London — Broadcast and film are bellwhether sectors of the economy that go up and down with fluctuations in advertising and wider economic trends. African broadcasting was not in great shape in key countries because most African economies are in the doldrums or under increasing pressure. Russell Southwood tries to make sense of the good news and the bad news.
I am based in London which is a Covid-19 hot-spot and we are now living under "lockdown". Looking back, changes happened in ripples as the bad news about the virus became clearer and clearer. The full peak of infected patients and deaths has not yet happened but here we are in the middle of it.
African countries are just starting out down the road and are reacting in different ways. Egypt has declared a two week night time curfew to combat the virus. Experience globally suggest that preventive measure becoming increasingly restrictive as deaths from the pandemic increase. Although there are many gloomy things to say, there is both good news and bad news for the African broadcast sector.
So what follows below is my attempt to make sense of all the many bits of news I've been getting from my industry colleagues and contacts:
First the good news...
According to Neilsen's Total Audience report, Americans are spending nearly 12 hours a day watching television. This is one of those rare moments where Africa and the USA's behavior is likely to coincide.
Africans with a television at home will watch significantly more television or go online and watch videos on Facebook or YouTube. Bandwidth willing, there are plenty of different options available including linear TV, streamed video and podcasts and downloadable programmes.
Will people have enough money to pat for their Pay TV and VoD subscriptions like Netflix?
In an interesting development, pay-TV provider, StarTimes has opened up free access to more than 100 local and international channels on its streaming app, StarTimes ON during the global coronavirus lockdown. The company is implementing various plans to help people who are working from home get access to timely and accurate COVID-19 updates via trusted news channels on the StarTimes ON platform. More companies should offer free content during the crisis as it will allow large numbers of people to become aware of their different online or Pay TV products.
Communicating what's happening
Africa's broadcasters are on the frontline of communicating what is happening and this will give a much needed boost to free-to-air broadcasters. People are anxious and will want to know what's happening. In Europe, press conferences by Heads of State on the crisis are drawing record audiences. Africa may not have the market research capacity to demonstrate this but it's reasonable to assume something similar will happen.
Audio-visual media has a key role to play in communicating to audiences where not everyone is literate and internet connected. Usually this would be an ideal opportunity for edutainment-based programmes to convey messages in their storylines. (Interestingly, in the long-running farming soapie in the UK, The Archers, there has been no mention of the virus as the characters clearly live in a parallel universe.)
Information/Disinformation about the virus
The internet and social media potentially have a key role to play in getting information out to people and discussions about people helping each other.
In a joint statement released on Tuesday, Facebook, Google (and its YouTube subsidiary), Microsoft and its LinkedIn subsidiary, Reddit and Twitter, announced an alliance to combat fraud and misinformation about Covid-19.
These internet giants are committed to helping millions of people stay connected "while fighting fraud and disinformation about the virus, increasing authoritative content on our platforms, and sharing critical updates by coordination with government health agencies around the world ". Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Reddit and Twitter are also inviting other companies to join them to ensure health and safety in our communities.
At a local level, the twenty members of Cote d'Ivoire's online press (REPPRELCI) have called on their journalistic colleagues in general and those in the digital media to show more professionalism in the treatment of information related to Covid-19.
The actors of the digital press gathered within the Network of professionals of the online press of Côte d'Ivoire (REPPRELCI) call their colleagues in general and those of the digital media in particular to Consequently, the REPPRELCI invites the actors of the online press "to give the right information to the populations on the evolution of the situation in Côte d'Ivoire and in the rest of the world".
"It is up to everyone to play their role," says the president of the REPPRELCI, Lassina Serme. Adding: "This is why the actors of the Ivorian press gathered in the Network of Professionals of the Côte d'Ivoire Online Press (REPPRELCI), are fully committed to popularize the preventive measures taken by The Government. "
South Africa's national health department has set up a WhatsApp support service to provide information to locals. The automated service shares information ranging from symptoms, prevention tips and testing information to users after a keyword prompt. Over 1 million people have used it. Crucially, it also dispels growing myths about cures, from eating garlic to taking hot water baths, and sensitizes about possible scams looking to take advantage of the public's fears. While it offers citizens a credible source for information, South Africa authorities are also penalizing anyone spreading Covid-19-related misinformation with six-month jail terms and fines.
Pay TV operator Multichoice is streaming news channels for free, helping people keep up-to-date with what's happening.
As we go to press on Wednesday 25 March, it is clear that productions are grinding to a halt. Netlfix's Chief Content Officer has announced on CNN that:" "It's been a massive disruption - every one of our productions around the world are shut down". South African comedian Trevor Noah will no longer be on nightly on the Daily Show on Comedy central.
By contrast, South African public broadcaster SABC said yesterday yesterday that none of its TV productions had stopped filming. However, the public broadcaster said a number of upcoming shows in pre-production and scheduled to start shooting next month would be delayed. "At present, no active productions have experienced any Covid-19 cases, thus there is no shutdown of these active productions," acting SABC spokesperson Mmoni Seapolelo said.
Monde Twala, SVP for Editorial and Co-General Manager for ViacomCBS Networks Africa, said they were monitoring the pandemic and would adjust if necessary. MultiChoice, that broadcasts popular shows such as Isibaya and The Queen, yesterday confirmed that the Mzansi Magic telenovelas would continue filming. "We are in touch with all our production houses and consult with them on their assessment of individual productions," said Joe Heshu, MultiChoice group executive for corporate affairs.
The South African Independent Producers Organization (IPO) sounded the alarm in a statement this week, declaring that the industry had to move swiftly "to protect the cast and crew's health... and minimize the impact on their financial well-being." The organization, which represents hundreds of independent film, TV and video producers, stopped short of calling for an immediate shutdown, saying its members were "mindful of the economic implications of suspending or cancelling a shoot." However, the group said it doesn't see "how productions can continue indefinitely as the epidemic escalates." "Action is required today to reduce the exponential risk in virus spread," read the statement. These warnings are relevant for countries across the continent.
Production work on advertising and film that usually comes to Cape Town will be non-existent as travel bans have closed it down. Local crews, contractors and talent will be particularly hard hit.
Perhaps a new form of Covid-19 content will be self-generated by vloggers and podcasters. I'm already receiving a steady stream of this kind of self-made content. Comedy could be a real winner as we all need a laugh in these dark times.
Advertising is designed to make people want to buy things. Everything except food shops and pharmacies will likely be closed as the virus ramps up. So some drink and FMCG advertising may survive what may otherwise be a major spending pause. This will hit both TV and radio but also social media, press and Out-of-Home advertising.
Many African broadcasters are already financially on the edge. Pre-Covid-19, there had already been casualties and there may well be many more before the crisis recedes.
All the big international broadcast and film events have been postponed. The most recent news to come to us is that the ninth Cape Town International Animation Festival (CTIAF) has been postponed to 24 to 27 April 2021.
Awards ceremonies are also either not happening or trying to go online. In a statement to South Africa Channel24, the NFVF said: "In light of the announcement made by President Ramaphosa and the Government's strict actions in response to the COVID19 ("Coronavirus") outbreak, the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) would like to inform you that the 14th Annual South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTAs14) will no longer take place at the Sandton Convention Centre on 27 - 28 March 2020".
Postscript: Despite the usual conspiracy theories about the spread of Covid-19 (inevitably it's the fault of the the Americans), analysis has shown that it is of natural origin. Although there has to be a full analysis, early reports suggested it originated in wildlife markets in Wuhan. If one unhygienic market can kill large numbers of us globally, perhaps when we we're over the worst of Covid-19, we can all spend some significant time ensuring hygiene that makes it harder for something like this to happen again.