The art of being different: Africa’s broadcasters seek to differentiate themselves in crowded markets

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Last week’s 2nd Broadcast and Film Africa Conference had many topics but one that came through at almost every turn was the need for African broadcasters to understand what it means to differentiate themselves in increasingly crowded markets. Russell Southwood looks at what the best African broadcasters think makes them stand out in a crowd.

By the end of 2010 there will be 20 TV stations operating in Uganda.  The same country has something like 190 radio stations, whilst Kenya has nearly 150 radio stations. There are 30 radio stations in Ghana’s capital Accra alone, competing with 10 TV stations and 15 newspapers. About two-thirds of Africa’s media markets have been liberalised and where they have been, competition has been fierce. More competitors are coming: as one speaker at the conference pointed out, Africa’s newest mobile entrant Bharti (who bought Zain) have a TV operation in India.

Flick across the TV channels in these crowded markets and it’s often hard to tell the difference between them: morning news; morning gap to fill with cheap programmes because not many people are watching; lunchtime news; afternoon gap to fill with cheap programmes, etc; early evening news; entertainment/film; mid-evening news; etc, etc.

All of the TV stations draw on the same pool of international entertainment and sport fare which includes the three “woods” (Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood), telenovelas, and US prime time series. There is occasional local content but local largely means studio-based news. If you switch radio stations, it’s all talk and music in varying quantities with few things that make any one station stick in the mind in most places. The music programming is at best scattershot.

These “identikit” time-based TV channels all follow the same programming templates and take almost no risks to expand their market share. If one channel does something interesting, you can be sure that all the others will start doing it as soon as they can. This is the “me-too” approach to television innovation which gives everything a slightly stale feel. There’s something for everybody but not something for someone that will make them loyal and open to more.

Two big differentiators were talked about at the Broadcast and Film Africa Conference: local content and technology. Local content was how Citizen TV in Kenya crawled out of the ranks of the also-rans and became the number one broadcaster. Technology differentiation is more about the standards, quality and devices you deliver your content on.

The Chair of the Conference’s session on local content Salim Amin, A24 wondered out loud how it was that a poorly dubbed Mexican TV series has an enormous audience in Kenya. His dilemmas was that the UK’s Channel 4 will buy one of his documentaries for US$50,000 but a local Kenyan TV channel “wanted me to pay to air the programme.”

Although the leading TV channel, NTV Uganda’s General Manager Joe Munene spoke about the need to create “appointment viewing” so that viewers were so loyal to a particular programme that they showed up every time it was on to watch it. He said that African TV broadcasters may need to re-invent the business model: hybrid FTA and Pay TV? Niche channels? It’s all to play for in the fragmenting media landscape.

Cherise Barsell, Africa Executive of the continent’s media market DISCOP explained that its survey had shown that 90% of African broadcasters are looking for quality African productions. Why aren’t they buying? The cost of the rights is too expensive compared to international fare, especially the low end at US$200-300 per hour. Distributors say they can’t lower rights costs because of high production costs. Her solutions will not make comfortable listening for producers and directors but have the ring of truth about them: decrease production costs and lower quality slightly; co-productions; and increase distribution, beyond national borders in Africa and beyond Africa. She gave the example of France’s TV5 buying two African series for a non-diaspora channel. With internationally accessible content, language is the key. The next DISCOP in Nairobi in September will include a pitching session where producers can pitch to local commissioning editors.

The session on differentiating yourself in the crowded FM radio market included a barnstorming presentation from the CEO of Radio Africa Patrick Quarcoo which runs Kiss FM and Classic FM. He said that the old patterns of radio must be broken for new stations to emerge. He urged those running stations to take risks and learn from other industries how they can compete. His mantra was “slice and dice”: find an exploitable niche that you create. It needed to be emotional radio that created a bond, whether that was through political debate that spoke the unspeakables or advertising that stuck its tongue out at the establishment. He gave the example Metro FM that was just another radio station until it became reggae themed. It doesn’t matter if others hate what you do so long as your chosen niche audience love it.

Moses Nyama of QFM in Zambia said it had become one of the most interactive radio stations in the country. He recommended that you get out and broadcast where people are in a glass cube. He said that lots of youths in Zambia are interested in Facebook and that QFM’s Facebook page is the biggest in the country.

Samule Attah-Mensah of Ghana’s CitiFM told a telling anecdote against himself to illustrate the point about differentiation. He went to a local advertising agency to explain what his radio station was going to do. The person across the table from him listened to the pitch and said so it’s a copy of Joy FM (one of Ghana’s leading radio stations):”If a hole could have opened up in the ground at that moment, I would have jumped into it”. He pointed out that radio broadcasters compete with other media and that radio has just under 30% of the media pie. He talked of competing for the “hearts and minds” of people, the same territory as the emotional radio Quarcoo talked about. There was also a trust issue: you had to be able to say, if you heard it from CitiFM, it must be the truth. He gave the example of new entrant Happy FM, a vernacular focused on sport which had become a “huge success”. He counselled avoiding head-on conflicts with existing stations and the need for a good understanding of your local market: a capital city is not the rest of the country. He also urged broadcasters to find and dominate niche markets by using targeted events (with in his examples, the business community, Christian community). His modest but hard to achieve advice was: be known for at least one thing.

In the themed channel session, George Kimani, Head of Direct Sales Kiss TV and Classic TV suggested why not have an agricultural channel? Often 40-60% of any African country’s economy was in the farming sector and there were a number of big advertisers wanting to sell products to farmers. He may be ahead of the market but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Media planner Lenny Nganga of Saracen OMD pointed out how programme choices were often suppressed by the means of delivery. Most African households were single TV set households where the person with the remote made the viewing choices. Teenagers may want to watch music videos but the father with the remote makes them watch news. The rise of multiple sources of household equipment breaks down this pattern. PVRs  allow time-shifting and cheap second TVs allow a breakdown of the family watches together. The same is true of increasingly ubiquitous laptop in urban areas. State broadcasters would potentially be the biggest losers as do not have “good processes to introduce new things.” For advertisers looking at a themed channel the questions were: Is it delivering a unique audience cost-effectively? Is the cost of reaching this niche audience via a standard time-based FTA more expensive than via a themed channel.

In terms of local film, Lizzie Chingoti, CEO of the Kenya Film Commission said that  Kenya has a draft film policy which has as one of its objectives facilitating capacity building in the industry. The Government is proposing to build a Film City in Mulele Park on the edge of the capital. She said that: “The quantity (of local content) will drive the quality” and that viewers want “local story lines that people can relate to.” She said that productions that were outsourced to local independent production companies were of a far higher quality than those produced in-house by the broadcasters themselves. She also pointed out that DStv/MNet were prepared to pay 10 times more than local broadcasters.

Myke Rybar, CEO, Homeboyz set up animation studio with 50 animators to service Tiger Aspect’s production of Tinga Tinga, of which there is now six months production time left of production. It is showing on the BBC’s CBeebies in UK and Disney Channel in the USA. It “ignited an animation industry for Africa and we’re now being asked to do similar projects.” The animators learnt their skills in their bedrooms. It is produced in HD with 5.12 surroundsound and going on Disney means productions have to be made to the highest standards. He said there arte now three new professional associations in Kenya: Kenya Film and TV Professionals, Kenya TV Association and a newly formed Actors Guilds. DANIDA is providing funding to strengthen the associations.

Mike Dearham, Head of Library Acquisition and Sales, MNet South Africa pointed out that many films are shot on location  in Botswana and Kenya but not many are actually made there. There is no framework to produce audio-visual production as is seen elsewhere in the world. (Although this was in a week that the UK Government decided to axe the UK Film Council.). He stressed the need for film-makers to understand the film financing process. He pointed out that the screenplay has to be of high quality (too often too little time was spent on it) and that low budget productions were the best place to start. There was a continent-wide deficit in producer skills. He said that Ousmane Sembene’s Moolade was most successful African film made. And it was made for a budget of US$2 million “tops”. The key to Sembene’s financial success was his ability to master the finance models available. There is an over-reliance or dependence on broadcasters for finance. There is little collaboration between Governments. There are no regional co-production treaties and there is no regional strategic plan. Too many film-makers rely on foreign film subsidies, whether from Governments or NGOs. Film-makers need to retain copyright control, not give it up to the first person offering money and make sure the profits come back to the film-maker.

Film distributor Trushna Buddhev Patel, General Manager Africa, Pan-African Film Distributors said that box office revenues for Nigerian films in cinema exhibition had gone from 0.7% to 3% of total revenues and that the figure “is growing”. She that films in Ghana run for “one week then go straight to video. It works for them”.

Technology can provide a differentiating factor, especially for Pay TV operators. Suhayl Esmailjee, COO, Wananchi said that it would soon be launching HD channels that were being distributed to it via the new fibre. It is aiming to provide 300 channels. It is also launching a DTH satellite service across the region to reach those places its cable and wireless network cannot reach. Anne-Marie Meijer, East Africa Manager, Globecast noted that:”HD is becoming the norm for international sport from Africa.”

Jason Lobel, Regional Sales Director, NDS highlighted that 5% of total revenues for major players in the USA was from VOD. He talked about how it was now possible to plug a hard drive into a set-top box and give more storage and functionality. (I can attest to this as the purchase of a Humax PVR has changed my viewing habits completely. Reason? A completely intuitive user interface.) Lobel argued that set-top boxes for FTA channels should be open, not proprietary.

As ever, Daniel Obam of Kenya’s Digital Task Force was a dash of cold water on too many high hopes. He told us that there had been problems keeping the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) updated and functioning. There will also still funding problems. The Government were looking for external partners to invest in single signal carrier, Signet. The deadline is 6 August for submissions. The Government has also set its hear on introducing DVB-T2, for which the set-top boxes are more expensive.

The early dividends from the transition?:”I can now see EATV where I live whereas I couldn’t before.” There were also two new channels: Bunge from KBC which gives parliamentary coverage and an education channel managed by the Kenya Institute of Education. But the country had not done any consumer education because of budget issues and there were confusions over MPEG2 and MPEG4 set-top boxed. The launch has started in Nairobi with 3-4 million people and the rest of the country later. But there is not yet the budget to do this. A Big investment in roll-out infrastructure needed. To maximise impact, broadcasters should be sharing transmission resources.

In terms of broadcast distribution, Anne-Marie Meijer, Globecast said 81% of distribution of material was by satellite before the fibre arrived. This has now gone down to 45% but overall capacity has more than doubled. MPEG4 is improving the amount of capacity required.

The message of the conference was that the successful broadcasters of the future will be those that put money into local content, take risks and dare to be different. Only time will tell if Africa’s innovators or the “me-too” brigade emerges victorious in the market.