Africa: TV’s Last Frontier. DISCOP Africa Is Ready

By David Short

There’s a country that’s more than twice the size of California with a GDP of $300 billion, has one of the largest oil reserves in the world, and has a population of 135 million who own over 32 million mobile phones, but has only three TV stations — two of which are state-owned. Can you guess where it is? 
Here’s a clue. It’s next door to another country, which is slightly larger than California, but has only one TV station.

No, it’s not Europe in the 1960s, but Africa right now. The first country is Nigeria, and the second is Cameroon.

They’re both pretty typical of Africa — an entire continent that has hardly been touched by television, even in the 21st century. Africa is TV’s last frontier.

Even South Africa, the continent’s only developed country, has only had TV for 30 years.
But one company thinks that’s all about to change in a big way. The people behind DISCOP, the TV market for Central and Eastern Europe, will launch DISCOP Africa next year. 

DISCOP Africa will be officially launched at MIP, said DISCOP’s Patrick Jucaud. “It will be a hotel-based event from February 25-27 next year in Dakar, Senegal. We expect some 250 African stations to attend from just about every African country. Even Zimbabwean stations have expressed interest. They have never gone to MIP or NATPE [a DISCOP partner]. Only two countries, Libya and Tunisia, seem reluctant to come to DISCOP Africa.”

A TV market in Africa? Most people in the Western world think people are lucky to scratch out a living each day in Africa. Do they even have time to relax by watching an episode of JAG before they go to sleep? Is Jucaud crazy? No. In fact, that’s exactly what people said when plans for DISCOP were originally announced, according to Jucaud.  After almost 50 years of Communism and Soviet domination, very few people knew anything about those newly open countries. Would all those Czech tramcar fitters, Hungarian charcoal burners, Romanian coalminers, Ukrainian tractor drivers, and Bulgarian shoe factory slaves really want to watch L.A. Law, Murphy Brown, Seinfeld and Jerry Springer? And even if they did, how would they pay for them? “They said we’d get paid in vodka or women, that there was just no money there,” Jucaud said.

Well, as the TV industry now knows, that just wasn’t true.  During the 1990s, commercial TV stations cropped up all over Central and Eastern Europe, all of them hungry for content. Now, Jucaud said, 15 years after the first DISCOP event took place, the market for that content is valued at “several hundred million dollars from almost nothing.”

The spur for that growth, of course, was the headlong launch of new commercial stations in the region after the fall of Communism. The main trailblazer was Central European Media Enterprises (CME), funded by multibillionaire cosmetics heir, Ronald Lauder.

I well remember CME’s breakneck pace of launches.  I still have a faded T-shirt with “CME Central European Tour” written on the back. The list tells its own breathless story: “Czech Republic – February ’94, Romania – December ’95, Slovenia – December ’95, Slovakia – December ’96, Ukraine – September ’97 and Poland – October ’97.”

CME became a moneymaking machine.  Its Czech station, Nova TV, made its $10 million launch costs back in its first full year.

What will be the spark that sets off African TV?  Jucaud may be right when he says growth has already begun. “We have had unbelievable interest from TV content and format distributors, and from African advertising agencies who say their clients need better programming if they’re going to spend more money.”
Industry figures on the size of the African TV market are hard to come by, said Jucaud, but he maintained that “African TV stations are really eager to make money, either now or in the future. It’s an untapped market.” New TV stations are being launched all over, said Jucaud.

But why?

Well, anyone who knows anything about Africa today need whisper only one word: China.
The sheer scale of Chinese investment in Africa has truly changed the continent.  

And it’s been going on for years unbeknownst to the average Westerner, who only recently learned of China’s interests in Sudan when the story made headlines in February. In the months that followed, Steven Spielberg pulled out of his planned role as artistic advisor to the Beijing Olympics, persuaded by Mia Farrow and other celebrities behind the Save Darfur Coalition campaign.

By that time, China had invested over $200 million in the Darfur region to bring 400,000 barrels of oil a day home via 1,000 miles of pipeline from southern Sudan to the Red Sea, but had done nothing to pressure the Sudanese government to stop the human misery in Darfur.

Oil is the key. One-third of China’s oil comes from Africa. Outside Sudan, China has pumped $1.4 billion into oil fields in Angola, Africa’s second-largest oil producer. But China’s billions don’t stop at oil. It’s rebuilding Africa’s infrastructure, where Western aid is restricted to famine relief and other humanitarian aid. China is also rebuilding roads in Ethiopia and Mozambique and hospitals and schools in Liberia. In addition, China is rebuilding the once magnificent Benguela railway that used to run all the way from the South Atlantic across Africa to the Indian ocean.

Africa is rapidly becoming China’s industrial playground, and purely out of self-interest.
That self-interest includes kick-starting Africa’s television industry. DISCOP Africa is working closely with Chinese state television and others, said Jucaud. “We have Chinese clients and Russian clients. We have a Chinese partner working for us right now in Beijing.”

No prizes for guessing which country might supply cheap televisions to newly grown African couch potatoes. And TV needs electricity, which is in short supply in Africa. Just look at a Google Earth map at night over Africa. Outside South Africa, it really is the dark continent. Who will be supplying and running the electricity stations?

According to Jucaud: “There are already 20 million Chinese in 13 African countries.” But however good the prospects look for TV in Africa, there will inevitably be problems. Not everything was rosy in the 1990s in Central Europe. CME and other companies had their problems with local partners taking to the free market with gusto and helping themselves to millions. Nova TV’s licence-holder, Vladimir Zelezny, did some time in a Czech jail as a result, and other locals in the region dipped into the till.

Africa is famous for graft and corruption. Jucaud has already had a taste. His first choice of venue was, logically, the Nigerian capital, Lagos. West Africa will see the earliest and fastest growth in the TV business on the continent. It has the greatest population, the biggest economy outside South Africa, and is relatively politically stable.

But, said Jucaud, too many people in Lagos wanted too many bribes. After mulling over Cape Town in South Africa as an alternative, he decided the show should remain in West Africa. So Senegal it is. They speak French there, and Dakar is on the ocean. So in that strange land called Africa, that’s at least two familiar things for MIP-goers!