Watching Africa from the inside

New cable channels offer view of diverse continent through Africans’ eyes.

Mention “Africa” and you’re apt to trigger a litany of associations: poverty, war, starvation, AIDS – maybe a tousled but still lovely Angelina Jolie. Western views of Africa are shaped by a tight range of media images, whether nature documentary, breaking news, or quick-cut coverage of celebrity good deeds.

Now, one cable television station wants to fundamentally reshape those perceptions. The Africa Channel, which debuted on the Time Warner Cable Network in Los Angeles in July and became available in New York last week, aggregates a broad range of English-language TV shows from across Africa and packages them for American audiences. The channel’s varied mix of soap operas, reality television, documentaries, feature films, news, music videos, and talk shows certainly doesn’t shy away from Africa’s many troubles. But it also presents a more nuanced understanding of everyday life in Africa’s 53 countries by allowing Africans to tell their own stories. Overall, the channel aims to shine a light on the “dark continent.”

“What we’re trying to do here is showcase Africa as not just a basket case, but a place of hope, [and] also an incredible opportunity,” says James Makawa, the channel’s cofounder, gesticulating passionately. “The deeper mission here is not just about entertaining people – which is very important – but informing people.”

Sitting in a conference room inside the channel’s frugal North Hollywood offices – the decorations are unframed posters of African pop stars such as the Mahotella Queens – Mr. Makawa underscores his point by pulling up a live TV broadcast on his laptop. The channel is playing a Robbie Malinga music video in which a white South African girl is flirting her way through a market in Soweto.

“We all know what South Africa was,” says Makawa, a dapper Zimbabwean who holds direct eye contact through his tortoiseshell glasses. “But here’s a young black guy in a township having an incredible relationship with ‘Susana,’ as the song is titled. It’s hopefully showcasing Africa in its trueform. Its color. Its vibrancy."

Even soap operas such as "Isidingo" and "Generations," which feature the sort of back-stabbing, bed-hopping, and bad acting one expects from a daytime series on US TV, deal with African issues such as polygamy and the urbanization of women.

For more in-depth coverage of the continent's evolving dynamics, you'd have to tune into programs such as Makawa's exclusive sit-down interview with Zimbabwe's embattled prime minister, Robert Mugabe, or "Africa Journal," a weekly news program produced by Reuters out of Nairobi, Kenya. A daily newscast is in the works for 2009. The channel's mandate: avoid sensationalism and provide an African perspective.

Similarly strict standards govern the channel's entertainment programming, which accounts for about 80 percent of its lineup.

Standing in an editing bay that looks as complex as an air-traffic control desk, the network's general manager, Bob Reid, says the channel rejects programs that reinforce stereotypes about Africa. Shows are also edited to be family-friendly (just as well when it comes to Africa's edition of "Big Brother") and the editors also insert pop-up boxes that explain slang terms and metric conversions. The final part of postproduction is creating a unified look and feel to the shows by adding the channel's logo and design. But the channel doesn't try to Americanize the shows, stresses Mr. Reid, an Emmy Award-winner who once headed up the Discovery Health channel.

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.

"I think it'll attract a very wide base of customers because it's an issue-based channel," concurs Jeffrey Hirsch, Time Warner Metro Division president for Los Angeles. "That's why we launched it."

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."

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