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Nigeria Primed for Small-Screen Breakthrough

When the latest version of the “Big Brother” franchise hit Nigerian TV screens in January, after a 10-year hiatus, local audiences were primed for the series’ usual blend of backstabbing, melodrama, and teary-eyed confessionals, culminating in a splashy finale on April 9.

But the excitement quickly turned into a social-media firestorm for the series’ producer, MultiChoice, which was criticized by Nigerian audiences for filming “Big Brother Naija” in South Africa.

For MultiChoice, the decision made economic sense: an existing house in Johannesburg was already outfitted for series sibling “Big Brother Africa.” But viewers remained rankled, with the Nigerian government even promising a formal investigation into the fiasco. The controversy has helped spur a broader reckoning within the TV industry in Nigeria, a country that boasts a deep talent pool and one of the continent’s biggest economies but has struggled to produce premium TV programming.

“There is a measure of disappointment” in local content, says Femi Odugbemi, a former president of Nigeria’s Independent Television Producers Assn. “We’ve had private television for more than 20 years, and in that time, the quality of programming … has not improved enough.”

Though the liberalization of the airwaves broke the monopoly of pubcaster NTA in the 1990s, critics say the industry has failed to evolve, with a litany of problems ranging from high production costs to the lax enforcement of intellectual property rights. TV licenses are frequently granted to political cronies, who use the networks as little more than vanity projects.
“Making quality programming is not a priority for them,” says veteran producer Remi Ogunpitan, who worked on the first “Big Brother Nigeria.”

Hardly helping matters is the unconventional business model of Nigerian broadcasting, in which producers are forced to buy airtime for their shows — pushing them into partnerships with deep-pocketed corporate sponsors in order to bring their creations to the small screen. It’s a system, says Odugbemi, that has “killed innovation” among independent producers.

Yet guarded optimism remains in a vast country of 180 million with a resilient streak and a reputation for getting things done. Digital migration is expected to herald a host of new broadcasters eager to invest in local content. In a nation that, in spite of a recent recession, is still flush with cash, bizzers are hoping to lure private capital to the table.

Turning a still unproven industry into an attractive commodity has vexed producers so far. Without a Nielsen equivalent, notes Odugbemi, there are no reliable metrics to measure ratings or audience engagement — crucial for bringing investors into the fold. “There is just far too much speculation in the industry for serious business people to want to invest capital,” he says.

One company that continues to pour money into Nigeria is MultiChoice. The company’s Lagos facilities boast “end-to-end” studios for production and broadcasting across Nigeria and the rest of Africa, according to Efosa Aiyevbomwan, head of PR and talent for M-Net West Africa.

Along with producing such hit series as “Hush” and “Tinsel,” the longest-running soap in sub-Saharan Africa, MultiChoice has commissioned dozens of made-for-TV movies and partnered on some of the biggest Nigerian blockbusters of recent years. It’s a commitment “not just in terms of increasing the content offerings that we’ve got on our channels, but also increasing the skill set of the [technical] talent on the ground,” Aiyevbomwan says.

For Odugbemi, that strategy reflects an understanding by MultiChoice “that this is a long game” — one that his countrymen would do well to heed. “I would like another [MultiChoice] to grow in Nigeria,” he says. “But we need to convince our own businessmen.”

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