Alex Okosi is Executive Vice President & Managing Director, Viacom Africa. He is a Nigerian-born, US-educated media executive responsible for developing and launching MTV Africa and has also spearheaded the launch of other localised Viacom brands in Africa. He is also the creative force behind the MTV Africa Music Awards among others. He speaks to KEMI AJUMOBI on 13 years of being at the helm of affairs and his journey so far. Excerpts
As a content provider, how far have you gone in delivering quality content across Africa?
We launched 13 years of MTV Base recently, it was the first channel launched as part of our presence in Africa. When we launched MTV Base, the mission was to show great quality content that wasn’t being done before. It was always a passion in my heart as a young African American, to get the world to see Africa beyond what was usually being projected at that time which was basically boom and doom.
We wanted them to know we had a vibrant culture that offered creativity and MTV Africa was a great platform to show that but the challenge was to determine how we would be able to ensure that the content travelled. From the research, we found that while Africans loved the music they produced, they did not like the videos and they spent time laughing at the videos versus enjoying it.
We realised that if the musician can create quality music and video, the artiste would go far. We did the research in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Senegal at that time and the research showed that quality was the barrier. We decided to do workshops where we brought quality producers from around the world and we did not want to call it a Masterclass because it would sound condescending, so we organised a skills exchange workshop and through this workshop, we created like 20 music videos in two years with Ghana, Gabon, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and we found out that once we established an industry where they now knew each other and content became better, the quality started to rise.
We started the station with 25 percent local content and in two years, we had grown the content to 50 percent African content. Looking at what the Nigerian music industry has become today, it shows that the workshop we had back then had a positive effect. I don’t know where you would go to in any part of the world where you would not find Nigerian music being showcased. This is an amazing achievement.
What international responses can you share from watching African content shown on your platform?
Take the MAMAs (MTV Africa Music Awards) for example, launching this has in a lot of ways reframed the narrative of Africa. We were ambitious to do the first one in Nigeria. The first one was in Abuja and while it was a challenging event, yet, I woke up the next morning to see Kelly Rowland and Dbanj as part of the collaboration on the front page of CNN website, that was a great story for Africa and this was back in 2008. That was when the story began to change positively.
We recently launched the MTV Shuga 6th season. It is a 360 degree mass media campaign for young people that merge sexual health messaging, including HIV prevention, with popular culture, and gripping story lines. Shuga is one program that a lot of young people across the world are watching. The last episode reached 700million people who watched it on Youtube channel. Because of the success of MTV Base, we are now running 10 TV channels.
Our success is creating opportunities for young individuals who work well before and behind the scene. When such programs are broadcast across the world, it changes the narrative. For instance, the movie Black Panther is great and I love it but I love it more because Lupita is there and she is in our Shuga series, where she honed her acting from the first season and she is just one of several others. Our stories and work have contributed in a good way on how the world views Africa.
What is your view on artistes complaining of being ripped off?
I speak for us. Platforms like ours do not release content without the artiste’s permission. I am against any intellectual property violation because it is their trade, it is what feeds them, it is their work. We are totally compliant.
Is online marketing a threat to your business?
It is an opportunity. We are not just a linear platform, content for us also exists on the digital platform. It is true that consumer behaviour is changing and you cannot rule that out but for companies like ours, we have our modules. We cannot deny the fact that people watch content when they want and how they want and the parameter that they want. You need to ensure you have great content that is still king. You need to ensure the information is available for your consumers on mobile or on the go. The most important thing is that it is available. So yes, we are aware that consumer cravings have changed but we are at the forefront, ensuring we meet their demands as well.
Do you see collaboration of content owners and telecom giants as a threat?
Collaborations are good even on the platform you speak of, which is telecoms. We do quite a number with them. It is about getting content to consumers. For the mobile giants, their expertise is not on content creation; that is what we bring to the table, so our ability to be able to create content for our consumers, even through their platforms also makes it all work together.
Thirteen years in Africa as a local business, what is your success story, what would you have done differently?
Our success story is establishing a brand like MTV Base that has been an incredible catalyst for driving music in Africa and around the world. We played a critical role in ensuring we ‘edutain’ young people, especially creating programs to empower them. The success factor is also moving from one brand to being a successful network with content from ages four to 40 and beyond, creating different brands that speak to different genres and demographics.
Furthermore, with a successful MTV Base story, we have been able to also create and launch new channels that serve the African audience and champion top notch awards. Talking about doing things differently, I will like to say that in the day to day operations of our organisation, there are things you might want to have done differently. Overall strategically, I don’t think there is anything we would have done significantly different but in a lot of ways, we are more excited about the things we did do, leading to the growth of the industry. It has been an incredibly rewarding and challenging one in the sense that building something from the scratch and seeing it grow to where it is now and where we are going, is quite encouraging. Having the opportunity to work with and lead the BET brand is also very humbling.
The latest PWC report on Nigeria says the entertainment industry will hit $2.8bn by 2021, what is your view on this?
I think that it is a basis to at least debate if there is more or less. It is a good thing to have a globally recognised entity like PWC do the research and at least put a prediction in terms of where the country can grow. I personally think there are more opportunities for the sector to outgrow and I think that will come as a result of more measurement of the quality of the content that we are having.
In the TV space in Nigeria, there is no real accurate measurement that gives you a timely data that enables you to understand for instance, the rating of a show. What we have are diaries that play off the collections and that hasn’t enabled us to realise the full potential of a satellite TV and this same need is expected in other sectors.
It therefore means that advertisers are not really unleashing the investments that they should in the space. Once measurement comes in, especially as we are moving more into the digital as a nation, it means it’s going to have more impact in terms of growing the commercial aspect of the sector. Truth is now, Nigerians want to consume local content, they want to watch more of their products. Thirteen years ago when we first started, it was like 20 percent local and 80 percent international but now, the reverse is the case. It means that there is enough to propel the trajectory of the industry.
How can the Nigerian economy grow through entertainment?
Government helping to put some measures in place that protect the industry better will go a long way. Piracy is global but the extent in Nigeria is high. It takes away opportunities for the owner of the content to monetise the value of what they created. When the sector is run well, issues such as digital migration happen in a seamless way, although it isn’t completely about the government putting a whole lot in the space but it is about them putting more of protection in the space.
The government has a role to play to make that happen, let me explain. If for instance, you were caught as a pirate, you must be prosecuted to the highest level of the law because no one should be robbed of what they worked hard for. Also, it will be encouraging for banks to put in place measures to lend to SME’s. Going into the entertainment business is capital intensive and for people just starting, how can they generate incomes? If the government through the Bank of Industry for instance, offers more incentives to get into the space, provide loans with lower interest, they can help improve the entertainment structure and stick to it.
I mentor a lot of people. I am up a lot of times, even to the wee hours of the night to inspire and encourage those who want to take bold steps in this space. My story has been created from mentorship from people who took interest in seeing me grow and I do same for others. You can see the glass half full rather than half empty and this is core in seeing them grow.
Anything is possible if you put in the time and work towards it diligently. There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you put in the time, passion and pursue it with their fullest energy.