Why you should care
Because there is no “single story.”
Hanging out in Cleveland but craving a Bollywood rom-com? Head to BoxTV. Ardent for anime in Albuquerque? Crunchyroll’s got you covered. No question, viewers are spoiled when it comes to program selections from all over the world.
In January, Netflix expanded to 190 countries, to accommodate the booming, global video-on-demand market. It’s estimated to bring in some $51.1 billion a year in 2020, according to research firm Digital TV Research, up from $4.2 billion in 2010. But one growing segment has slipped under the radar: films catering to Africans and the diaspora, from African expatriates in Europe to Black Americans eager to see similar faces on-screen.
Now the competition is heating up to serve this audience. The Lagos, Nigeria–based iRoko, for instance, has already been hailed as the “Netflix of Africa.” In the past year, at least two similar companies have launched: Menlo Park, California–based Afrostream and Washington, D.C.–based kweliTV. If that’s not evidence enough of a trend in the making, investors are also getting in on the act. Afrostream has received backing from Y Combinator and music manager/tech investor Troy Carter, and iRoko has secured more than $25 million in investment.
Like Netflix, these companies offer a library of films and TV shows that subscribers can access online for a monthly fee. But those who complain that Netflix’s offerings are white-bread will find a much different selection. Go to iRoko’s site, for instance, and you’ll find Nollywood films such as Head Gone, in which a bus driver loses track of the psychiatric patients he’s transporting. On Afrostream, whose initial focus is Francophone viewers, you’ll not only find Think Like a Man but also Sœurs Ennemies, a TV drama from Côte d’Ivoire about two sisters who become bitter rivals once a family secret is exposed. And on kweliTV, there’s a section devoted to exclusive documentaries and educational content featuring Black Americans, including The Village of Peace, about a group of Black Chicagoans who established a settlement in Israel.
These companies’ operating models are also distinct, which is critical for businesses that seek to translate existing concepts for a new market niche, says Oded Shenkar, a professor at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business and the author of Copycats: How Smart Companies Use Imitation to Gain a Strategic Edge. DeShuna Spencer, the founder and CEO of kweliTV, says outright that her company isn’t the “Black Netflix.” “We’re never going to have thousands of titles,” she says, “because we want to make sure filmmakers are being promoted properly.” Likewise, kweliTV, which is in beta, currently has a small paid subscriber base of 1,200, though more than 10,000 have registered to rent films à la carte. But that focused audience may be ideal for one of Spencer’s aims: to discover and promote up-and-coming filmmakers. Her company recently partnered with Ebony to sponsor a short-film contest. In keeping with its informational focus, kweliTV will also soon develop original news videos that are easily shareable on social media.
Afrostream’s co-founder, Tonjé Bakang, says he aspires for his company’s service not just to be a film-watching platform but a community hub for film buffs. Since its October 2015 launch, the service has gained more than 10,000 subscribers and some 120,000 Facebook fans, and the company is currently developing a social-network-like feature on its site to connect its subscribers. One of Bakang’s goals is to expose different pockets of the African diaspora to one another’s stories on film. It might be the case that an African-American viewer would dig, say, a drama about an Angolan warrior, but often there is minimal exposure for such films stateside. “The conventional wisdom is that content has to be mainstream or local,” Bakang says, “but great content can travel.”
You can’t really compare these services apples to apples.
But is it enough to make a viable business? In one sense, any company entering into video on demand has to be niche by default, because it’s virtually impossible to gain rights to every film around the world that’s available to watch. “You can’t really compare these services apples to apples,” says industry expert Dan Rayburn. Studios, networks and independent creators have their own interests at heart, so they may not make their work available on every service; in some cases (think Hulu or HBO Go), they may even own a competing platform. It’s inconceivable, then, that any given service will cater to everyone’s tastes.
That’s good news for sites like Afrostream and kweliTV. Plus, by thinking international from the start, they’re better able to tailor content to a geographically diverse audience, something that Netflix has just recently begun to tackle. “I think what Tonjé and Afrostream understand that the traditional media industry doesn’t is that good content has a global audience,” Y Combinator partner Michael Seibel tells OZY by email. “There will be a big battle to entertain the next billion people to enter the middle class, and today, most of those people are being ignored.”
Still, the niche model has its pitfalls. Because they’re aiming their services at a select sliver of film watchers, these companies will have to attract a greater proportion of their audience than more generalized streaming services do in order to be viable. Even some of the big guns, such as Hulu, have struggled to become profitable, according to The Wall Street Journal. “There’s lots of hype, but small adoption numbers,” says Rayburn. Plus, acquiring and maintaining content can be an expensive process, especially when it involves having to seek out independent filmmakers one by one rather than being able to license bundles of content from a big studio. Spencer, for instance, says that she’s found the lion’s share of kweliTV’s titles by attending film festivals across the U.S. — that’s a lot of hustling.
Yet, that $51 billion pot is hard to ignore. So is the expanding group of multicultural filmgoers, who are increasingly vocal about their desire to be represented on-screen. “Will it be hard to serve them with great, high-quality content? Yes,” says Seibel. “But it will also be very valuable.”