MTV touches Base with African auds

Smith performs at launch of co.'s 100th channel

JOHANNESBURG — Having celebrated the launch of its 100th channel last week, MTV is already eyeing further expansion.

Despite a power shift at the top of the organization, the cabler’s senior executive team is not tolerating any slowdown in its relentless growth strategy.

Last year Tom Freston was promoted to co-prexy and co-chief operating officer of MTV parent Viacom, having spent 17 years as chairman-CEO of MTV Networks.

Freston promoted Judy McGrath to his old post and created the post of vice chairman for company veteran Bill Roedy to maintain the network’s momentum.

“My new role involves a lot of corporate stuff, which is new to me. So the amount of time I get to spend on any one particular business is not that great,” Freston told Variety during a junket to South Africa for the launch of MTV Base, which covers the whole of Africa. “It’s an adjustment not running a business hands-on.”

Freston’s Viacom role gives him responsibility for overseeing the operations of MTV Networks, BET, Paramount Parks, Simon & Schuster and the motion picture operations of Paramount Pictures.

Of the latter, Freston says, “It’s part of the business that I did not grow up in, so I immersed myself in the studio business for several months. But Brad Gray is running Paramount and is going about the changes. We’ve just had our third No. 1 movie in a row — ‘Sahara’ following on from ‘Lemony Snicket’ and ‘Coach Carter’ — so it’s going very well at the moment.”

MTV’s 100th channel was deliberately targeted for Africa to add impact to the milestone, that also included an outdoor gig headlined by Will Smith. But Freston says the launch of MTV Base has been a long time coming.

“It’s nice to be up and started in Africa, and I’ve no doubt we’ll bring Nickelodeon and other TV brands here,” he says. “We went down a lot of false roads with regulatory change here, false partnership deals there, so eventually we just decided to do it on our own.”

Challenging perceptions that Africa still isn’t ready for such commercial operations, Roedy says: “Overall there’s never been a better time to be in Africa. It’s a youthful population and we’re very optimistic about the business.”

Alex Okosi, the Nigerian general manager of MTV Base, backs that view.

“There’s a high growth rate here, particularly in TV advertising, and ad spends are migrating to TV as people see the huge growth in the numbers of televisions being bought in Africa — up 300% since 1995,” notes Okosi. “Also, before 1995 there were 28 countries in Africa with single-party governments. Now that number is down to five.”

The stability democracy is bringing to the continent is driving investment; MTV says it is talking to a number of companies about partnerships, particularly in the mobile telephony sector.

Overall, Roedy sees numerous avenues for expansion.

“We now have the infrastructure everywhere and there’s still tremendous growth ahead of us. We can spin off channels very economically, and we can even geographically spin off within a country for regional versions of MTV or genre-specific channels.”

Roedy points to Africa and Asia as key areas, but says even in Europe there is room for growth.

“MTV has a potential audience of 1 billion people and 80% of those viewers are outside North America, but I believe growth is still ahead of us.

“If you look at a market such as the U.K., for example, our penetration is about 50%, which is lower than in the U.S., so there’s definitely growth potential there.”