Like all things on Donald Trump’s internet in 2020, it started with a tweet. A verified Netflix Naija account announced the presence of the streaming platform in the country on February 25th with a picture that featured Nollywood royalty like Mo Abudu, Richard Mofe Damijo, Kemi Adetiba, Banky W, Kunle Afolayan, Adesua Etomi, Kate Henshaw, and the caption, “N is for Naija. N is for Nollywood. N is the 14th alphabet. 14 is also how many great talents you’re looking at. N is for Netflix. But most importantly…hello, Nigeria!”. It was no grand surprise as it had become common knowledge that plans were underway to explore this new frontier. A year ago, the service provider hired Kenyan TV Producer, Dorothy Ghettuba, as its manager for International Originals with the brief of commissioning originals across the continent. This resulted in Queen Sono, a spy-thriller series about an eccentric spy with a mysterious past trying to uncover the dark truths about her mother’s assassination while protecting her country. There had also been chatter that the streaming platform was developing two original Nollywood series. That said, the rollout and its speed of execution came out of nowhere. The presence of Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, in the country for the launch party and the announcement picture serves as proof of the scale and scope of its ambitions in the West African nation.
This pivot to Africa, usually the last geographical zone of consideration for businesses claiming to have a “global” outlook, makes sense in the context of current happenings in the content and streaming worlds. In its U.S. base, Netflix was effectively used by the TV behemoths as a scapegoat to build the appetite and offer a pathway for streaming. Now, it has to deal with the increased competition that comes from those companies wanting to cash in on the now natural disposition to streaming. These companies have certain advantages of scale which they could channel in this battle.
HBO Max, which is being promoted by Warner Media, owns the rights to monster franchises like Friends, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Game of Thrones and has the advantage of HBO having been in operation since the 70s. Apple TV has the inherent backing of the world’s richest technology company. That’s before tallying the potential volume of gadgets on which the app could be preloaded. Disney also owns rights to Marvel, Star Wars, Mickey Mouse, Frozen and has had one of the greatest minds in media and technology at its helm for the last 20 years in Bob Iger. With all these factors, Netflix needs a new edge and value offering to help differentiate it. This is where Nollywood comes in. By looking towards the continent and its biggest movie market, Netflix gets dibs on an industry that might be lacking a solid distribution network but has immense potential. By investing in this space, it also gets to grow its base and foster a relationship with its audience in advance of its competitors. While the current subscription numbers (under 250,000 in South Africa, under 100,000 in Nigeria) do not justify the investment, the hope is that with wider access to the internet and falling data costs, they will.
While content creators will likely be the biggest beneficiaries, consideration has to be paid on who stands to lose. Some observers posit that that might be IrokoTV (the natively owned streaming platform built by Jason and Mary Remmy Njoku), but that betrays a lack of understanding of the market segmentation. While on the surface, it might seem like they’re playing similar roles, there’s a key difference in their underlying approach. IrokoTV’s content is reminiscent of old Nollywood with mass-market offerings built on cheap production value and serves a different audience. The real competitor for Netflix is Showmax, the video-on-demand offshoot of the DSTV franchise. In the last 12 months, Multichoice started to advertise the platform suggesting they could sense the direction of travel. Showmax is able to piggyback on the license of the DSTV platform and has access to portions of HBO’s vast library and also the content it generates for itself like Tinsel, Big Brother and the new Love Island rip off, Ultimate Love. The problem it has is that it is difficult for it to stand on its own and be viewed as a worthy addition when it essentially competes against itself with DSTV first and then Netflix. It also has not done a good enough job of marketing itself and its value offering so it will need to create more high-ticket content that will help accelerate a connection to its audience. However, it has potential with live sports and the diaspora market as that holds consumers who have the purchasing power to sustain multiple subscriptions and interest in the type of big-budget homegrown content they are not used to getting. That essentially is a reverse analysis of what Netflix is doing and suggests that the target is truly on the back of DSTV/Showmax.
As with all things in a capitalist society, the ultimate winners will be you and I, the consumers and creators. With two platforms trying to outdo each other in terms of cost and content, we should see lower prices and a wider, more interesting, pool of content as the announcement of an agreement between Netflix and John Boyega suggests. For creators, it means there will be a more competitive market for their content which will result in more commissions and a bigger pie to split. I would also argue that this could further redefine the content that has proved trendy in Nollywood. The big players in the industry tend to take umbrage to suggestions that their current work generally centered around the Lagos elite is unreflective of the Nigerian experience using box office numbers as a defense shield. With the incoming investment, they will need to show a greater sense of depth and scope to their work. Imagine the impact of a big-budget Game of Thrones style production set in the Benin Kingdom or the social impact of a Murderous Affairs style show with roots in Nigerian case law that will help document and raise awareness on domestic violence cases and laws. The streaming wars are here and things are about to get interesting.