/ 29 March 2006

Taking Candy

The youth market is one of the most hotly contested chunks of media pie around the world. To understand why is simple. The vast majority of young people are stoopid! They’ll buy anything as long as it’s packaged right and their friends think it’s cool. Seriaas! Yes, yes, put down that pitchfork. You may say I’m being patronising, showing my age and that they’re not all like that, but if you watch crap like MTV’s Sweet Sixteen, I want a Famous Face or even our own Idols, if you listen to songs like Don’t Cha by the Pussycat Dolls, you’ll have figured out that young people aged 15 to 25 aren’t exactly a discerning audience. But despite, or perhaps because of, a lack of taste and a propensity for believing the hype, enough young people have enough cash to attract the attention and energies of some very big businesses. So much so that the mouthpieces that communicate with the youth market tend to see content as a necessary evil, not a raison d’etre. And this poses a very serious problem if you believe that media has a higher purpose than simply to carry advertising. So the great bun fight for the soul of youth culture continues.

It wasn’t always like this. 70 years ago, kids didn’t have opinions or buying power. They played sport outdoors, cleaned up after dinner and were beaten regularly. Youth orientated media was more a case of philanthropy or the artistic creation of dotty uncles with a penchant for telling tales about dwarves and dragons, often with Christian values underpinning the plot. Today da yoots can download porn on their cellphones in between wasting 10 bucks an SMS on ring tones that don’t even sound like the new Kanye West song. They dance like strippers, wear their pants below their asses and can watch dedicated TV channels, read newspapers, page through magazines and listen to non-stop radio – all tailor made for them. The one thing most youth media has in common is the vast triviality of its content. It would appear that, as a global trend, the kids are just not that into substance. Substances are more popular.

And South Africa’s buoyant economy has seen a wonderful algae bloom of new media products. One of the most exciting is Nova. For the first time ever, the ”late” or ”upper” youth market in Gauteng (ages 20 to 35) has a daily newspaper entirely dedicated to digging their niche. Launched in September 2005 by Deon du Plessis, Media24’s Daily Sun mastermind, Nova has a positive 60 percent local versus 40 percent international content split. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the newspaper will deliver well researched, thought-provoking content to rival the Mail & Guardian and drive youth culture back to intellectualism.

”The reason why [this market] was not buying newspapers was that they felt the information wasn’t directly focused at them,” says Minette Ferreira, Nova‘s editor. ”Too much crime, too little sport, too little entertainment, too little lifestyle.”

No surprises there.

”At the moment we’re a 32-pager and 16 pages are dedicated to lifestyle and entertainment. But we present it in such a manner that it’s very short and to the point. Lifestyle and entertainment is stuff that people like to read. Our sports section is also quite comprehensive.

”The core of our news coverage is that we try and keep a positive outlook. Our readers very much see the glass as half full. So we report in such a way that creates a positive response to negative stories. Or at least shows that some progress is being made.”

Perhaps ”news-lite” is what young South Africans want to read, although it’s too soon to tell whether Nova will be successful. Still, the paper is likely to keep the youth magazines on their toes and perk up interest from other media houses and newspaper groups. It is widely perceived that Nova can attain success if it manages to woo Gauteng’s emerging black middle class. If it does, we’re likely to see a rush of copycat publications in areas like Durban and Cape Town.

”We’ve had the best response from black readers,” says Ferreira. ”When we initially launched we said we were looking at one-third white English, one-third white Afrikaans and one-third black. And I think from the response we’ve had in the first three months, we’re probably more than half black.”

In youth magazines Seventeen is set to capitalise locally on the content sharing deal its parent company has recently brokered with MTV. This added celebrity power might give the title the edge over local favourite Saltwater Girl, Atoll Media’s beach lifestyle title. Saltwater Girl has dominated the teen market recently and has further increased its market share in the latest ABCs, reaching a circulation average of 40,329 (Jan to Jun 2005). Y Magazine, which has missed the ABC deadlines for the last three periods in a row, managed to attract R2-million in revenue from the period January to September 2005 (AIS/Adex). Their tardiness might explain why competitor SL at just over 15,000 net sales for the latest period – the range Y sold in when it told us what it sold – got R4-million in advertising revenue for the same nine months.

Considering that South African companies spent close to R78-million in 2004 (AIS/Adex) to advertise on youth-orientated radio stations (5FM, YFM, Good Hope and Metro FM) talking to the youth is a good business to be in. That said, YFM – the station that has so far embodied the rise of post-apartheid South African youth – has had a tough time on listenership stats of late. The station was wobbling before the sacking last year of station manager Greg Maloka and head of marketing Kim Thipe. They lost ground from almost 2-million listeners at the end of 2003 to just over 1,344-million sets of ears in the latest Rams diary (Rams 2005: Release 5). Nevertheless, marketers are finally starting to see the value of YFM’s hold on Gauteng’s youth, with their kwaito kingmaker status. The station’s revenue is way up on what they earned in 2004; they pulled a tidy R82,8-million from January to September 2005 (AIS/Adex).

5FM’s new format seems to be old news. The station’s rise has levelled off at around the same levels as YFM, clocking in 1,321-million listeners in the latest Rams diary (Rams 2005: Release 5). Considering its national footprint, it would be easy to label 5FM an underachiever. But before you do, take a look at their turnover. From January to September 2005 they pulled in just under R100-million. When the final months of ’05 are in they should show an improvement on 2004’s tally of R119,9-million (AIS/Adex). It’s obvious that the station’s delivery of dedicated, mainly white, upper LSM listeners is well appreciated by many advertisers.

And then we come to where the real money is. Television. The idiot box. But in South Africa it’s not all bad news. TV producers have by-and-large delivered thoughtful, important content that manages to inform young people, as well as attract enough of them to secure serious advertising investment. It’s no coincidence that the most popular youth TV show involves an ex-gangster who is now a famous kwaito singer, who travels the country trying to make people’s dreams come true. Zola 7 successfully captures the South African youth zeitgeist of empowerment and self-actualisation. It also shows how central music is in determining youth culture. Zola 7‘s ARs are consistently well up into the 14s, which translates into roughly 1,4-million viewers per episode (week 49: 28/11/05 – 04/12/05).

SABC1 currently seems to have a monopoly on this type of South African-specific youth broadcasting, Apart from Zola 7, you can catch the educational magazine programme Walala Wasala, Lebo Mashile’s travel show L’atitude and Black Rage Production’s Street Journal. All of which are 100 percent local, well-produced, informative shows that are as popular with young people as they are with advertisers.

”Basically the 18h30 slot weekdays is youth-orientated,” says Kutloano Skosana, director of Black Rage Production and Street Journal‘s producer. ”I think there is enough diversity amongst youth shows on SABC1. L’atitude is travel, Walala Wasala is educational with more of a political slant. Zola 7 is mass market youth culture and we’re quite niched in comparison. We’re all about modern entertainment, local urban culture.’

Skosana adds: ”We’ve been commissioned to do two documentaries for SABC3. And hopefully a renewal of Street Journal. In the near future, we’d like to try a drama.”

With their continued, homegrown, success and obvious expertise there’s much speculation that Black Rage might be bought out by one of the larger media players. ”Now and again someone comes along and makes us an offer,” Skosana laughs. ”But we still have things we want to do. We’d like to stay independent.”

Saving the best for last, without doubt the biggest move in local youth culture television in 2005 was the pan-African launch of uber-brand MTV’s African channel, MTV Base.

”Quite frankly it’s going really well,” says Alex Okosi, vice president and general manager of MTV Networks Africa. ”We launched back in February [2005], our whole intent was to provide a platform for our African artists to shine.”

The channel currently targets ”mass African youth in sub-Saharan Africa”. But how will they do that since it is only available on pay TV channels?

”Our plan has always been to be a pay TV channel as well as a terrestrial TV channel,” explains Okosi. ”We’ve had success in launching terrestrial blocks. Every single day of the week, you see two hours of MTV Base in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana. And we’re looking to do the same thing in Uganda and Tanzania as well.”

According to MTV Base’s own research they are currently reaching 8-million households in sub-Saharan Africa with roughly 40-million viewers. In terms of content, MTV Base is certainly poised to provide the international platform for African artists that Okosi mentions. At the same time, no one can deny the attraction MTV Base’s audience will have on global business. Does the channel get pressure to open up these markets to Western music artists?

”No. It’s not coming this way,” Okosi asserts. ”Our goal is to expose our African artists to the rest of Africa and the rest of the world. There is no pressure to expose international artists to Africa. Because it’s an untapped frontier. The excitement is for other people to see what Africa can offer to the rest of the world.”

The press release sounds good. But how does the business reality look?

”Business is definitely looking positive. Having the different terrestrial blocks helps, because it allows advertisers to talk directly to specific markets. Product roll-out is not the same in specific countries. On our 24-hour feed you may not see an abundance of commercials, but in those terrestrial blocks, they’re being sold out.”

MTV Base is sure to change the local youth media landscape. For the first time, the continent now has a direct cultural highway to the West. This allows local content driven shows to diversify, incubate and develop local creativity to an international level. All things considered, it finally seems as if the stage is set for South African culture to break through the glass ceiling and onto the world stage. Now it’s up to the youth to make the culture.