China woos buyers at Africa TV mart

Pavilion shows off formats, execs build relationships

At the recently wrapped Discop Africa TV content market, which took place in Johannesburg from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, it was impossible to miss the bright red pavilion sponsored by the Chinese government, looming in the center of the conference hall like a hungry dragon.

If the pavilion reflected China’s outsized confidence in the African market, the interest from buyers was more restrained. While drawn to the colorful backdrops of popular Chinese toons like “Shanmao and Jimi,” or the swashbuckling screener of the epic series “Three Kingdoms,” few departed with anything more than a lollipop with the words “Feeling China” printed on the wrapper.

Far from the robust business being done at the nearby stands of Globo TV, Caracol Television and TV Azteca — Latin American sellers that have longstanding relationships with Africa through their popular telenovelas — the Chinese contingent seemed to be involved in the awkward flirtations of a first date.

“It’s just like probing in the darkness,” said Saundra Shanhua Tang of Shanghai Media Group, the country’s second-largest media company.

Last year China injected more than $12 billion of direct investment into the continent’s growing economies. With the country already flexing its hard-money muscles across Africa, media groups are now looking to bolster the soft side of Chinese power.

In January, satcaster CCTV expanded its Nairobi bureau and announced plans to dramatically increase its coverage of the continent. StarTimes Media’s pay TV platform has reached into nine African markets. All the attention seems to be having at least some effect. Last year, Tanzanian pubcaster TBC began broadcasting a Chinese soap dubbed into Swahili — a first for the continent.

As more and more African bizzers engage with their Chinese counterparts, a certain curiosity seems only natural. “They want to know more about how we live our lives,” said Shirley Tian, content director for StarTimes.

But if curiosity was a theme at Discop, so was caution, according to Shanghai Media’s Tang.

“In other, more mature markets, (buyers) know what you can offer,” she said, describing the dealmaking at marts like MipTV and Mipcom as “smooth.” But at Discop, there were more requests for additional screeners, for corporate prospectuses, for follow-up emails and phone calls.

“A lot of them begin their conversation with, ‘Tell me what do you do. Tell me what you can offer us,’ ” she said.

After only two Chinese companies attended the last Discop, 10 were on hand this year.

At a lunch reception on the conference’s opening day, the Chinese delegation announced its commitment to building on the business ties that have made the country Africa’s largest trade partner. As if to drive that point home, CCTV later announced a major programming deal that will provide South African broadcaster e.tv. with a package of films.

But for most of the buyers and sellers at the Chinese pavilion, such dealmaking seemed far off.

Apollo Cong, sales manager of CCTV, said there was great interest among African producers for co-productions with the Chinese pubcaster, which has a reputation for deep pockets and an appetite for African content.

But when it came to buying, he said there wasn’t enough high-quality finished products for CCTV to acquire.

Costs were also an issue for many African buyers, who tended to feel that the high cost of dubbing, which is preferred to subtitles in most African markets, should be shouldered by the sellers.

Despite such setbacks, the mood was high among the Chinese delegation, which saw the event as something of a first kiss in a slow-blooming romance.

As Tang put it, “We see the light.”

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