With the proliferation of content channels, both locally and internationally, now, more than ever, content is key. And the demand for African content is growing, not just from Africans on the continent; it’s coming from Africans across the world. Paschorina Mortty profiles Levern Engel, one producer determined to meet that demand.
The scope and quality of TV content varies across Africa, but South Africa and Nigeria continue to be the dominant players, although they operate on very different models. In South Africa, it is largely the broadcasters that are commissioning content. In Nigeria, with the exception of DSTv, it is the big brands that have taken on this role. And they’re spending big. Nigeria exports aggressively to other African countries. Nollywood, X-Factor, Got Talent, Idols, Project Fame are flooding the West African market. It is a mix of big entertainment shows and low budget movies. “It’s not really surprising,” says Levern Engel. “Content is about making a difference. Considering the circumstances under which most of our people live, entertainment is not a luxury, it is a necessity. It is the escape people need from the drudgery of their everyday lives.”
Put this way, in a manner that does not disguise the intensity of the belief behind the words, it is easy to understand why Levern, currently chief executive of Modern African Productions (MAP), has dedicated her life to producing content for the African screen. MAP is an interesting animal. While most regions in Africa have some well-established content producers, there are very few players in the market operating in several territories at the same time. This is exactly what MAP, as the content production arm of the Modern Times Group (MTG) in Africa, does.
Headquartered in Accra, Ghana, MAP’s affiliates include leading UK-based content distribution company Digital Rights Group (DRG), Strix (the first producers globally of Survivor), Parika Latino, Novemberfilms and more recently Nice Entertainment Group – the largest independent group of TV production companies in the Nordic region. With media experience that spans both government and private sector initiatives, Levern worked her way up before graduating to producer level on projects such as the South African version of Sesame Street – a period that she describes as one of the most meaningful in her career.
In 2008 she joined the format beast, Endemol South Africa, as head of entertainment. Teams reporting into her included Big Brother Africa, Survivor, Deal or No Deal and Project Fame (for both East and West Africa). She would be appointed co-MD just 10 months after joining the group.
Not one to shy away from the path less worn, Levern Engel has, one might think even deliberately, always chosen to take on the bigger challenges. Against all warnings of its impossibilities she took Ochre, where she was head of Film and Television, into Botswana. While still new at Endemol, she made her way to Nigeria, a country she was a stranger to, to set up Project Fame West Africa.
That boldness is still very much at play as chief executive of MAP, a subsidiary of the Modern Times Group (MTG). MTG are the owners and operators of free-to-air Viasat 1 in Ghana. MAP is responsible for all in-house productions for Viasat 1. Even as one of the latest entrants in Ghana’s crowded free-to-air space, Viasat 1 is already one of the most watched, turning out some of the most popular shows, produced by MAP.
It has gained a reputation for quality local productions that are now driving imitations from other players. Its breakfast show, This Morning, less than a year after its launch, commands a 23 per cent audience share.
All of this makes sense when you sit down with the driving spirit behind MAP. Levern’s vision is simple – broaden MTG’s content portfolio, accelerate digital content creation capabilities and expand MAP’s African footprint. And she believes that part of doing that and doing it well, is to create content that truly connects with and engages audiences.
“The anatomy of successful African content isn’t any different from any international content,” she says. “Successful shows all have pretty much the same elements. Reduced to its essence, it’s about stories that are told well. Whether it’s news, reality, scripted shows, talk, magazine, documentary … it’s about story and what’s familiar (locations, language, sensibilities and nuances).
“Of course, it has to look and sound good. Ten years ago, I could have started a company in Africa called ‘In-Focus and Audible Productions’,” Levern notes wryly. “With the possible exception of South Africa, some of the programming was just so bad. Today it’s no longer a differentiator. It is a story told well that is the differentiator. Story and meaningful end-user engagement is critical. We are storytellers and matchmakers.”
But storytelling is sometimes compromised by the very real logistical challenges that African producers face and production values do take a hit. In film, piracy compounds the problem.
Nollywood remains a prime example. Nollywood films are wildly popular across the continent and with the African diaspora around the world. Iroko is proof of this – as well as the more recently launched iBaka TV. In 2012, The New York Times estimated the value of Nollywood to be in the region of $500m. But talk to Nollywood producers and they will tell you that half of that revenue is lost to piracy.
The average Nollywood movie has a shelf life of about two weeks before the pirates get hold of it.
The television landscape faces its own challenges. “Unlike film, there’s not much literature around the television trends in most African countries. You only discover it by being on the ground,” says Levern. “You cannot build a company by taking a remote control approach. You have to experience it first-hand. Is it comfortable? No, but it’s exciting. If you’re on the ground you understand in a non-cerebral way why Nollywood happened. And the evolution of ‘New Nollywood’ makes sense.”
Collaborations are becoming key. Interestingly in South Africa, the opposite trend is emerging. Major players in that market have borrowed from Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania, producing bubble gum films and series at a fraction of the cost of productions maybe ten years ago.
The evolution is proceeding at different paces in different countries and markets. Its sustainability however, will hinge on partnerships between broadcasters, brands and producers. It will also depend on the ability to monetise content through nontraditional channels. And in this regard, digital platforms are key. While free-to-air is bound to be the primary avenue of distribution for a while, a huge diaspora, hungry for African content, means that African content producers have a viable alternative platform.
But what of other dynamics in the content business? Engel is a female in what remains a predominantly male business. “That’s changing faster than you think,” she notes with a smile. “Which explains the increase in the number of women in management today.”
Levern takes this personally. As a firm believer in the necessity and power of mentorship, she applies the same kind of passion towards the young people who are lucky enough to gain entry to the “School of MAP”.
“We need to grow more women in management and the technical areas in the business. Things won’t change because of a government directive. It will change because heads of those organisations recognise that it’s important and it must be done. I got to where I am because other people gave me opportunities. It’s my turn to pass that on to others who show that they have what it takes.”
On and off the screen, Levern makesthe television experience as purposeful as possible. “When you start out in TV,” she says, “you’re young and all you want to do is go-go-go. It’s all about you and the work you’re doing. As you grow, you realise it’s never about you. It’s about the audience. We are in service to them, not the other way round. We’re telling someone else’s story. And it’s our responsibility to help tell that story well.”
So what is MAP’s ambition at this juncture? In her own words, “it’s to build the biggest and the best”. This is in line with MTG’s ambitious plans for geographical expansion in Africa. Given how far she has come and the steely determination that has underpinned that progress, odds are, she will. The lady herself is quietly confident. “I am either stupid or brave. Time will tell,” she smiles.