The directive that Kenyan TV stations should screen 60% local content is a good one. The increase of local content is a welcome change. One look at our local TV stations and you quickly realize that it isn’t as local. There is an array of telenovelas and Western African content on offer both during the day and night. The local shows are limited and to be honest, a lot of the local content on some of these TV stations is in the form of news. Enter news bulletins that run for two hours and other news shows during prime time slots.
The debate on increasing local content on our televisions is not a new one. Citizen has managed to score well in that making it the most watched station in the country. K24 and KBC are not doing too badly either. The promotion of local content is a plus, however it has a drawback. Filmmakers that have tried to pitch to Citizen are usually met with the, ”That isn’t the kind of content our viewers want to watch.” Business wise it makes sense. If the viewers want shows like Papa Shirandula, that’s what you give them. So if you’re looking to pitch something a bit ‘upmarket’, Citizen will not take it. KTN are trying lately with an increase in their local programming. NTV in my opinion, are lagging behind.
That being said, a lot of filmmakers/content creators have been gearing up to get content out on local channels. The process to get content on local stations is a tedious one. The Kenyan film and TV industry is very much like the wild wild west. Getting your script/concept to broadcasters is a challenge. To be on the safe side, it’s a better idea to go with an already shot pilot as opposed to a script or treatment. A lot of filmmakers have had their ideas stolen this way. The process of getting your content to a broadcaster is a tough cookie. If you don’t know anyone or have any kind of clout in the film industry, you will leave your pilot and treatment materials either at the reception or even at the gate with the watchman. A lot of upcoming filmmakers claim that setting up a meeting to pitch content to local broadcasters is nearly impossible. They have an easier time with foreign broadcasters like MNET.
If you get past the pitching and actually get an offer, the real challenges come into play. To shoot a project requires money. To truly appreciate how much goes into a production, you have to break it down into the various production costs. There’s cast to be paid, crew to be paid, catering, equipment to be rented or bought, locations to be paid for or built and lots of shopping to be done for wardrobe, make-up, props and production office supplies like printing paper. So it’s ridiculous when a broadcaster offers a hundred thousand per episode for a Kenyan show. How much do you pay an actor out of that before you begin to think about all the other things? They expect to pay a local production per episode the same amount they pay to buy a telenovela? That’s ludicrous. A local producer has to make the product and their predominant market is Kenya. A telenovela producer makes their content without ever thinking about Kenya. Kenya isn’t part of their marketing strategy and any money they make out of this market is a plus they hadn’t planned for initially.
The issue then is that there is no goodwill from broadcasters to support Kenyan filmmakers. They want to take shortcuts by spending as little as possible on content creation. What this has led to is a migration of the best content creators to international Pay TV outfits, which majority of Kenyans don’t have access to. It has also led to a stagnation where ideas are concerned. Little funding means that most filmmakers are stuck in the drama or slapstick comedy genres. A lot of filmmakers say they have ambitious ideas but there’s no way they can produce them with the kind of money available. Granted, Kenyan broadcasters may not be bale to compete with their international counterparts where funding is concerned. However, it’s clear that they are not doing enough.
The migration of TV signals from analogue to digital is inevitable. This means that Kenyans will have access to a lot more channels than they have at the moment, giving them an array of choices. As of now, most Kenyans are stuck with less than ten channels but going forward this number will exponentially increase. If broadcasters do not begin to increase the amount of local content they have in their portfolio, they may be caught pants down when digital migration is implemented. The worry then is that a rushed acquisition of local content may lead to sub-standard programs on our TV stations.
There is some goodwill from our government where local programming is concerned. This is important because a lot of these changes in local programming are policy driven and if the government doesn’t step in, then the quota of local content on our TV stations may not increase. This is not to say that the broadcasters have not attempted to screen local content, but what they have is not enough and they need a push to increase this.
Going forward, there should be a better working relationship between filmmakers and broadcasters. Quality content is expensive the world over and Kenya is no exception. Broadcasters will have to invest quite a bit in local content acquisition but it’s a necessary expense. Hopefully in the next five years, 70% of content on our TV stations will be Kenyan. As corny as this may sound, we need to see more of ourselves on our TV stations. It is a matter of national heritage.