Gathering discusses ways to fund new shows

ACCRA, Ghana — Broadcasters, distribs and TV producers from across Africa gathered in Ghana last week to discuss business, debate issues and find a way forward for the continent’s growing telenovela market.

But if the buyers and sellers at Discop Africa, the continent’s only TV content market, were optimistic about the industry’s long-term prospects, there was a sense that there are plenty of obstacles on the road ahead.

Producers said a host of challenges — from high production costs to linguistic, cultural, and technological barriers — were hindering their ability to reach other markets.

“We still have a long road to walk,” said Russell Southwood, CEO of Balancing Act, a consultancy specializing in African telecoms, Internet and broadcasting.

Among the noteworthy trends at the market was the popularity of South American telenovelas across Africa, which in turn has fueled a surge in locally produced dramatic series that indicate a growing demand for stories that reflect the lives of African viewers.

Guillaume Pierre, Africa director for French web Canal France Intl., says a boom in commerical broadcasters in recent years has also spurred increased interest in production.

“There are more and more television stations on the continent, and those stations need quality content,” Pierre says, “so they’re starting to produce more.”

But supply hasn’t been able to match demand: According to Pierre, more than half the content being broadcast in Africa has a foreign source.

With the continent preparing to migrate to digital TV in the next few years, and a host of broadcasters expected to enter the arena, the challenge — and opportunity — for African producers is to fill that additional airtime with quality original content.

Pierre says many skeins filmed for local markets rarely had pan-African appeal due to linguistic and cultural differences between neighboring countries. Other shows, he says, failed to “respect technical standards” that would increase their chances of wider distribution.

Meanwhile, for shows with risque elements, says Biola Adekanbi, managing director of South Africa’s M-Net Africa, different regulatory requirements keep them out of the broader marketplace. “There’s some content that just doesn’t travel well,” she says.

For those that do succeed, the common theme is usually a tale of urban, middle-class families whose members are torn by intrigues over love, money and power.

For many of the producers at the Accra confab, the overriding concern was accessing the funding to produce their skeins.

One of the biggest challenges is the financial weakness of private and public broadcasters in Africa, Southwood says.African content producers have to think creatively, cutting sponsorship deals and using product placements in their shows.

Many Nigerian producers, whose strong showing at Discop testified to that country’s growing dominance of the African market, said they had used their houses as collateral on bank loans to fund productions.

Leticia N’Cho of French web Cote Ouest, West Africa’s leading telenovela distrib, said that the importance of co-production went beyond accessing coin.

“It’s not only money that a co-producer brings,” she said, but also the “transfer of expertise and knowledge,” as well as access to new distribution networks.

Most distribution networks across the continent, however, still reflect the old colonial order: While Nigerian telenovelas play well in English-speaking Ghana and Kenya, local webs in Mali or Senegal are more likely to air French-language skeins from Burkina Faso or Ivory Coast.

Indeed, it is the Spanish-language telenovela that seems to have the least difficulty crossing national borders — despite the growing demand for locally produced content — with a number of Latin American webs reporting strong and continued growth across the African market, in both English- and French-speaking territories.

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