ZEM: Canal Overseas Africa co-produces new series made in Togo

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One of the African broadcast industry’s challenges in 2010 is how to generate enough income to start commissioning local programme and doing it in such a way that there is at least some hope of secondary rights income in other territories. Sponsors need to see that establishing local fiction franchises rather than just reality shows provide deep roots for their brands. Interestingly, francophone Pay TV operator Canal Plus Overseas has just launched its first short-format fiction series. Perhaps it will be the continent’s Pay TV operator – DStv and Canal Plus – who will prove to be the pioneers.

Francophone Pay TV operator Canal Plus Overseas Africa will launched a new mini-series produced in Togo on 4 January. The series has been produced by Jean-Luc Rabatel and Angela Aquerebu.

ZEM is a “shortcom” format across 26 episodes and will be shown on Canal + in Sub-Saharan Africa. It will air daily in the week before the prime time programme and all episodes will be re-shown at the weekend.

ZEM is a story of three people who personify the “Zemidjans”, Togolese who drive motorcyle taxis. Yaya is the one who has come back from Paris. Agbasco is the the wise one and Gog is the naïf. The story revolves around the three pertsonalities and their work misadventures and their family life. Each episode of ZEM has a strong theme like immigration that is tackled in an original and funny way.

ZEM is the first fiction programme (outside of films shot primarily for cinema) produced by Canal Overseas Africa. Word has got round about its existence and it already stirred a lot of interest on the Internet. 300,000 people have viewed the first three episodes on Dailymotion.

Jean-Noel Tronc, President D-G of Canal Overseas Africa said:”We are very happy to be associated with this first African fiction co-production (for our company). In the same spirit as “Un gars, une fille” and “Camera Café”, ZEM is a shortcom format, funny and relevant with formidable actors. This series is innovative for the continent and demonstrates our commitment to develop series for our African subscribers.”

African broadcasters need to commission local fiction material that can then be sold to other markets in Africa. The objective must be to get material that has a three to five year life and maybe even an archive existence after that initial period. The premium showing will be on the commissioning channel. If it is successful, in a digital world, it would have a second life on a catch-up channel. In parallel, it should be shown on diaspora channels. After that, its success would then be leveraged through sales to other secondary markets and through sales to DStv/Multichoice’s Africa Magic Plus Channel. After that, it may get an after-life as a VOD product, a streaming product or on local cable stations.

The challenges to achieving this kind of “juicing the orange” approach to production sales are two-fold: creative ideas and talent and language. On the first, too much of Africa’s rather thin stream of commissioned TV fiction output is derivative. Broadcast commissioners need to up their game in terms of ideas, script writing (particularly for comedy) and directing. This is not about big budgets but getting some of the raw talent and good stories that exist out there on the screen.

Language is a challenge to all secondary sales of programmes but maybe more has been made of it than makes sense. Nollywood’s use of Ninglish has travelled all across the continent, including to francophone Africa. Canal Plus’ ZEM is in French and therefore can potentially reach all Sub-Saharan francophone territories. Why? Well it’s not just about language but stories and characters people will recognize from across the continent.

Motor taxi operators are found in many of the continent’s countries. The attempts to ban them in Lagos (because of their scant sense of road safety) have made them a national talking point. The character of the pompous police inspector in Citizen TV’s Inspekta Mwala is another archetype found in more than one African country. However, the hurdle here is that there are three different variants of Swahili: the official national language version of Tanzania (which is more proper than the other two), Kenya’s informal and slangy version, and a third version spoken by far fewer people in Uganda.

Kenyan George Kimani of Continental Content Distribution would beg to differ:”There was a show from Tanzania which was sold to a Kenyan TV station for US$700 per episode over a 24 episode series. The producer is Tanzanian. It did very well. That producer did a further 48 episodes with much higher quality because he re-invested. It did better in Kenya on the ratings and was a number 2 show. It got sponsored from the third episode. From the moment it crossed the border, there was a lot of appreciation. It was something fresh.”

“Tanzanians have a much better business model than we do. In Kenya, we adopted the Hollywood model. Crews will take about 40% of the budget, actors are paid about 20% and post-production is about 30%. A cameraman charges US$500 a day to be on the set and a Producer will charge US$1,000 a day to be on the set. A director gets just below say US$800. These are ridiculous costs to have on a daily basis.”

“The Tanzanian model is to plan the shooting of 24 episodes and take 2 months to shoot it. Then all the actors and crew are on monthly salaries for those two months and get paid every 30 days. If you finish early, you still get paid. You can work within a set budget. Tanzania is producing many more films and series than Kenyans.”