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Africa’s TV and Broadcast Sectors – Wishing Goodbye to a Terrible 2020 and Looking Forward to a Better 2021

London — Dear readers, viewers, contributors and advertisers

The year that seemed to start out so well in February but began slowly to close down in all senses shortly thereafter. My Wife and I had a short break in Paris and left on the day the virus spiked for the first time. The trips I had planned to visit different places in Africa were cancelled not long afterwards.

The year has ended on a slightly more optimistic note with the roll-out of vaccines but it’s unclear when these will reach Africa and in what volume. But this allows us all to think about what a recovery might look like.

The Impact of Covid-19 speeds up tech adoption

The most obvious impact was the speed that everyone – both inside the broadcast and film businesses and outside – started using online communications platforms. Whether it was the most obvious one – Zoom – or any of the others, people who would have said in the past “it’s company policy not to use Skype’ were now talking online like there was no tomorrow. There’s something oddly different about seeing everyone in their ‘casuals’ hiding in one of their children’s bedrooms to get some peace.

For broadcasters, these communications and social media platforms became essential tools for producing programmes. Talks shows that would have been in studios were now put together more like radio phone-ins with pictures. News journalists were scouring social media for interesting story ideas.

At a management level, with everyone Working From Home (WFH), the need to create reliable cloud based platforms became essential: everyone needed to access production resources from their laptop, not necessarily in a physical facility.

African broadcasting was never in a more important position, particularly public broadcasters. Broadcasting was essential for getting across health messages about Covid-19 and helping to deliver home education to those who couldn’t go to school during lockdown.

Advertising revenues go off a cliff

In the panic months in the early parts of 2020, as companies that were TV advertisers battened down the hatches, advertising revenues went straight off a cliff edge. Revenues have recovered somewhat in the later quarters but there has been a deep uncertainty. Advertising spend is so closely tied to economic prospects and key markets – like Angola, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria – were already feeling the economic pinch well before Covid-19 pushed its face into the picture.

So during lockdown periods, broadcasters had exceptional audiences but few were able to capitalize on selling this to brands. In Ethiopia, one broadcaster I spoke to had held on to his revenues by pivoting to PPE products and Covid-19 announcements but this was the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, in Ethiopia, there were station closures this year.

The shift online

The stay-at-home lockdowns seem to have accelerated the shift to online viewing, especially for those who can afford mobile data prices. In July I wrote a story looking at the extent of app downloads and YouTube subscribers to African broadcasters. These address two types of audiences in broad terms: mainly youth in African countries themselves and diaspora audiences globally. The revenues are never great from these kinds of platforms but in the current period of relative advertising drought, different revenues – even small ones – are a bonus.

The usual suspects are doing well: for example, Citizen TV in Kenya and Channels TV in Nigeria both have one million plus Android downloads of their apps. But a ‘middle of the field’ public broadcaster in Tanzania, TBC, has half a million plus downloads. In terms of YouTube subscribers, Citizen TV has a whopping 2.02 million subscribers followed by Kenya’s KTN News (1.4 million), Cote d’Ivoire’s public broadcaster RTI (1.3 million) and Channels TV (1.2 million).

The conclusion? The smart African broadcasters are now beginning to think seriously about how to make revenues from their audiences beyond advertising. Going the other way down the same street, iROKO TV closed its streaming operations in Africa, having decided to go back to where it started: online diaspora audiences globally.

In October I wrote an article looking at how successful African broadcasters have been at creating a social media presence with Facebook. East African countries and South Africa did particularly well but Nigeria lags behind. The Facebook Top 10 there is the top ten is largely composed of musicians and comedians. And broadcasters simply do not feature in the Facebook Top Ten audiences for Angola, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana.

Education channels – schools of the air

Covid-19 presented some good opportunities for those willing to take short-term risks for long-term gain. Although online has come on leaps and bounds, no-one would argue that all students have good access to online. So providing education content and channels has never been more important and luckily there have been broadcasters who have risen to the challenge.

Long-time pioneers like Mediae and Ubongo were there read to help. As founder of Mediae David Campbell told me:”As part of series 10 of its show Shamba Shape-up which is now airing, it will, the week after next (in April 2020) feature a Covid-19 animation film, getting across key information about the virus. It is also seeking funding for a Questions and Answers programme, with a doctor and a Ministry of Health spokesperson:”You can do production but you need a really good internet connection, a camera in a person’s home and to be able to send stuff into the studio.”

In Ghana, Multimedia TV launched an education channel called Wolo TV, aimed at secondary school children. It has seen audiences ramp up significantly since schools were closed down in Ghana.

Carl Raccah launched Pan-African kids TV channel Pineapple TV in August and the long-planned Kenyan kids channel, Akili Kids, launched in March 2020.

Pay TV – The ground is shifting

Once upon a time, Naspers-owned DStv completely owned most of the Pay TV space in Sub-Saharan Africa. Challengers have come and gone – the most recent being Kwese TV in 2018 – and although Multichoice (as it is now named) still looks dominant, it is a much colder world outside the Naspers umbrella.

At the end of October there was a swirl of rumors about Canal+ buying the company, after it increased its shareholding in the company to 12% and began to offer a pay TV bouquet in Ethiopia. But the fly in this particular ointment is that South African law forbids foreign investors holding more than 20% in any South African media company. Vivendi is happy to make deals against opposition but this is a tough one to square.