26 February 2016

Africa: Making a Success of Africa Online Content - Commissioner, Curator or Aggregator? Something for Everyone and Nothing for Someone

With the rise of social media, Africa is awash with content that has been copied, pasted and hurled out into an unsuspecting world. African content creators struggle to become the signal rather than the noise. Russell Southwood looks at how Africa's online platforms can seek to differentiate themselves in an increasingly noisy market.

When the African Internet was a relatively small club, with hundreds and thousands of users rather than hundreds of thousands and millions, the number of purely African online sites was quite small. Without effective mobile Internet, there were really amost no successful mobile content platforms.

With the arrival of cheaper 3G data prices and the rapid success of Facebook, there are now well over 100 film and TV platforms operating in Africa and the same amount again of music platforms. The Internet has made it easy: barriers to entering the market have become much lower. All you need is a website or mobile platform and you're in business... Well, up to a point.

There has been a flourishing of African online content platforms from both ends of the spectrum: from the high-profile, heavily invested companies like iROKO TV to platforms which their origins in "boy-in-a-bedroom" student enthusiasms like Ghana's music platform bigx.com.gh. The investment in iROKO TV made it look like there might be easy money in this and everyone looking for a new hustle piled in. Believe me, this is not Eldorado and the returns will go to those willing to stay the course for 5-10 years.

Almost every African country of any size had someone launching a new platform and countries like Nigeria and South Africa have 4-5 contenders with some scale in both film and TV and music. Currently in Nigeria, I was told of a forthcoming launch by a (press) media owner of a VoD platform. All this high profile activity has began to suck in international contenders like iTunes, Netflix and Deezer. But some like Spotify have been rumoured to be joining the dance... and have simply not arrived.

But it's not as easy as it looks and there are considerable hurdles to actually making a business model out of giving Africans content they want. iROKO TV has cut staff and Vidi looks like exiting the South African market (see news story in Film and TV below).

So this article looks at the crucial set of decisions African content-platform have to take and all too often are not aware of. I'm going to talk mainly about film and TV and music platforms but much of what is being said can also apply to books, news content or selling cultural goods like crafts: the broad choices are very similar although the approaches eventually chosen may look very different.

In programming terms, any African online content site is doing one of Commissioner, Curator, Aggregator or cataloguer? Although there are many things that make a content platform successful - like either having a marketing budget or knowing how to connect to users - one of the key factors is having content that works. The endlessly repeated "Content is King" truism doesn't take you very: which content and how are you going to organize it?

African platform operators and content owners, these are your main choices for success:

Commissioner: Amazon commissions original TV series and I subscribed because I wanted to watch Transparent. The rest of their offer is a rather dreary set of films which I didn’t bother to see at the cinema or TV series which I can watch Free To Air.

The smarter VoD sites in Africa have realized that commissioned content is probably the way to go. Buni TV has experimented with comedy and created a series called Kenya Edition that used some of the talent from its successful TV puppet satire programme XYZ Show.

iROKO TV has done both films (recently Obi Emelonye’s Thy Will Be Done) and TV series (for example, Aby Esho-directed Festac Town). iROKO TV’s Jason Njoku will often speak about how he likes to use data to identify what kind of content to commission. The truth is really way more scary as commissioning content is really like horse racing: no-one knows what’s going to be successful anymore than someone can tell you who you’ll fall in love with .

It requires a clear understanding of who has the talents to produce something watchable within a tight budget. In Nigeria, you can add to this fairly demanding requirement actors who fail to show up for shoots and cause budget overruns. Getting the right combination of director, actors (with big names and no names) and shooting crew is not something everybody is good at and it’s more an art than a science.

Even working with tight budgets is not cheap. One of the recent slate of films put together by a Nigerian company has cost US$100,000 and imagine having to make 6-10 a year to make a full schedule.

Content commissioners Amazon and Netflix are in the lucky position of having a lot of paying customers. They can get back a significant amount of what they spent to make things from their own customer base. Most African VoD platforms are not so lucky so they will need a strategy to distribute their films and TV content to Free and Pay TV broadcasters and to release it in cinemas. They could with sufficient trust and skill go into co-production deals with these companies and get some of the production finance in advance in exchange for rights.

Without original content it’s difficult to stand out because the great mass of African content once made – exclusive deals or no exclusive deals – gets seen in many different places and on many different platforms.

Curator: The best way of describing a curator is imagining putting together a festival of all your most favorite films. The good curator knows how to make choices that attract a following. There was an American fiction book publisher who I used to read everyone of their books and they were all very different. Suddenly they stopped being so interesting and only later I discovered that they had changed commissioning editors.

The curated function of a good African online content platform should be to choose exceptional things that become events. Buni TV chose to do an online premiere of Cameroonian director Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Le President, a film about an aging President. The film was banned in his native country as the issues it raised were a little too close to home. In earlier days, Jason Njoku spoke about doing the equivalent of festivals highlighting popular stars and linking less commercially successful back catalogue with big hits.

The music equivalent is to buy exclusive contracts with the big name artists say like Diamond Platinumz in Tanzania. But exclusive contracts are expensive and big name artists are usually cash-hungry and not remarkably loyal to label or platform.

Too much African content – whether film and TV or music is fragmented and hard to find. It’s no good saying well you can search for it if you don’t have much idea of what’s out there. Even when you do, it’s often not easily available, Many of the African music platform founders I’ve spoken to started their platforms because they couldn’t find the music they loved online.

Nearly all curation is a compromise between programming the things you really want to share with other people and what’s available. If you’re any good at curation, you’ll get a following – like Afripop’s music lists – and people will take a chance on something they might not otherwise watch or listen to.

Aggregator: The aggregator pulls together content in the form of catalogues of film, TV or songs where the rights have been pre-cleared. I attended a DISCOP In Istanbul and spoke to well over a dozen distributors who were able to offer me catalogues of Hollywood movies, with or without the technical platform to offer them on.

Just like buying series and films for TV, these catalogues were an artful mixture of the slightly successful, the less than memorable and real “dogs”. The choosing has been done on a commercial basis to get the maximum revenue out of all parts of the content owner’s catalogue.

Those in Africa who know little about film, TV or music tend to work with these kinds of distributors. This kind of content is widely distributed and appears on many different platforms.

The skillful aggregator – like Africori in the music field – builds a catalogue in depth that can be used in different ways and sells outside of music platforms (for example, alongside advertising), generating other streams of revenue.

The big strength that the best of both African film, TV and music platforms have is they are usually run by people who have a strong understanding of their content and the audiences for it. The international platforms may struggle to find this kind of expertise as it operates at a country level.

Many African markets are currently too small for them to apply this level of content choosing expertise. Furthermore, these markets have many fragmented genres which again are hard for them to understand. As NicheStreem’s Catherine Luckhoff told me no-one is has really offered Afrikaans music until she did and the same is true of Nigerian gospel. Beware of having something for everybody and nothing for someone.

PS Watch Trevor Kimenye on the Kenyan social media start-up Ongair that lets business reach customers https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3SyqxBliFE

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