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MTV Base and Channel O vie for African viewers

Both yearn to be the face and voice of African music.

By the time the lights dimmed and the last of the champagne bottles had popped, Nairobi’s Indoor Arena had witnessed all the pomp and pageantry of Africa’s biggest night of music.

But while close to 100 million viewers across the continent are said to have tuned into the second annual MTV African Music Awards Oct. 10 in Kenya, the broader battle for supremacy of Africa’s airwaves — when it comes to music — is just heating up.

MTV Base, the network’s first African channel, and Channel O, its chief rival, are both rolling out the red carpets for their mega-watt awards shows this month. Both draw the biggest names in African entertainment. And both are setting their sights on control of Africa’s rapidly growing market.

MTV is a relative newcomer to the continent. The net launched MTV Base in 2005, more than two decades after its first music channel debuted in the U.S. in 1981. Channel O began broadcasting music videos to a pan-African audience 12 years ago.

Channel O is owned by South Africa-based satellite pay TV platform M-Net and is available on M-Net and pan-African satellite pay TV platform DSTV; MTV is available to subscribers through DSTV and pan-African satellite TV operator GTV, as well as through partnerships with terrestrial webs in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Both channels rely on a programming mix that includes videos, music news, celebrity gossip, viewer call-in shows and slick packaging designed to appeal to a young urban audience. Text messages crawl across the bottom of their respective screens, offering viewers a chance to profess their love for a favorite artist or each other.

But as they tussle to win hearts and ratings points, each hopes to position itself as the distinctive face and voice of African music.

Channel O’s content is heavily weighted toward local artists, countering MTV’s global reach, by branding itself “Original African.” According to Channel O’s marketing manager, Lester Din, it is “made for Africa in Africa by Africans.”

MTV Base devotes at least 40% of its airtime to local performers, though Alex Okopi, senior VP and managing director for MTV Networks Africa, concedes that the focus is on playing “the best musicvideos that appeal to our audience.” If that means programming with a more globalized face, it also means a chance for African artists to reach a global audience through MTV’s sister networks.

The dueling award shows underscore the channels’ differences: while MTV tapped rap star Wyclef Jean to host the MAMAs, Channel O is focusing on homegrown talent. Its Spirit of Africa awards, to be held on Oct. 29, will be hosted by three of the net’s TV presenters, part of a brand campaign it calls “Young, Gifted and African.”

“We don’t position ourselves in the MTV global arena,” says Din. “We are proudly African and keep to it.”

In the past four years, MTV Base has increasingly encroached on Channel O’s turf. According to Okosi, MTV Base boasts more than 90 million viewers in 48 countries across sub-Saharan Africa. And despite the economic downturn, he sees a growing trend of prosperity across the continent, translating into more middle-class families, more middle-class homes — and more TV sets tuned into MTV.

“One hundred million viewers in four years is a very substantial figure,” says Okosi, “but it only scratches the surface of what is possible here on the African continent.”

Despite the competition, Din is equally optimistic. He sees Channel O’s programming as part of “a movement to uplift African talent” — a goal that both nets are likely to share, once the dust has settled.

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