The Africa Channel (TAC) presented the panel Exporting African Content to the World at DISCOP Johannesburg, with Steve Adams, a partner at the full-service media company Buffalo 8, leading executives in a debate about how to upend the low demand for the content the continent has to offer.
Brendan Gabriel, VP of production and creative director for The Africa Channel, is quick to acknowledge that the West has long dominated the content game, but believes that OTT platforms are proving to be a game-changer. “There’s so much here that needs to be told,” Gabriel says, referring to Africa. “The time is now with the OTT platforms that have opened it up for all of us.”
Agreeing with Gabriel is Cactus Tree Entertainment co-founder Liz Levenson, who believes that streamers deserve some credit for people around the world becoming excited to get new points of view. “From a storytelling perspective, the international marketplace is opening up to new ideas and places,” says Levenson, adding that there’s new interest in formats from all over the world.
Ben Amadasun, who recently joined Netflix as its director of licensing for Africa, finds it a privilege to be able to start buying African content for the global streamer. “How we see our content for a Netflix point of view, we’re looking at how it does in Africa. Stories that are authentic, there is always a place for them around the world,” says Amadasun, who has found that people from around the globe want to watch content from other countries. He’s now telling the producers, “Don’t worry about having European or American actors; people want to see authentic stories from the continent.”
The Africa Channel’s business is focused largely outside of the continent, serving the wants and needs of the approximately 150 million of the African Diaspora of which roughly 50 percent speak English and the other half largely speaking a mix of French, Portuguese or Spanish. “If you look at the trends in immigration [in the Americas], one in 11 people were of African origin,” says Narendra Reddy, executive VP and general manager at The Africa Channel. “By 2050, that will be one in six. There is a big demand for content that will increase. It’s time for Africa to play on the world stage.”
20th Century Fox’s Reena Singh is seeing a shift in viewership from multiculturalism to polyculturalism. “Polyculturalism is when the individuals embrace their identity and are seeking out the content of people who look and act like themselves,” Singh explains. “Instead of saying, I’m Indian or Italian, polyculturalism is, I’m Indian, I’m Italian and French and I’m proud of all of it and seeking ties to all of them.” She adds that in a few years, the under-18 population in the U.S. will be a majority-minority population. “This generation is looking for more diverse content. Not that just speaks to their own identity, but to other cultures, [creating] a lot of possibilities for other cultures to come into the mainstream in American media.”
According to Côte Ouest CEO Bernard Azria, what travels well around the world comes down to one thing: good-quality content. “When I’m saying good-quality content, I’m not talking about traditional values, I’m talking about content that tells a story,” says Azria. “At the end of the day, our business is to create and sell emotion. Emotion doesn’t have a border, a skin color.” Azri adds, “Yes, we must export African content. Yes, there is an international market that needs to be conquered. Just do it. I don’t know what we’re debating about. There’s no debate.”
Over at Discovery, the company works in factual content in what Henry Windridge, head of brand for the Middle East and Africa, refers to as “key passion verticals.” Already international in having launched in 220 territories around the world, Discovery seeks projects that can travel. Among them is Hitched, a series that follows the search for Mokele-Mbembe, a legendary creature of Congo folklore. It “matched Discovery’s content curiosity,” says Windridge. “Other markets wanted to take it; it didn’t matter where it came from.” In terms of Africa-based cookery shows, Windridge points out that because African cuisine is so broad and that the shows match the passion-based real-life content Discovery is known for, the programs can work in Asia, Italy, the U.K. and elsewhere.
As The Africa Channel’s Reddy puts it, the key is the kind of content “that feels local with a global aesthetic.” He adds, “A challenge is, How do you take that storytelling that’s prevalent in Africa [elsewhere]? There’s tons of content being produced. It’s figuring out what are the tricks that can be added, layered to that content to make it saleable. Unscripted tends to travel more easily—food, fashion, music, sports and news. (We don’t do sports because we can’t afford it.) Lifestyle content travels. We’ve done a lot of lifestyle shows we’ve sold to other networks and hopefully will sell to other colleagues on this panel.”
Reddy’s The Africa Channel colleague Gabriel adds, “A lot of the content that’s produced in Africa is produced for very local clients.” He believes that’s what needed is “putting in the effort in production value to bring it up to something that makes it exportable. When we have a studio try to take those concepts to the U.S. or U.K. markets, we’re competing with the Steven Spielbergs and Ava DuVernays. We’re small and niche, how do we leverage that? Starting from a grassroots level.”
For Levenson, it comes back again to perspective. “What new perspective are you bringing that is different from what everyone else has? For South African producers, there’s access to character, story and interesting things happening here that haven’t been touched by the Spielbergs.”
Gabriel finds that in terms of scripted programming, writing and character depth are vital. “Things that aren’t cliche that we haven’t seen before, bringing in the muscle for scripting,” Gabriel lists off. “If we’re going to break in, we need to bring the muscle in the scripting, character and plot.” At Netflix, Amadasun has seen how big a difference editing can make after giving a producer the chance to take two more stabs at a full screener that resulted in a version with the quality to match the projects’ top-notch promo.
Côte Ouest’s Azria isn’t fully convinced that Africa is ready to export its content, rather believing that effort should first be made to create content that can cross borders within Africa. “Apparently it’s clear to everyone that there’s a worldwide international market. It’s ready to be conquered by everyone,” says Azria. “Are we, African actors, ready to conquer it? Definitely not. Do we have the capacity? No. Do we have the professional ability? No. Are we strong enough? No.” He adds, “Once the industry is mature enough and can control its domestic market, it will reach a certain level. If it wants to go further, my advice is to speak to your neighbor before speaking to your uncle.”
Begging to differ is The Africa Channel’s Reddy. “I think the world is becoming a smaller place. You don’t necessarily have to have your content travel from South Africa to Ghana before traveling from South Africa to London. I think there is an opportunity for African content to travel outside of the continent.” He adds, “The issue, though, is no ready distribution platforms. Producers need to be patient. Netflix and most streamers who come into Africa want to play largely in Africa. But outside of the continent, playing for Latvia or London, we believe we have to create our own distribution platforms and not be beholden.”
Both Levenson and The Africa Channel’s Gabriel suggest that collaborations could be another key to exporting African content. “Our economies and markets for content are not as developed and big, and we have been primarily producing and creating for local markets,” says Gabriel. “That’s our bread and butter and how we survive on the continent. Thanks to streaming platforms, people are starting to see the travelability of content from developing markets and we want to participate. If all you’ve known of the primary market is local, how you get that across is by collaboration.”
From what Amadasun has seen at Netflix, African content is welcome across the globe. He’s found that there’s “a lot of interest in the States, Canada, France and Brazil, countries where there is a considerable Diaspora. According to Amadasun, “With localization, it makes it very seamless for the customer. We’ve seen great content—wherever you are, wherever it has come from—wants to be consumed by people around the world.”