Watching Africa from the inside
New cable channels offer view of diverse continent through Africans’ eyes.
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That's a surprising statement, given the target audience. Though African-Americans and African immigrants are core viewers, the content is aimed at the sort of person who gravitates toward PBS, "60 Minutes," or the National Geographic channel.Skip to next paragraph
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Ironically, The Africa Channel isn't yet available in the very neighborhood where it is headquartered. And though the three-year-old network is available in several major cities, including Atlanta, Washington, and Detroit, it's still in fewer households than the Tennis Channel's 10 million. (The Africa Channel boasts a larger reach – 9 million households – in Britain on the satellite-based British Sky Broadcasting Service.)
US cable operators are under pressure to use their bandwidth for faster Internet access for customers, so they're reluctant to use that capacity to add channels in some markets, observes Derek Baine, an analyst with SNL Kagan, the financial-information research firm. The Africa Channel, he says, will need to convince carriers to add it to existing cable packages at a time when surveys show that viewers tend to stick to a dozen channels or fewer.
There isn't much precedent for the channel, either. Barring the Korean Channel, perhaps, which is aimed at a narrow niche and not widely available, the Africa Channel's model is unique. Makawa came up with the idea of accruing multinational content for American viewers after spending years doing exactly the reverse – he once licensed popular US shows for African nations. That job gave him the experience and local contacts to found the network.
The Africa Channel is unique in another way: It's a small, privately funded company. NBA star Dikembe Mutombo, who comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, wrote the startup's first check. Now it relies on funding from groups such as Williams Holdings, LLC, a privately held investment firm. Most cable channels, by contrast, are backed by deep-pocketed media conglomerates with multiple networks.
Indeed, it's hard to make it as an independent these days, cautions Kent Gibbons, an editor for Multichannel News, pointing to the health-oriented Lime TV as an example of an indie that failed. "But," he adds, "you don't have to be a mass market for a channel like [Makawa's], as long as you target effectively and pick up some advertising."
Makawa says it'll be three to four years before they reach a break-even margin, and the channel aims to sign up for Nielsen ratings in 2010 to draw more advertisers. For now, they're concentrating on a push toward high-definition programming and also upgrading the channel's website – currently a highly successful online store for African music – to become a portal for all things African. In the long-term, though, Makawa wants to take The Africa Channel global.
"As an African, what difference can I make? Not only in informing people, but in having a positive impact on the entire continent. Is that a big mission and a big goal? Absolutely," says Makawa. But "we've got total respect for the power of this medium."