The African content has a rich history, filled with cultural diversity and fascinating stories to tell. It’s perfect for content creators, and there are those who have taken advantage of this environment to spread their reach and partner with local players to produce compelling content. Michael Bratt spoke to five of them to get their views on how the African landscape currently looks, the challenges they face, and which countries have the most potential.
The interviewees were Joel Churcher, general manager and vice president, BBC Worldwide Africa; Dillon Khan, vice president Comedy Central Africa and Creative Services VIMNA; Yolisa Phahle, CEO, M-Net; Levern Engel, director of content production, Fox Networks Group Africa; and Pierre van der Hoven, founder and CEO, Tuluntulu
What does the African content picture look like overall and what are some of the content trends being seen in African markets?
Joel Churcher: The four key content genres that resonate in Africa are drama, natural history, factual and light entertainment. Given the array of content on offer, viewers are becoming more sophisticated and demanding in their choices and expect high quality, local and international content. This is what we need to deliver if we’re to stand out in the marketplace.
The BBC’s position on content that works in this region isn’t about local versus international; it’s about great storytelling, variety and choice. Viewers across the African continent are hooked on Mexican and Telenovelas as much as they’re hooked on Games of Thrones, Top Gear and Come Dine With Me. So we know that South Africans want to be part of the global conversation as much as a local one.
Dillon Khan: The content picture is looking bright. We’re seeing more individuals creating content whether on social or digital media. That then starts to create a hot bed of storytellers who might want to take it up a notch by working in the creative industries or set up their own production companies. We’re seeing lots of short form content coming through for digital consumption; international formats tweaked for African audiences; as well as innovative ideas and stories being told from an African perspective.
Yolisa Phahle (left): The productivity of African television and film producers appears to be increasing. This could be linked to an increase in pay TV operators and the multiple platforms that now provide content. This is despite challenging economic conditions in some markets. Content trends worldwide show that drama series, reality television and engaging movies remain a staple for television audiences, and our local audiences are similar in this respect. Audiences are also enjoying the increase in local storytelling in their respective languages.
Levern Engel: In terms of trends – larger, imported formats are giving way to bespoke, local formats. This is cost related – not everyone can afford to produce big budget shows. Music, reality (whether it’s tabloid or observational) and sport (specifically football) continue to dominate in markets where AFPs are the order of the day. Soaps and telenovelas are still big tickets for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and even within this genre viewership figures suggest that our audiences prefer Turkish and Mexican novellas. But overall, audiences want local content.
If you are a content producer in SSA at this point in time, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand increased platforms and channels distributing local content has increased. In simple terms, there is greater potential for producers to put out a lot more content. But here’s the tricky bit – who is paying for it? Very few channels on the continent commission content. They prefer to license finished content. If they are commissioning, they are working with low per minute rates. Everyone talks about AFPs as an alternative. But those who have followed this model will tell you that AFPs are not the easiest to land. Another very real variable are fiscal challenges in almost all key sub-Saharan markets. It’s impacting consumers and it’s impacting advertiser spend. Producers have to work harder than ever to on-sell or pre-sell to a larger number of platforms and channels in order for them to run content businesses that are financially viable.
Pierre van der Hoven: The decreasing cost of data and the rise of usage of smartphones are driving the trend of increasing content consumption in Africa. The market potential is exciting but growth is still slow.
What are the biggest challenges of producing content for African markets?
Dillon Khan: Barriers to entry used to be a lot higher before the turn of the century. Equipment for filming and editing was expensive as was obtaining knowledge before the internet helped democratise the art of ‘know-how’. Today, resources can still be a hurdle but the more we collaborate across the board, the more scale we can create. We have to invest more in up-skilling people, which in turn will create more opportunities and people telling a variety of stories. In the northern hemisphere with its easy access to the internet, anyone can be a broadcaster. Once the same roll out occurs in Africa, there will be lots more YouTube channels and stars as a result. The industry and broadcasters have to also take a risk in newcomers to the market rather than just playing it safe with a handful of suppliers.
Yolisa Phahle: There is really a huge wealth of stories to be told, so a big challenge is being able to select which ones will make it into production and which ones won’t. This, in many ways, is a very good problem to have! Another key challenge is entrenching uniform operating protocols for content production across different markets, some of whom are very mature and established, and others which really are less so. Our audiences are also very sophisticated in some ways, so it is a priority for us to continue to innovate and make sure that we deliver local stories in local languages that are well produced, introduce new formats and differentiate our offering to add value to our subscribers.
Levern Engel: Within production itself, the issue of skills deficits in key production areas is a recurring theme. Another challenge is infrastructure, or lack thereof, in certain territories. This makes producing more expensive. Also, there are limited rebate and incentive schemes that support the production of local content.
Pierre van der Hoven (left): Local content remains popular but is relatively expensive to produce. While the cost of production is decreasing rapidly, monetisation is slow and producers are therefore under financial pressure at the moment. The demand for African content is however increasingly rapidly as more distribution options (online and mobile) reach maturity.
Joel Churcher: As a business operating in South Africa and across African markets, the challenges mirror the countries’ economic situation.
We see more advertisers wanting brand integration, which works well in cases like our successful local production, The Great South African Bake Off. A challenge that the African continent faces as a whole is the speed and reliability of its broadband. Although this doesn’t affect productions as a whole, it is a vital component of ensuring as many people can watch their favourite TV shows when and where they choose.
Do you partner with local content creators in certain markets? If yes, how do these partnerships work and if no, why not?
Yolisa Phahle: M-Net does partner with local content creators and I’m pleased to say that we have done so for a very long time, almost 15 years. We learned very early on that this is the best way to work – regional talent, skills and knowledge is always first prize. These partnerships take a variety of different forms (acquisition, commissioning, licensing) depending on what the desired outcome is. What are standard across these partnerships are mutual respect and an understanding that our audiences are the most important element in our value chain. If we surprise and delight them, our industry grows and our economies develop.
Levern Engel (left): The short answer is yes. But it’s important to understand that a collaborative relationship is not a one size fits all matter. Collaboration can take many forms. And we make decisions on a case-by-case basis. For me the guiding principle for collaborating is about joining forces with someone who brings something of value to the table that you cannot bring. It could be content (that is so compelling you “have to have it”), access, funding, infrastructure, etc. It’s about complementing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. On the FOX local production side, we collaborate with local content creators if we feel that it would be beneficial to a project or title.
Pierre van der Hoven: Tuluntulu has entered into numerous partnerships with local content creators, offering them a 50% share of net revenues.
Joel Churcher: Yes we do. In 2016, BBC Worldwide invested in South African production company, Rapid Blue, which is known locally for making original productions and international television formats for South African and global audiences. With our enviable formats catalogue and our combined knowledge and expertise, working together is enabling us to provide content solutions for broadcasters across the continent, positioning us as the go-to destination for quality television production in Africa.
Dillon Khan: Local content creators make our local productions. We work closely with them to drive the projects to success. The bigger the pool of content creators gets, the more it benefits the industry and viewers.
What African market do you think has the biggest potential for content growth and why?
Levern Engel: There’s a quip in Africa-focused media houses about being on the “cusp” of breaking into a market. Usually in reference to Nigeria. It’s a gag that’s been running for at least 10 years. But it does beg the question, how long does a cusp last? Probably as long as a piece of string. Some markets may be smaller – than say Nigeria – but they will deliver more meaningful and sustainable growth in specific areas (of content). It’s important to get the market sizing right and then gather as much information as possible about what the market can sustain. One lesson we’ve learnt is to create in response to what the market needs – and that isn’t always entertainment. Lesson two… where are the pockets of money that will support the realisation of local content? And then of course, is it sustainable? So again, not a case of one size fits all. Evaluate on a case-by-case basis.
Pierre van der Hoven: South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania are the markets where Tuluntulu has seen the most growth. They all have great potential but are currently restricted due to limited advertising moving to digital and mobile platforms. This will change in time.
Joel Churcher (left): Outside of the United Kingdom, South Africa has the highest level of awareness of the BBC globally. There is a huge appetite for our content and a large potential audience yet to discover the programming we have to offer. For us, South Africa is the gateway to the rest of Africa, and being established and well reputed in this market offers us opportunities for long-term growth across the continent. Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana have been identified as key regions for growth.
Dillon Khan: With a fast growing youth population and penetration of technology happening across Africa, the entire continent has potential. So many stories are yet to be told from our continent, and the international market for it is wide open with not just traditional broadcasters but also digital platforms such as Netflix.
Yolisa Phahle: Nigeria and South Africa are currently probably the biggest content producers. The infrastructure has been established, new technology is constantly being introduced, and the talent pool is diverse. East Africa is also growing. Kenya and Tanzania have great local production expertise. We are now also investing in Zambia and can see great potential there. I am also sure that we will see great things from many other countries in Africa over the next few years, this is a continent full of great story tellers and the size of our population means there is huge potential.
Which African markets do you have a presence in and which ones are you eyeing for expansion of your business?
Pierre van der Hoven: Our app is available in all African markets. Tuluntulu is currently predominantly English, but already includes content in French, German, Arabic and a number of other African languages. The challenge is to increase usage in all African markets as well as from people not living in Africa that would be interested in African content.
Joel Churcher: The content hosted on our channels through our partner DStv, reaches a diverse pan-African audience across 54 Sub-Saharan countries, reflecting a wide range of voices, ages and cultures. Our African sales business is also steadily increasing and in early 2017 nearly 800 hours of programming was sold across the wider African continent. We have worked closely with Kenyan FTA’s and also with Zuku TV, East Africa’s leading home entertainment operator. It means that BBC Drama is now appearing on primetime commercial television and our BAFTA award-winning channel CBeebies is now available to many more homes in the region.
Dillon Khan (left): VIMN Africa offers the most comprehensive international broadcast portfolio on the African continent, reaching more than 100 million viewers across 52 territories in Africa. VIMN Africa currently comprises 15 separate TV channels and five consumer websites, as well as multiple mobile and social media sites.
Yolisa Phahle: M-Net has a presence in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. Our staff travel extensively and we are also more focused on Zambia, and the other SADC countries. We believe that African stories have the potential to find audiences both at home and in the rest of the world.
Levern Engel: We have a presence in SSA through our channels in 37 African countries through the National Geographic Society who are supporting explorers across the continent and through FOX Sport (who committed to a long term partnership with WAFU in West Africa and Boxing in East Africa). There isn’t any real reason to restrict ourselves on the content front. Whether it’s through the content production support we lend to our colleagues in the Group or through partnerships with external producers, we are already present in the key markets/regions in SSA. The strategic consideration driving expansion is: Does it add value to our business? And while value isn’t always monetary, it does help.
This article originally appeared in The Media magazines Africa Annual. Click here to read the digizine version.