DISCOP 2017: Economic pressures are forcing changes on African broadcasters

2 November 2017

Top Story

Africa’s leading TV content market is a barometer of the health and progress of the continent’s broadcast industry. Russell Southwood sifts the tea-leaves to see what can be said about future prospects.

DISCOP attracted 1,506 attendees from 81 countries including 37 Sub-Saharan African nations. The market was over one floor this year that made it easier to find people. Subjectively it seemed about the same size as last year and not surprisingly somewhat reduced from its peak size in previous years. Economically Sub-Saharan Africa is going through tougher times, particularly in major markets like Angola, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.

Sensing a change in the market, DISCOP’s organizer Patrick Zuchowicki has announced plans to do two new markets in addition to Johannesburg and Abidjan. In 2018 he will run an edition of DISCOP in Zanzibar for East Africa that will coincide with the Zambia International Film Festival (11-13 July 2018). In 2019 DISCOP will have a Nigeria event, dates to be announced.

"We believe in the "regionalization" of the Sub-Saharan African entertainment market place and our plan to have four markets available by 2019 has been very well received. Until recently, the Sub-Saharan African entertainment content marketplace was dominated by one or two players, and thus negatively impacted by minimal income opportunities and chronic lack of funding for independent producers. Today, competition is intensifying, with massive investments in internet connectivity, a steady migration to digital terrestrial television and significant smart phone adoption, mobile, digital and online content distribution platforms are challenging the dominance of previously dominant operators”.

The DISCOP event in Johannesburg will also see two new additions: DISCORE aimed at music executives wanting to establish stronger relations with the film, television and online content industries and DISCOMICS aimed at the animation and video game industries.

Nick Wilson’s Animation Network put together a strong conference stream to showcase animation from across the continent, giving it both a profile and a presence. Two prize-winning projects from DISCOP go forward to take part in Annecy’s prestigious Animation du Monde in 2018 event. The two winners were: Mumue by Wendy Spinks & Clea Mallinson from South Africa and L’arbre à Palimpseste by Ingrid Agbo from Togo.

The BBC announced that it will making a staggering 800 hours of Africa programming in English, Swahili and Hausa. Programmes will include: investigative documentaries; daily and weekly business programmes; a 30 minute entertainment show exploring health, food and lifestyle; a factual show aimed at 10-16 year olds; a sports show; and a womens’ programme. The majority of its new African content will be produced and presented from our new multimedia production studios in Nairobi and Lagos.

The African Pay TV market is undergoing a fundamental shift as economic pressures make it more costly to buy international content and behaviors slowly shift as more VoD platforms begin to expand. Earlier in the year the media was full of speculation that MTN was going to buy DStv. It didn’t happen but the underlying story is that Naspers is open to offers on its Sub-Saharan DStv business.

If that sale went through then the whole dynamic of the market would shift and become a great deal more fluid. Kwese TV is building up an impressive staff and content offer but so far no public numbers, which makes it hard to judge actual performance underneath the announcements. Star Times was at DISCOP but was fairly quiet compared to previous years and Wananchi was simply not present, which tells its own story.

According to Dataxis, the number of pay-TV subscribers across Africa reached 23.7 million in the second quarter of 2017, an 18 percent jump from the previous year. The research firm expects the total subscriber base for the continent to approach 35 million by 2022, nearly doubling since 2016.

The slow transition to DTT in Africa is often commented on: less than half of African countries have come anywhere close to completion. But in those more competitive markets where the transition has taken place, the number of channels has increased significantly.

Traditional Free-To-Air channels have tended to hold on to their primary positioning but other channels have become serious challengers. A satellite delivered, Free To Air bouquet in Ghana (Multimedia) has many channels at the top of the audience charts and a similar platform in Ethiopia (Kana TV) - which dubs popular programmes into Amharic - has done the same.

I moderated the session on VoD platforms in Africa. Prospects are good in the long-term but in the short-term, there are a number of issues like data prices, piracy and free content (on You Tube) holding things back.

Showmax Africa head Chris Savides noted that audiences in Nairobi already had their own version of video-on-demand: Pirated content which was downloaded, distributed on flash drives, and often delivered to your door. I made the point that these people were spending dollars on a weekly and monthly basis and this must be the money African VoD platforms need to be chasing.

There are an estimated 180 VoD platforms across the continent being accessed by a wide range of devices but most consistently and in greatest numbers by mobile phones. The big players doing battle include Naspers’ owned Showmax, Netflix, iFlix, Econet Media’s Kwesé and Iroko. MTN pulled its own VoD offer at the end of last year and is focusing on being a distribution channel for other VoD platforms.

No-one platform suits all audiences and small regional players will thrive in locally focused content niches. Manny Teixeira, MTN’s group head of digital media and services said: “What we’re not doing is finding a lot of services…that talk to local communities. We have 230 million subscribers. That’s who I’ve got to serve.”

None of the big players are giving out numbers so we can reasonably guess that the numbers are not yet good enough to give out.

Teixeira cited a study that 50% of African smart phone users regularly switch off their data out of fear that auto updates and unexpected usage will exhaust their data supply. “Data consumption on mobile is an expensive medium at the moment. It’s a challenge that we face on a daily basis.”

It’s a much tougher market out there but this market pressure may well force change more quickly. A lot of what were the dominant Free To Air players in competitive markets are now feeling shell-shocked. Social media pressure on Government broadcasters is making them think much harder about how the can keep audiences. Change is going to come…..

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