Uganda: the TV audience race


Joe Munene, the former NTV General Manager, hands over to his successor Aggie Konde Asiimwe. NTV’s tight turf tussle has turned lenses on some unusual strategies

When new NTV Uganda Managing Director Aggie Konde Asiimwe took over in February she told staff: “I am happy to join the leading TV brand in the country that has come through the years. “I am going to continue positioning ourselves at the top by offering exciting programmes to our viewers. They should not turn off their dials.”

Six months down the road, she finds her station embroiled in the toughest turf tussle the TV business in Uganda has witnessed since it was liberalised about 10 years ago.

Hired to ensure that NTV meets the 70% local content requirement of the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) while keeping the top spot; she reportedly negotiated an expanded budget and autonomy from her handlers at the Nairobi headquarters of the Kenya-based parent company, Nation Media Group.

But instead of sticking to controlling the high income English language corporate audience segment, she opted to go down-market for the mass vernacular audience. This strategy has put her in direct competition with an unusual opponent; a bullish vernacular station called Bukedde TV.

Bukedde TV was already swallowing up more market share and NTV was experiencing a slight loss of ground when Konde took office.  Still, NTV was ahead by a seven-point gap according to aMediaCT report for 2012 weekly audience reach by the leading TV market research firm, IPSOS Synovate. In a survey area of about 4.8 million people, NTV was at 69% and Bukedde at 56%.

Back then, NTV’s main competition in the high income English language segment was considered to be WBS and its other current headache, Urban TV was barely out of diapers. NTV was confortable because the 2011 IPSOS report had given Urban TV a weekly reach of just 4% of viewers and WBS 36%. At the time NTV had a commanding weekly reach of 71%. Bukedde was at 43%.

By early 2013 it was clear NTV was losing market share as the competition gained. According to the 2012 IPSOS report, Urban TV had surged 8 percent age points to grab 12% of weekly reach and Bukedde was up a whopping 13 percentage point at 56%.

Meanwhile, NTV had ceded ground and was at 69% reach, same as UBC which stood at 47% from 49%. But the biggest loser was WBS TV which had shed 5 points to slump to 31%. But the 2012 IPSOS report also threw up a surprising new power-player; NBS TV.

Although NBS TV has been in operation for about six years, it has only recently made its market presence felt. The 2012 IPSOS Report showed it had jumped 10 percentage points to hit a weekly reach of 37% of the survey area. It was ahead of the more established WBS TV and was also staring down NTV. Konde had to act – fast.

The IPSOS 2012 report had showed NTV to have the strongest preference in the news segment at 38%. But while the Luganda news; Akawungezi had an 18% preference rating, the English news at 9pm was preferred by just 7% of those surveyed. The soaps, mainly Spanish and Filipino telenovelas, were at 13% preference.

NTV under Konde has appeared determined to concentrate on its strong points in the news and soaps segment. But the 70% local content requirement has led to entry of more local music and drama programmes.

Konde has rehired former weekend news anchor Rukh-Shana Namuyimba who left in 2011 and appointed, as news manager, the veteran news anchor, Maurice Mugisha who had been away at NTV’s Nairobi based sister-station, NTV Kenya. She has also rehired former reporters like Emma Mutaizibwa who had quit and joined print news in 2011.

For the music programmes she poached Bukedde TV’s Omubimba presenter Miles Rwamiti to present Koona ne Rwamiti and Douglas Lwanga; the former Record TV presenter of Katogo to present NTV’s music show; The Beat.

She has also introduced new programming mainly in Luganda aimed at the down-market mass market. There is the sports show; OmumuliGw’emizannyo and a local drama; Deception.

Joel Isabirye, a media consultant, says these changes target Bukedde TV’s Luganda viewers and not NTV’s traditional corporate English market.  BukeddeTV’s  Luganda news `Agataaliko      Nfuufu’ has a very high preference rate of 65 %, followed by its Indian soaps with vernacular voice-overs at 13%. Its other news programmes, dramas and comedy are rated a lowly viewer preference 3%.

Isabirye says based on this, Konde’s strategy could be hurting NTV.

“NTV thought that the only way to beat Bukedde is to go local and woo its viewers but they have become followers and lost identity,” he says.

He says NTV should instead have started a separate Luganda channel that would directly compete with Bukedde and keep NTV firmly in charge of the English TV market.

“Vision Group is winning in this battle because it has a wide platform with two Luganda TV stations and Urban TV that targets the English speaking urban youth. The group also enjoys basic economies of scale that its rivals do not enjoy at the moment,” George W. Lugalambi, a media analyst with a background of research says.

He says NTV’s initial target was the middle class, predominantly English speakers between 25 and 50 years.

Geoffrey Ssenoga, a lecturer of TV broadcasting at Uganda Christian University says Konde is following the trend of most TV managers of “spicing up” the news.

“TV news is a flagship programme of any station,” he says, “It has the highest audience rating of any station reflected in the way it attracts adverts within the programme to full sponsorship.”

Some stations have sponsors for the entire newscast while others sell out slots during the newscast. NTV’s strategy could, therefore, be driven by the urgency to maintain its command on the TV advertising spending. The IPSOS Ad index reported that Shs576 billion was spent in the media from January to December 2012.

Of the Ad spend market share among the eleven free to air TV stations, NTV had 23%, UBC, WBS and Bukedde 1 at 16%, NBS 15 %,Record 4%, and Top TV 2%. NTV’s spot among the top four stations means it get sales revenue above Shs1 billion per month.

The trouble is the top five spenders include telecom companies; MTN, Airtel, Orange, and Warid, and the household consumer goods Mukwano Group. The rest; households, media, and entertainment accounted for just 15% of ad spend.  This means TV stations need to be strong in the down market mass market to remain attractive to advertisers.

NTV is still solid sales revenue-wise. In the Nation Media Group 2012 investor briefing released in March this year, it earned 35 % increase in advertising revenue and 268% in operating profit. Although some analysts say its move to court the down market crowd could cost its high end corporate viewership, there is yet no evidence to show if this is such a bad move.

Natural reproduction means this lower mass audience, with its higher aggregate demographics intersected by language, keeps expanding faster than those for English and Swahili audience. Rural-urban migration and social economic mobility also bring in more local people who watch television most because of their lifestyle and activities they are engaged in. They are the shop attendants, beauticians, restaurant workers, and house-helps.

Ssenoga and other media experts say this crowd is the main reason for the changes in programmes, presenters, and branding.

“The products advertised on these flagship programmes are mainly cheap common products consumed by the ordinary person such as airtime, soft drinks and body creams,” says Ssenoga.

The challenge is whether NTV can win the down market crowd.

Lugalambi says the audience that speaks Luganda is big and attractive. But he says NTV might fail to win it over.

“NTV has gone down market to woo this audience,” he says, “but it is unfortunately struggling with identity and how best to position itself in this fight.”

Lugalambi’s view matches data gathered by Major Media, a research company, covering the month of June 2013. It showed NTV falling behind NBS and Bukedde in viewership around Kampala.

In usage and consideration categories, NBS and Bukedde had the highest proportion of those that watched TV in the past four weeks among the top income bracket while NBS and NTV had the lowest levels of future rejection in the 2012 IPSOS Media CT Report. Along the way, NTV lost the Tusker Project Fame franchise to the Vision Group and WBS has introduced free viewing of selected matches of the popular English Premiership League.

Joseph Kigozi, the NBS spokesperson says the audience is migrating because his station has more programmes while other stations have only news and has already met the 70% local content requirement. He points at more sports, live broadcasts, and entertainment such as late chat, lunch time request, and its partnership with Star times, with over 200,000 subscribers. He predicts that NBS will get to the top because Bukedde’s run will be “short lived”.

Ssenoga agrees. “NBS is slow but surely building up an audience base that is not loud but dependable and they are beginning to be taken seriously; observe their consistent and increasing advertising. It is also being referred to by a not so local audience which is again not too sophisticated, as a station they often tune in to.”

Lugalambi has two options for NTV: “Go full scale to reach all markets or stick to the original market.” He says NTV has a demographic and psychographics segment in terms of age, income, attitudes and interests, activities, opinions, and values that appeal to advertisers especially corporate companies that have huge ad budgets.

The NTV audience is viewed as cosmopolitan in their world view and 95% middle class that own TVs and are consistent viewers the station could manipulate.

On the other flank, Isabirye says Urban will soon fill up the gap in the English market created by NTV’s down-market migration. He says NBS might not be in position to fill it because it is following NTV’s strategy of mixing English and Luganda programming.

“NBS is also jostling for space hence both NTV and NBS are under-serving their niche market. Urban TV may soon fill up that space,” Lugalambi says.

Mark Walungama, the head of TV at Vision Group which owns Bukedde TV is enjoying his dominant position and is quite magnanimous when speaking about the surge of his three stations; Bukedde TV and Urban TV.  He says what we are witnessing is not competition in the industry but “market distortion and positioning”.

“The competition has not started, people are just positioning themselves because of Bukedde, and time will tell if they are in the right positioning,” he told The Independent in an interview.

He could be right because Vision Group success is similar to that of other cross-media enterprises like the Nation Media Group which own interests in radio, television, print and online media.

These can continue expanding systematically, particularly in the broadcast sector, to cover different regional and demographic segments of the market. But this strategy is not a sure win either as the Vision Group’s latest offering; Bukedde 2 is suffering market entry blues.

Walungama’s corner has also come under attack from media experts like Senoga who say some media managers have taken advantage of the lack of sophistication of the lower mass audience groups to serve half-baked information.

“There are lots of half-truths on the interactive debates and lure of audiences into gambling,” he says, “When you watch our stations on the satellite channels you can see that the quality of our production is struggling; but so are almost all African stations. They seem bland.”

These are no longer the 1970s when Uganda had only one TV station, Uganda TV (now UBC) and local  production was limited to talk shows, 15 minute daily news bulletins, and studio based performances that had a lot of choral singing as either independent programmes or be used as filler music.

Still, most Ugandans will be surprised that UCC figures show 33 TV channels were licensed to operate as free to air stations as of December 2011 in different regions of the country with about three million TV sets.

In total, there are 40 television stations on air, with an additional 18 licensed though not on air. This compares with nine television channels in 2004. The stations broadcast in English, French, Kiswahili as well as various indigenous Ugandan languages to different parts of the country.

Now television is a 24 hour operation. Technological improvements mean a computer editor can manipulate quality images while digital cameras with quality picture have flooded the market.

“TV has stepped off its pedestal and come down to serve its audiences; first as a way of survival-since they are commercial stations- but also to reap money from them; for there is little investment in the making of these programmes(news, soap operas and dramas), ”says Senoga.

“Many skeptics claim that it is not sustainable but local audiences are very local centric, almost tribal that you can rely on their loyalty to feed them garbage for a time and you can grow in quality with sophistication with them,” Senoga adds.

Senoga says the UCC’s 70% local content requirement is unlikely to improve the situation.

Walungama says some of the poor quality is because the TV industry is young and operators have no practical vocational training.

“How can graduates say they specialised in broadcast when they have never held a microphone or a camera?” he says.

This is where NTV which strives for a more professional approach, especially with its news and current affairs programming, could snatch the momentum from Bukedde, Urban TV, and NBS TV. In the battle for eyeballs and ad revenue, only those stations that innovate will win.