African broadcasters - How to respond to the digital challenge in increasingly tough economic times
29 July 2022
Africa’s broadcasters nearly all took a financial hit during Covid-19 and are now about to face the impact of a global economic downturn. Russell Southwood tries to unpick the business choices that will help broadcasters through this new wave of turbulence.
I’ve looked at two aspects of these financial pressures which are already very evident: the slide in the value of Pay TV incomes because of local currency devaluation (see issue 388) and the likely slowdown in advertising revenues this year after the bounce-back last year (see issue 386).
Digital is already disrupting traditional broadcasting forms in Africa and as bandwidth speeds improve and prices fall will continue to do so. In days of yore, being a broadcaster in Africa used to mean that you both made content and owned or leased the means of distribution. For example, Kenya’s Citizen TV went to a great deal of time and trouble to create its own physical broadcast network. The business model was vertically integrated.
But digital has disaggregated the means of production from the means of distribution. In that rather inelegant and dead phrase, broadcasters are now ‘content producers’, using multiple channels to connect their content with audiences.
Perhaps the biggest impact of Covid-19 has been how it has changed broadcasters’ attitudes to what broadcast TV is supposed to look like. There’s now much greater acceptance that people can be interviewed using Zoom and Skype. For TV reporters unable to move around so easily during lockdown, picking over social media for stories took on a much greater significance.
Many broadcasters are part of multimedia groups that run TV, radio and newspapers. The ‘holy grail’ for these multimedia groups is to create news content that can be used across different media. TV news and feature content can be collected in such a way that it can be repurposed for radio use and vice-versa.
Digital technology means that reporters and other content creators can both collect and send content from a far wider geographic area and often as live broadcasts from a phone. It means broadcasters can get closer to their audiences and the experiences they are going through. This might be in the traffic jams of the big cities or with the family farmer on the Shamba. As local viewers find themselves under the same economic pressures as broadcasters themselves, the broadcasters can champion the struggles of those viewers to make ends meet. And this applies as much to the overstretched, middle class salary owner as the mother trying to make ends meet by selling vegetables by the side of the road.
The other part of the digital piece is distribution: terrestrial, satellite, streaming and social media. The challenge is to find ways that work to connect your content to the largest number of the people you are promising to deliver. Here the choices are different for where you are in the market.
If you are one of the top four broadcasters still holding on to a significant terrestrial audience, then everything else will orbit round this central core. You can use your large audience to promote all your other channels. But your secondary channels are unlikely to challenge – in audience numbers terms - the primacy of your terrestrial audience. These top players have often created a market research infrastructure that measures audiences and provides reassurance to advertisers.
However, if you are one of 20-50 channels on a DTT platform struggling to find new audiences then any additional distribution channel will give you greater reach. The skill will be in picking the channels that are most appropriate for the audience you are targeting. For low-income audiences, it might be a text-based service and for a younger demographic the up-and-coming Tik-Tok platform. If one channel is not working, close it down and try another one. In the absence of market research data on audiences, visible numbers of subscribers on social media platforms are not a bad substitute.
Finally, to succeed new channels need new talent and although this may take a long time to establish, there are short-cuts. The comedian attracting several hundred thousand views on YouTube or the smart mouth with good insights on Twitter will both still understand the attractions of terrestrial TV. It provides a form of validation. It says you’ve arrived.
I don’t know what African broadcast will look like in ten years time but it surely not be the same as it is now. The future is there to be seized. For as Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was often misquoted as saying: “You’re either part of the problem or part of the solution.”
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