Five years ago, some media investors saw a big opportunity in sub-Saharan Africa. With the help of the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC), they created TV Africa, a pan-African entertainment and education network. But a mere three years later, the plug was pulled on TV Africa. Brooke talks to IFC senior investment officer Darren Massara about the difficulties of building transnational media from scratch.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Five years ago, a group of private investors saw in another part of the developing world a ripe prospect for transnational television: Africa. And with the help of the International Finance Corporation, the private investment arm of the World Bank, they formed TV Africa. Like Telesur, it featured programming from all over the continent, beamed to local affiliates for over the air broadcast. Aimed at poorer people who had no access to satellite dishes, it couldn't fail. But a mere three years later, the plug was pulled on TV Africa. Darren Massara is a senior investment officer for the International Finance Corporation, one of the prime movers behind the project. He says there was every reason to believe that the pan-African network would succeed, considering all the people who stood to benefit.
DARREN MASSARA: First was African viewers. We wanted to provide them with free high-quality entertainment and education-based programming, and this is programming that they otherwise would only be able to view through a subscription-based service such as satellite TV. Secondly, regional and multinational advertisers. We wanted to provide them with a one-stop shop to reach an addressable market of, at the time, around 110 million potential viewers. And finally, the local affiliates. We wanted to provide them with the ability to attract additional viewers and sell more local advertising around this improved programming lineup.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the programming, though, and where did it come from?
DARREN MASSARA: The programming was general entertainment combined with sports, you know dramas, miniseries, as well as a little bit of current affairs and news, and with a large chunk of education programming, about five hours a day of curriculum-based education. And that programming primarily came from within Africa. We tried to commission programming in individual countries with the hope that, for example, a Nigerian drama would travel very well throughout the rest of the continent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seems like you had a solid business plan, a good idea, a ready market. What the heck went wrong?
DARREN MASSARA: Well, I think there were three main reasons why it failed. First was I think we over-estimated the market growth. There was a sense that TV Africa would be such an appealing proposition that it would actually drive the advertising market itself, and that turned out not to be the case. The second main reason is on the content side. When we tried to adjust to national and cultural norms, it was difficult for the content to appeal to the masses everywhere. And finally, when TV Africa was able to sell advertising around its programming, it had difficulty collecting the revenue that it earned, because affiliates often did not air TV Africa programming when it was designed to. So the advertising ultimately was not viewed. And it wasn't just us that ran into this problem. There was another company who was our main competitor in the pan-African broadcast space, had a different business model, but had the same concept, and they also failed right around the same time that TV Africa failed as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Darren, what did you take away from this experience with TV Africa?
DARREN MASSARA: I think the main takeaway is that media really is local. You know, unlike the mobile network or unlike other types of manufacturing companies. You know, media tends to develop locally, and you know, to the extent you want to extend across country boundaries or regional boundaries, it's going to be very challenging.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so what did Al Jazeera then get right?
DARREN MASSARA: I think, in a way, you need a, something that appeals to people in one particular way. You know, trying to in a way unite a group, much in the way that I think the new pan-Latin American government-supported initiative does is really trying to unite people in a way that hasn't been done before. You know, ultimately I think that it is difficult to appeal on a mass basis to individuals across country lines. I think if you focus a little bit more in a niche product or a niche segment such as pan-African news, pan-African sports, or even children's channel, something very specific I think works much better than a general entertainment to try to reach all of the population all of the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
DARREN MASSARA: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Darren Massara is senior investment officer for the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group in Washington.