and said, as one TV station told us, “we’re happy to take the peanuts you’re offering us.” Net result? No forward marketing of the event, no pre-programming and as a result, not always the highest advertising and viewership. Is this any way to build the long-term value of Africa’s key sporting event?

The death of Pay-TV challenger GTV attracted much comment and for many there was disappointment that it had not been successful as they felt there was a need for competition in this market. Never one to run away from a challenge, Hi-TV’s CEO Toyin Subair proposed in his conference speech sharing satellite capacity with other smaller, country Pay-TV operators and seeking to put together a consortium to bid for the English Premier League Rights when they come up for sale again in 2010.