Safaricom is launching their digital set-top box this Friday, 8th May, dubbed ‘The Box’. When they first announced it I was ultra excited for what it might mean for the current media landscape in Kenya. But before I get into that let’s see what features ‘The Box’ will have: powered by Android, in addition to being a television set top box, it’ll offer video on demand to also provide internet access to users through a 4G SIM and wireless hotspot capabilities and other services like gaming.

There’s much to unpack just from those few details, but what I wanted to focus on was two things that could be potentially related to each other: The Box will have an internet connection and will offer video on demand.
The current media landscape in Kenya is dominated by what some people call the Big 3: Citizen, NTV and KTN. These 3 command the lions share of the viewership something like 70%, new numbers are yet to be released since we went all digital. Nonetheless, I suspect that we’re yet to see any changes to these numbers.
One problem that the incumbents suffer from is that they all offer similar programs in a similar fashion. *What comes next is a broad generalisation to make a point* Morning shows from 6 until about 9. Nigerian movie/soaps until 1. News between 1 and 2. Back to soaps until 4. News for 15 min. Children’s programming till 5. 5 to 6 music time. Soaps again. 7 news in Kiswahili . Local programming of some sort. 9 news in English. Soaps/more local programming. 11 onwards CNN/Al-Jezeera/BBC until 6. Rinse repeat.
While each station has shows that set them apart from the others there really hasn’t been any of them that has been able to set themselves drastically apart from the others programming-wise. (To be fair Citizen did, then the others, foolishly I should say, copied them)
This lack of differentiation is yet to hurt them financially as they still command the largest audiences meaning that advertisers who want to reach the largest audiences have to go through them. The real problem with this model is the lack of targeting.

In the analogue age, broadcasters commissioned content for a broad mass of people who watched just a few shows on just five channels. In lieu of further media choice, broadcasters had to focus their efforts just on the single dimension: primetime slots. And, while the 7:30pm slot is great, from an advertising perspective it means that much spend is wasted. The vast majority of buyers would prefer to reach tightly-defined, target consumer groups. By telling advertisers what viewers are watching, the AdSmart set-top box technology lets both national and local advertisers serve much more relevant advertising to particular categories of viewers.

In that paragraph you could replace “AdSmart” for “The Box”. Digital migration has given us so much more choice when it comes to viewing, but what The Box has the potential to bring is very targeted advertising and justification of advertising spend.
Given Safaricom’s broad network reach, they’ll be able to collect highly specific data on what everyone is viewing. Far more specific than the generalisation given from statistically relevant, but small, samples we usually get. Combine this with the data that Safaricom already has on each user of its network and you’re looking at a treasure trove of data for advertising.
Want to advertise specifically to 20 year olds or young children (4 to 10), when they give their full attention to the TV? It’s not hard to build a profile of this kind of households: before 9 the TV is mostly set to children’s channels. So you want to put advertising on those channels or on the channels and programmes they watch when the kids have gone to bed.
Finally given the connected nature perhaps they’ll be able to overlay their own ads in programming for the free to air channels. This will probably get annoying quick unless done in a clever way but if you get something in return for it, such as access to certain channels or services for free I can see how people would bare with them.
All this data, who is viewing what and at what times will be available to Safaricom – and their various partners, I assume – in real time and this will help them out in the second, potentially bigger threat, to the big 3 and every other channel in the country really. Video on demand.
Given what they’ll know about your viewing habits from watching other stations, this information could be used to make highly targeted suggestions on the VOD services. At least in the beginning, as they make the value proposition to customers. It’ll be almost trivial to do so and not to mention potentially lucrative.
Something that I’ll be looking forward to hearing during the launch of this VOD service is who they’ll be partnering with for the initial launch. I don’t imagine they’ll be giving this to platforms that already exist, such as Netflix or Iroko TV, I suspect that they’ll be launching their own distribution network, perhaps Saf TV, that will carry content from their partners.
I’d be surprised if BuniTV with their multitude of documentaries, movies and shows particularly the hit series XYZ show, isn’t among the launch partners.
This VOD platform will also be a potential game changer for local production of video. Finally there’ll be a viable option to distributing and monetising, via Mpesa, content that is produced in the country. I’ve argued for the longest time that piracy is not the real problem that creatives in this country face, it is but a symptom of a much bigger problem: poor and lacking distribution systems.
So what are the big 3 to do? Well first I’d be looking to partner with Safaricom on the video on demand platform. They all have local series produced for them that they no longer show, and back episodes of the ones they do. I’d put all of that on the service to make revenue but also to collect data on what viewers like. Finally they need to work at differentiating themselves further from each other, instead of targeting everyone, target one specific,  but large, group. This is easier said than done though.
Let’s see what Safaricom announces on Friday. Meanwhile if you have any other thoughts or comments use the box below to leave them here. Peace!!!

Written by Sidney Ochieng

Child at heart and mind. Feminist. Story teller. Fledgling data scientist. Your future boss

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