To say that the local television scene has undergone seismic changes over the past few years would be to belabor the obvious. Gone are the days when a single TV channel held a monopoly over the airwaves. There are now at least half a dozen local TV channels operating in Addis Ababa. Of them all, such has been the success of Kana TV that within a span of only one year, it has been able to command a viewership of millions. As Kana has received many plaudits for its pioneering programming from fans, there are others who bemoan its success, not least for its poaching of audience from other TV stations. Some also argue that the advent of Kana has seriously affected the bottom line of the nascent local film industry. In this week’s issue of The Reporter, Samuel Getachew reflects on its one-year journey in the local TV scape.
Inside one of the coziest bars in the capital, Volt, which is located atop a landmark building in Bole, Kana TV recently celebrated its one-year anniversary.
Like Guinness Beer, the sponsor of the festivities, Kana TV has had a bittersweet experience in its foray into the Ethiopian TV market. A nation aspiring to become industrialized, and one with an ever-increasing segment of its population of almost 100 million with disposable income, Ethiopia can claim to be a hub of the African market before long.
A year after it made its debut, the pioneering private TV station with its dubbed imported soaps and non-stop music, much like the much criticized Black Entertainment Television (BET) in the US, has been an instant hit with Ethiopians. However, that popularity has come at a cost as it continues to be criticized for undercutting local production and poaching viewers from other TV outlets, giving local artists minimal opportunities for exposure.
The Reporter reached out to a number of vocal critics, including those who participated in previous press conferences criticizing the TV station. However, none was willing to speak on record.
“How can we compete with outsiders with unlimited resources when we are struggling to enter the market with little or no capital and no government support,” one artist complained to The Reporter. “There has to be a level playing field, more support for local production and the government should force Kana TV to integrate us in their work. I have applied for a role at a pilot project with Kana, not because I like the station, but because of circumstances and the little choice I have,” the complainant added.
From the start, there has been opposition from many, including some members of the clergy who expressed dissatisfaction with the station. There are also cases of business establishments banning it altogether at their premises to deter employees from being hooked on it and compromising customer service. There are even rumors of young people skipping school and adults missing appointments in order to watch their favorite soap on Kana.
One local popular culture critic, Christian Tesfaye, penned a piece of his experience of having a bad haircut owing to his barber being distracted watching Kana.
When Kana was launched, viewers liked the fact that they could watch non-stop quality international soaps from the Middle East, South America and Asia in a language they understood. They no longer had to watch Arab satellite productions and struggle to understand the conversation. To the established local market, Kana was an outlier, and many were finding it hard to accommodate a concept they had a hard time to understand.
Kana welcomed the competition in a market of potentially tens of millions.
“Since Kana was launched, we’ve seen an increase in the quality of locally produced drams on TV and a real growth in other private entertainment focused TV networks,” Elias Schulze, co-founder and managing director of Kana Television told The Reporter. “We have been very pleased with the growth in the market and welcome more players so we can together mature and grow the market.”
“We do not believe in zero-sum, we believe we can all grow and thrive together.”
The size of viewership of Kana TV is an open debate, but there is no doubt about its popularity. Kantar-GeoPoll Media Measurement, which began keeping track of local viewership this year, pegs its popularity at 39 percent of prime time viewership, or some 5 million people tuning to it every night.
“Kana is a truly Ethiopian endeavor,” Schulze told African Business magazine this week. There is some truth to this assessment in Ethiopia but its real power lies outside of the country.
The staff of the local company consists of about 180 employees with a maiden age of 25 and is almost exclusively Ethiopians. However, Dubai-based Moby Group, owned by Saad Mohseni, is a majority owner of Kana, and is significantly bankrolled (at 47.6 percent) by the controversial media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox TV channel, among other outlets, in the United States.
In a 2013 New York Times profile, Mohseni was described as one who “has done this with the start-up help of the United States government and with cash injection from News Corporation, led by his friend Rupert Murdoch, with whom he shares an Australian background, a love of gossip and an obvious industriousness.”
The idea to start Kana TV was no accident. There were continued studies done, local business partners to discover and understand the Ethiopian TV market fully. A public poll was commissioned from Kana by IPSOS, the first of its kinds in the country and found that 62 percent of Ethiopians were watching foreign content, mainly soaps.
According to Schulze, “One, that means there’s a mass consumption—way over four million people in Ethiopia every day that are watching foreign content, in languages that are not theirs and two, the content was not focused on them.”
Kana has been forced to adjust its programming since it began. There is now a Barbara Walters-inspired talk show #mindin, a show of three young people debating and discussing social issues and #time hosted by Danayit Mekbib, a novice TV personality who is fast becoming an icon.
“Danayit Mekbib Fan Kisses her LIVE!” – A recent headline read.
Kana is currently building a mega production studio, the biggest in East Africa, to help facilitate more in-house production. It is also rumored to be hosting the next Ms. Ethiopia beauty pageant competition. Schulze denies any plans of holding a pageant, and notes that, “Currently, there are no such plans.”
However, this sounds like a Bill Clintonsque response of talking about the future in the present tense. It is also bidding for the right to broadcast the Ethiopian soccer premier league over EBC to appease critics who have been calling for local content. According to Schulze, the company has faced a number of challenges as it marks its one-year anniversary.
“As one expects with a startup in any market, we had to do a lot of things in parallel before we went live – train our employees, build systems and management processes, deliver sales pitches, prepare the range of shows we are airing all the while conducting major infrastructure developments,” Schulze told The Reporter. “Before we went live, a key challenge, as you would face in any emerging market, was to find qualified professionals that would deliver the level of quality in content we promised to bring to our Ethiopian audience”.
“Very few of our staff when we hired them had any production experience.”
Schulze seems aware of the criticism and the shortcomings of a profitable private production within Ethiopia, despite the many challenges. There are plans for more local production, American-inspired shows in Amharic, including the “I love Elmo” series.
“This partnership with the Sesame Workshop organization out of NYC has been in the works for nearly a year and we are excited to bring the world’s best children’s education programming to Ethiopia,” he said.
“As a company, Kana TV maintains dual social and commercial mandate, which means we aim to improve our communities – Sesame Street is just one small example of where we hope to drive these efforts over the years to come.”