By Russell Southwood
Published December 20, 2015
The year 2015 continued to be dominated by the painfully slow progress of Africaâ€™s transition to digital broadcasting.
As predicted, the majority of African countries did not make the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)â€™s June 2015 deadline for digital terrestrial television (DTT) migration. Even now, six months later, only a handful of countries have actually finished the transition process.
Although more countries have now started making more detailed plans for implementation, the road to completion seems to be littered with legal challenges.
In Nigeria in November 2014, Pinnacle Communications Ltd took out a legal action against the regulator, Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC), for violation of the Nigerian Government policy on digital switch-over. In Senegal the signal distributor is in a legal dispute with a set-top box vendor about issues around sales exclusivity.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of either case, they all add delay and uncertainty to the completion of the process. By contrast, South Africa at last has set its own final deadline and is moving steadily towards it.
One of the biggest obstacles to implementation has been the lack of funding to create a new DTT infrastructure. The alternatives on offer have been either Pay TV provider Star Times or a Chinese equipment vendor with a loan from Chinaâ€™s Exim Bank. Ghana, which initially went with Star Times (with whom it is now in legal dispute), has sought to carve out a different financing route. It will use the proceeds of the auction of 4G spectrum to mobile operators to get the necessary financing to underwrite the completion of the process. If this works, then it may signal another way of financing the transition.
My colleague Sylvain Beletre was recently at a meeting in Benin of francophone countries tackling the DTT transition and one of the challenges participants kept coming back to was the absence of available local content for the new channel opportunities created by DTT.
More channels, more content but what happens to rights payments?
In those countries like Kenya that are now underway with the DTT transition, the number of channels has significantly increased. There are also more Pay TV channels and a number of satellite FTA platforms with new channels.
The increase in the number of channels must mean a greater requirement for content, international and/or local. Whilst some channels can be filled successfully with international content (for example, telenovelas), it will be very difficult to attract local audiences without compelling local content.
Therefore some part of this additional demand for content must go to local producers. Meanwhile local producers do not seem to be making more programmes to meet this new demand so fewer programmes are chasing more opportunities. An economist will tell you that when few goods (in this case programmes) chase more opportnities, the price of the goods go up. In other words, the amount paid for programmes should go up.
From talking to local content producers and distributors at the last DISCOP-Africa in Johannesburg, there seemed to be mixed evidence. Some producers were reporting getting slightly better prices but when I asked Bernard Azria, Cote Ouest on an opening panel about what he had found, he said he saw no sign of that happening.
Although there are well over 100 VoD platforms in Africa, not a month seemed to pass in which there was yet another announcement of a new launch.
At the local end, there were people like Victor Joseph of Tango TV in Tanzania whose box will deliver local films at home. Emma Kay of Bozza has turned her platform into a distribution channel for film and video-makers. At the bigger end, DStv and MTN are now out there, whilst people like Altech came and went. Hong Kong-based PCCW launched OnTap TV in South Africa.
Digital plug-in boxes are becoming increasingly popular with again several launches including Safaricomâ€™s Big Box TV; Tele10â€™s Watch offering in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda; and South African James Muirâ€™s Mediabox.
An increasing sign of how the market for African content is being rewritten was the deal done by the team behind Meet The Adebanjos with Lebara Mobile. Lebara who? Lebara is the UK-based MVNO that caters for diaspora populations. It bought exclusive rights to the next season of the comedy series Meet The Adebanjos excluding Africa.
The same team produced a series called T-Boy based on a British-Nigerian of the same name who made his comedy reputation on You Tube. Clips of his sketches have attracted hundreds of thousands of views. Again another sign of how new talent is rising in channels outside of television.
Africa needs to sell more programme globally and needs investors to be interested enough to invest in new African programming.
One example illustrates how things might change in the years to come. In the opening session of the DISCOP conference, Christine Service, SVP and Country Manager, The Walt Disney Corporation Africa outlined several things the company was doing that supported the local film and TV industry. She pointed to the location work on Avengers â€“ Age of Ultron which employed 300 local crew members and was shot in Johannesburgâ€™s CBD and Soweto.
The second major shoot was the Queen of Katwe about a young girl who went from living on the streets of Kampala to becoming a chess champion. Another major production was the TV series Of Kings and Prophets, the first season of which was shot on a large set in Stellenbosch and 600 people were employed.
She also highlighted the successful licensing of the Desperate Housewives series format to Mo Abuduâ€™s Ebony Life TV and said she was keen to explore further opportunities of this kind.
The company is also involved in the Triggerfish Studiosâ€™ Story Lab initiative where the company is running a script development competition and process, where the winners get a two week mentorship programme in Walt Disney in Hollywood with members of the Pixar team. She also gave examples of what she described as â€œsmaller building blocksâ€ which included locally commissioned content. They are also putting content on mobile phones in Africa.
Although not present at DISCOP, Nextflix has made two productions in Africa: Beasts of No Nation and Jadotville. One local film director saw these kinds of developments as immensely positive, while observing that production like this came in waves and went up and down.
African producers finding ways of integrating into the global industry will not be without its problems but there can be no doubt itâ€™s beginning to happen. The ambition of the team behind Restless (Marie Lora Mungai and Tendeka Matatu) is perhaps a pointer to the future.
Euronewsâ€™ announcement that it will launch an all-Africa news channel called Africanews is a significant development. It joins the elite club of broadcasters (including TVC and soon Gotel) who want to present a Pan-African news channel for the continent. Until now it has been international channels adding African content and it will be interesting to see how these channels seek to capture both the good and the bad news stories that the continent generates.
How news is being delivered â€“ especially to younger users â€“ is becoming a live topic as all African media see the younger demographic less interested in news programming. The BBC took the bull by the horns and ran two hackathons aimed at generating new, more social ways of accessing its news. Deutsche Welle also ran a hackathon in Cape Town after AfricaCom. The way Africans access news is beginning to change and this is perhaps the starting point.
Russell Southwood is CEO of Balancing Act