Milking the Continent

The ongoing mass media reform and liberalisation in much of Africa have so far produced different results in different countries, yet all very interesting. The pertinent question is to what extent the emerging media models could be seen as the African media’s own biggest threat as is the case in Europe and North America.

A number of unique features are evident in the media models evolving across the continent’s media landscape. First is the complex media market structure, characterised by extensive cross-media and cross-border media ownership with complex vertical and horizontal integration processes.
These structural arrangements allow for heavy cross-subsidisation, synergy, and wide-ranging cost-cutting measures across different media units. They are also quickly becoming standard practice in the continent’s media industry.

For example, the top five media players in South Africa - Naspers, Johncom, Independent Newspapers, Kagiso, and Primedia - are active in multiple media sub-sectors. Indeed Naspers and Johncom are in at least five sub-sectors: newspapers, magazines, new media, television and books. In East Africa, the Nation Media Group dominates newspapers, magazines, television, radio and new media.

The media structure models go beyond these traditional media conglomerates. In Tanzania, the IPP Group is a large industrial conglomerate with extensive interests in soft drinks, beer, bottled water, beauty products, edible oils, national lottery and mining. In addition, the IPP Group is the largest media owner in the country, with 14 newspapers, three radio stations and three television stations.

Africa’s big media houses are often intricately integrated. Also, Africa’s big media companies are generally cash cows, sitting on large sums of money. For example, the liquid assets reported by Johncom, Naspers and Caxton are more than half of the total adspend allocated to the print media in 2005.

In East Africa, the Nation Media Group sits with over $15 million - about 15 percent of the region’s entire adspend in 2005 - unspent even after a bonus share issue of one share for every two held. Last year’s bonus issue was the second in eight years.

The highly liquid cash positions symbolise the ease with which Africa’s Big Media maintain their entrenched positions. Most major media groups have no difficulty raising cash for expansion, but are under little pressure to make heavy capital expenditure.

Make no mistake - the African Big Media arrived here through muscle power. Most typically dominate highly concentrated sub-sectors with high barriers to entry. In South Africa, Naspers and Independent Newspapers own 75 percent of daily newspapers, while Johncom and Naspers own 80 percent of weekly newspapers. In East Africa, the Nation Media Group controls over two thirds of the total daily and weekly circulation. In Tanzania, IPP’s ITV television enjoys 76 percent of the national viewership.

Unfortunately, these heydays have a sobering downside. Big media in Africa have increasing difficulties in making claims on their ability to effectively promote democratic consolidation in the continent. For most of them, the commercial operations are the most noticeable activities. The democratic roles are confined to marginalised editorial departments that are unrecognised in most aspects of investor relations. Should we not be concerned? I leave that to you.

Nixon Kariithi is associate professor of journalism and media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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