Taking a break from the MBCs

By Heirete Yibaleh

Back in olden days, the stories of ‘Matlock’, a renowned, folksy, witty and popular though cantankerous attorney known for his  trademark light gray suit and ‘Father Dowling’, a Catholic Priest who solves murders, abductions and other mysteries in his Chicago parish, assisted by a young streetwise nun, Sister Stephanie were top rated foreign series that Ethiopians saw on television. Before that there were the likes of ‘Bonanza,’ a civil war era series about a ranching family. ‘Jake and the Fatman’, ‘Acapulco Bay’, ‘Empire’ and others followed suit entertaining Ethiopian TV viewers for years.

That was in days gone by. Now there is a new vibe in town. Having new domestic entertainment channels to choose from has been one source of excitement for Addis Ababans this past month. After the launching of two new TV channels, viewers in Addis seem to be taking a break from MBC channels that are broadcasted from Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As far as local television is concerned, for many years, Ethiopian viewers could only watch the state-owned Ethiopian Television (ETV) now renamed Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC).

It was some three decades ago that Ethiopian TV effected changed from black and white to color. Programing was limited and was for only a few hours. In addition, the foreign content was limited to Friday night wrestling, one feature film on Saturday night, a handful of soaps, TV series and music videos. So, with only one channel, there was no option for TV viewers until about twenty years ago. It was in the mid-1990s that Ethiopian TV viewers were introduced to satellite TV transmissions via Arabsat. Though having satellite dishes was something for the affluent it was the time that Ethiopians and particularly Addis Ababans had the pleasure of watching a variety of foreign TV programs.

What was once a thing for the wealthy gradually started to become common and Ethiopians living in both urban and rural areas started to own satellite dishes. In due course, the likes of Dstv (paid satellite TV) and Nilesat and the now defunct GTV (paid satellite TV) came and broadened the options for Ethiopians. Live European football, Hollywood movies and TV series are what a considerable number of Ethiopians watched.

That being the case, the market started to expand, the demand started to grow and entrepreneurs started to emerge. Ethiopian Broadcasting Service (EBS) was the icebreaker. EBS, which airs on Nilesat, is an Ethio-American entertainment channel in Amharic that was founded by Aman Fissehatsion. The channel was warmly accepted by Ethiopians, which in turn paved the way for others to emerge. Now, new channels are popping up to satisfy the long overdue lack of heterogeneous content.

Next in line was Nahoo TV, also on Nilesat. Based in Kenya, Nahoo officially launched its Ethiopian channel Nahoo Satellite TV at the Golden Tulip Hotel on January 14 this year. At this time the channel is working on 12 programs with different structure and content. The programs include psychology, law, music and drama.

"For three and a half years, we had studied the feasibility of operating a private frequency on satellite. However, when this opportunity presented itself, we seized it. The private frequency is now a long-term project," Kidus Dagnachew, CEO of Nahoo TV, says.

What followed was Kana TV; a channel which has a different set of programs and shows. In terms of what the viewers see, Kana offers dubbed content from around the world that has not been seen before in Ethiopia.

“We tested different demographics and looked at 200 shows to choose the eight we will go with. The real goal is to build out quality and interesting entertainment in Amharic,” Elias Schulze, Managing Director of Kana TV, says

Kana TV is a joint venture between Moby Group and a group of entrepreneurs in Ethiopia including Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, Elias Schulze, Nazrawi Ghebreselasie and Addis Alemayehou. The local partner is BeMedia a fully Ethiopian owned and operated entity led by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari as the GM. It will be Kana TV’s exclusive media production company while Moby Group is the technical and operating partner.

Headquartered in Dubai, Moby Group is a media and entertainment company with a focus on emerging and frontier markets extending from Central Asia to the Middle East and beyond. The group currently operates 16 businesses in six countries in broadcasting, production, publishing, music, and strategic communications. The group was founded in 2003 by the Mohseni family as a privately-held company and interestingly also has 21st Century Fox as a strategic minority shareholder. Kana TV is the Group’s first African venture.

So what does the competition to grab viewers look like? The seasoned state-owned broadcaster EBC has three channels. Studies reveal that the largest, EBC 1, has a 75-80 percent daily viewership. Now there are the likes of EBS, Nahoo and Kana plus regional terrestrial broadcasters. There are no private terrestrial broadcasters. According to a survey conducted by Ipsos, 77 percent of viewers get TV from satellite and 90 percent from channels on Nilesat, including EBS, and the two newcomers. Into the bargain, there is Dstv but there is only limited penetration from the pay TV provider.

Currently, Kana broadcasts 70-80 percent foreign content but according to Schulze that is temporary. “In 3-5 years’ time we will switch round the proportions from 1-2 locally produced shows to locally produced and managed shows,” he says. 

However, what Kana is airing is something that Ethiopians are now being fond of. Seble Aregawi, an Addis resident in her late twenties, who lives around Gerji, says that she has always been a big fan of foreign series transmitted on MBC 4 and similar stations but always had trouble understanding the full story due to language issues. She says that she even tried to go online to get subtitles and reviews. “I was happy when I heard about the new TV channel that is going to transmit foreign content in Amharic,” she says.

Others are also expressing their positive comments about the shows. In that regard, many seem to be hooked on the Indian romance series called ‘Zara and Chandra’. This seems to bring back old memories of famous Indian movies like ‘Mother India’, ‘Disco Dancer’ and ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’. Starting from the time of Emperor Haile-Selassie, Ethiopians have been extremely fond of Indian movies and ‘Zara and Chandra’ seems to have hit a jackpot.

Daniel Yohannes, 26, who runs a family business, is another Addis resident. He says that he has not been watching a lot but have caught some episodes along the way. He lives with his parents and says that every time he goes home everyone is Kana. “I sometimes want to watch other programs no- body at home seems to want to change the channel,” In addition to that, he says that he is also worried. “Even though Kana TV and the others are doing a good job with regard to entertaining the people, there might be a few drawbacks since the channels are massively diverting the attention of the people from other important matters,” he says.

At this point in time, in Ethiopia, the local entertainment business is trying to meet the demands of the public by providing quality content and as far as TV and cinema are concerned commentators say that Kana TV has managed to turn the tide and has become a challenge to those involved in Ethiopian film production. It was only a decade ago that the local film industry started to flourish. Local production received acclaims from the audience and moviegoers queued to get a glimpse of what Ethiopian films have to offer. That’s not just it. Recently, Ethiopian movies like ‘Difret’ and ‘Lamb’ were given unprecedented accolades from global film critics. That in turn raised the notch to a whole new level. Now Kana came in the picture but its arrival was not welcomed by some Ethiopian filmmakers who have voiced their concerns citing cultural subversion.

These filmmakers argue that the focus should be on producing local original content that could eventually be exported to other counties. This in turn will also help promote Ethiopia’s culture in the rest of the world. Some even go further and say that the new TV stations seem to be focused on the business side and lack artistic elements and that would not contribute anything to the society.

However, that is not what the people at Kana are saying. “We want to be exporting content and other people to be exporting content within five years. Turkey made 250 million dollars out of exporting content. That's a huge foreign currency generator. Even if we can do five or 10 million, everybody will be happy,” Schulze says.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are others who say that the arrival of the likes of Kana is a blessing in disguise and can serve as a wakeup call for local filmmakers. They say that some of these professionals should not be complaining and that they should consider this as a challenge and work tirelessly to get the attention of the public and keep it.

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