How piracy, poor infrastructure ground Nigeria’s media industry’
Lindsey Oliver is Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Africa MediaWorks Limited, which includes YANGA! TV, an African Entertainment channel broadcast on Sky 453 and Freesat 171 in the United Kingdom. Oliver worked in Lagos as TV Continental’s Commercial Director and interim CEO. Prior to that, she was International Commercial Director at Bloomberg Television, where she spearheaded the channel’s international content localisation initiative. The lawyer-turned media guru spoke with EMEKA NWACHUKWU on her experiences, projections and challenges that have delayed the pace of growth in the nation’s media industry.
Kindly walk us through your life in the media. Did the media also find you as people say?
It is true to say that it’s a case of the media finding me. I was a lawyer in private practice and started out in property and corporate law. It was really by chance that I ended up in television. I think a lot of people unfortunately find the legal profession quite dry.
So, an advert came up in the Times newspaper in 1996. I had been in private practice as a lawyer for about eight years, when a close
friend of mine said he had seen an advert in one of the national papers looking for a television lawyer.
He said, ‘You have always wanted to do something more exciting with law, so why don’t you apply?’ I did, though I didn’t have any media experience; and till this day, I have never regretted it.
Practising law in the context of the business where you could directly see what advice is followed, how you are helping the business run, and working with a wider team, was far more interesting to me than working in a law firm.
In a law firm you don’t really see the first hand result of the advice you are giving. Of course, if you are working in television, you are working with a bunch of very creative people, which I also really enjoy. I have never considered working outside the media since then. I was a lawyer in media for about seven years. When the CEO asked me to takeover the commercial Director role, I was horrified because I had no commercial experience and I thought it was a crazy idea, but I just had to learn on the job.
I was so unsure about doing that role but I insisted on doing the two jobs at the same time, but they were both big jobs, so after a few
months, I realised I couldn’t do both jobs properly and I was surprised to realise I preferred the commercial job. Since then I have always been on the commercial side of the business, but I have to say that having the legal background has been tremendously helpful. You don’t have the benefit of taking your legal department with you when you are trying to negotiate a deal, so, having that background and knowing how to legally structure the deal puts you ahead. It is very helpful to have the two sides of your head in one meeting.
I was doing business in countries from Latin America to India, Africa and Europe. I was a little one-man band doing my deals, using my legal experience and was gaining the commercial experience.
How has the experience been?
The media industry has been wonderful to me. It has given me the opportunity to see the world and currently I am very focused on Africa, particularly West Africa and Nigeria. I come from an ordinary background. I grew up in London and I didn’t know anybody who was a lawyer or who had even been to university, but television has been fantastic to me.
As a news-business-based person, the experience has been wonderful for me. There is hardly a region of the world where I haven’t been to work or do business, which is so exciting.
Have you ever felt like quitting?
Honestly, no, never. The closest I have ever got is sometimes when I crawl into bed after a long, difficult day and I think, how am I going to get this done? It is not so much like you want to give up, but you kind of think, have I run out of ideas on how to get this particular
problem solved? But when I wake up the next morning, I have thought of something, not necessarily a complete solution to the
problem, but I will say to myself, ‘I know I will try this’.
And I think that’s part of the industry; it’s such a creative one, exciting and always changing, so you never get bored of it. There is always more to learn, even if you know your current job now, you have got to start thinking about what your job would be in the future because it won’t be the same; but that to me is really exciting. I never for once thought of quitting.
What have been the changes you have noticed in the Nigerian media space, Africa and Europe in terms of content generation and execution?
Of course, there have been phenomenal changes in the media space. Every country is different, of course, but they are in different
stage of their media development and that’s not just the case of some being ahead and others behind. It’s more that every country,
every market develops in different ways. For example, back in the 2000s, when I was working in TV in Europe, there was a big difference between TV distribution in different countries, even with Europe. For instance, if you thought about TV distribution in Rome, where pretty much the whole city is an archaeological site, they had very little cable TV. So the TV system at that time was totally satellite-based. On the other hand, Paris is so desperately proud of its skyline; the most beautiful city in the world, they tended to prefer cable to satellite installations which would ruin their skyline. Hence, the cable deal you will be doing in Paris is different from the satellite deal you will be doing in Rome.
Funny things like that make each market different. The African market to me is most fascinating, because markets here are inevitably leapfrogging some of the earlier developments in other countries. Some of the more traditional TV distribution like cable and satellite have been overtaken in the African markets which went straight to the next phase.
For me, there is an endless fascination with different countries, different cultures, how they want to consume TV, what they are interested in, what does and doesn’t interest them, how business works in that area, etc. When I came into the African markets, I guess I started really with South Africa as Europeans often do. They come into Africa and the first place they go is South Africa.
Why South Africa?
Well, I think perhaps Europeans and Americans find the South African market the most similar. Just like Americans, when they go to Europe, they often go to the United Kingdom first because their language is the same.
If there is a connection or link, you often start there. There is that kind of feeling with South Africa as well, though not so much in
language; maybe because they have a larger ex-European population than other places? But when you talk to someone in the West about doing business in Africa, he or she, often without realizing it, thinks of South Africa.
You mean it’s nothing related to the economy, infrastructure or government policies?
Maybe it is, but there are no places without both advantages and disadvantages.
In the years you have worked, what are the challenges and prospects, especially for the Nigerian media space?
We all know that Nollywood is a massive industry here, but it can also be rather unregulated, so you have a situation where people say the
industry is worth billions of naira, but so much of that value is through piracy. It makes it very difficult for the actual people making the movies to make the money, and if they don’t get it, they can’t invest it in the next movie. Yes, there is a very vibrant media scene here, but I sense the frustration of some of the people who are in the industry, who find it difficult to keep their rights and revenue secured, which is essential if they have to build their business and invest in more products. That’s the challenge here but the creativity is boundless. I think it’s partly because the population is so young. People all over the world are now more conscious that they have access to other people’s lives and cultures, which also encourages people to want to tell their own stories. Whether they are living at the end of the 3rd Mainland Bridge, on the water and catching fish everyday or whether they are in some fabulous apartment on the Island, there are stories everywhere here to tell.
Another big challenge here is power, electricity. If I am doing something in the UK I pay my electricity bill and I know the power is going to be there. But here I will also have to buy a big generator and the diesel to run it and it’s a significant cost for the business. There are also other infrastructural challenges here that I find frustrating sometimes. It’s not the only city in the world to have bad traffic, but you can set off for a meeting and not know whether you will get there in an hour or four hours.
The kind of job I do leaves very little time for social life. So it’s a good thing that the job is interesting. If the job you do takes up almost all your time, you must love that job. However, the prospects and potential are enormous. I keep coming to Lagos because I love the energy and the attitude of the people here. I love creativity and I really do believe that this media market is going to explode. When I did my first deal in Nigeria, I said to the American company I was working with at the time, “Africa is a land of opportunities, there is so much that’s going to be happening there in the next decade; it’s an exciting place”. And, when I was asked if we could do a deal in Africa, I was very keen to doing it in Nigeria. I remember saying to my boss at a time, ‘Look, do you want me to be the last one to launch this in South Africa or the first to do it in Nigeria?’ It has all been so rewarding, but my experience in Africa is now primarily Nigeria, and I love working here.
Why the special interest in reporting Nigeria, Africa to the world?
The Nigerian media industry is incredibly dynamic. You have a young, large population hungry for content, devouring social media. Their local movie or pop stars are traveling outside Nigeria. They don’t only want to know what they are doing in Lekki but London and
New York as well. That’s a very dynamic situation. Also, now everyone can make a video; everyone has a phone and can film stuff. That has really opened up what was once an industry for the very lucky few who could afford a camera that may cost millions of Naira. Coupled with the number of people here, nearly 200 million people in the country. There is an explosion of creativity in Nigeria.
What inspires and motivates you?
It has always been learning new things. You can never say you know or understand a market; there is always more to learn. To me, setting
up a TV channel aimed at the West African Diaspora in the UK and not being an African yourself; you just have to learn to catch up as fast as you can.
Tell us about the YANGA! TV project and why you think it is important?
Well, I had lived here for a year in 2016, having been on a one-year contract. When it was over and was time to go home, I felt sad that I was leaving this media scene. So I wondered if there was a way I could use the experience gotten here to serve the population of Africans in the UK. I decided to do something where the two link up. That’s how YANGA! came up.
YANGA! is only one of our businesses actually; the main business we set up is Africa Media Works, and the idea is not just to have a TV or video content platform, but also to look for ways to support and celebrate African media projects of all sorts among the Nigerian diaspora. For example, we launched an art photography price for African art photographers, who are professionals. It was for people who already established photography on their own in the African market. It was held last year October and it was incredibly successful; it got fantastic publicity. It was held in a beautiful space in London and was very well attended. One of the messages I tried to get over is that we are trying to nurture and support all these various African media areas, but we also need the African business community to step up and help. We can do more of these things if we get sponsorships from the business community. We would love to do it again but we need the business community to get involved too.
YANGA!! TV came out of the desire to launch a TV channel that really captures the essence of African pride, hence its name. This is great quality TV. What we are trying to do with YANGA!! is tell the stories from home and celebrate all the fantastic things going on in Africa that dont get enough publicity or platform. It is about bridging cultures that are strongly linked but very different.
Ultimately we want to appeal to everybody, not just people of African heritage in the UK and beyond. Like I said, YANGA!! is our flagship product and it takes a lot of our time but it’s not the only thing we want to do. We have plans to hold training courses, conferences and events that tap into this community and celebrate its culture. We started with a TV channel in the UK but have now started to promote our online presence in Nigeria. The website is www.YANGA!tv.com. You can connect from anywhere in the world to see YANGA!! TV programmes.
Fake news is a dominant feature of online media and a great threat to Nigeria especially with the elections around the corner. Can this challenge be tackled?
Fake news is a massive issue, but not just for Nigeria; this is something that is happening all over the world including in America
and other older democracies. To some people, it is their reality. It’s a very loaded term ‘fake News’. I understand it is absolutely clear if you are sitting and making something up, and pushing to the community; that, of course, is fake news but very often, I think when we say fake news, we are also including the things that are opinion. It may be fake news to me because I don’t believe that it is based on fact, but you, on the other hand, may seriously believe it based on your own life experience. Is that fake news or different points of view? Especially if you are talking about politicians, nobody knows what is in the head or heart of another person; so, you can really only have an opinion of what a politician thinks, hears or acts or what motivates him/her.
I don’t see the issue of fake news being any more alarming in Nigeria than it is anywhere else in the world. I believe that now, more
than ever before, we should appreciate and support media organisations that have high standards and are committed to checking and rechecking information before it’s published. It’s vital that we don’t lose our experienced journalists who understand the principles of balanced reporting. Journalists who write based on thoroughly conducted research, and ethics of basic journalism. It’s good that everyone can share news and events around them, but it also puts pressure on the established news organisations because of course they hate the idea that other people may be reporting news before they do.
But if these news organisations let their integrity and insistence on verification slide, then we will be overtaken by fake news. I think more than ever people rely on a brand to trust when it comes to news, whether its BBC, The Guardian, CNN, etc. All these have their own point of view but you would hope that they have built such a reputation over the years; that they will continue to seek verification of facts rather than risk the embarrassment of having to issue a later correction. When we cease to have these organisations, we will be in big trouble.
Is the digital media space not overrated in terms of values and opportunities?
No, it can’t be overrated. It’s an explosion, and it’s not going to slow down. It will only get bigger. Just like when people say, television is dying; it’s not really true, it’s just that “TV” viewing is morphing into “video” viewing which can be watched on different screens. It’s all just video content now.
The internet is changing consumer behaviour, wants and business models. How have you been dealing with these?
We have only been on air for 10 months as a channel, so the internet revolution for TV was already well on its way when we started and we knew what to expect. Our primary audience will be the West African Diaspora all over the world. Right now, we are focusing on the
UK but we intend our content to be available everywhere. For us at Africa Media Works, the internet and new technologies are wonderful
tools making it possible to reach all these people who have a shared African heritage, and for a business model, that’s exciting.
Any secrets on how Nigeria can grow her media market?
It’s happening anyway; you don’t need my advice on that! What’s very heartening for me is that brands coming out of Africa are becoming bigger and more influential; that’s how it should be. So, it is a very exciting time to be in the media industry in this part of the world.