Saturday, June 26, 2010

‘The challenges of bringing MTV Base to Africa’ - ALEX OKOSI


Alex Okosi is one of the numerous Nigerians doing the country proud on the international scene. He started working with MTV in New York in 1998, and by 2007, after successfully establishing them in Africa, he became the Senior Vice President and Managing Director of MTV Networks in Africa. All this had happened before his 32nd birthday.
Also within that period, MTV Base, the urban Pan-African 24-hour music channel, was launched in 2005. Since then, they have become the leading music channel in Africa and have influenced the rapid improvement in African music videos as well as exposed and brought African artists with their international counterparts. They recently celebrated their fifth anniversary at a well-attended event in Lagos.
The MTV Music Awards (MAMA) has also been introduced and creativity and quality in African music videos have been adequately rewarded. The third edition of the awards would also hold this year, after the two previous editions have held in Nigeria and Kenya, respectively.
Alex is from Anambra State. He went to the U.S as a kid and had his education there. His high school was at Phillip Exeter Academy. He went on to study Business and Economics at St. Michael's University. He didn't complete his MBA because of the MTV Africa project, which he still pursues with a passion.
I had this conversation with him at Sofitel Hotel, Ikoyi, Lagos some weeks back…

In the five years that MTV Base has been in Africa, how much of its objectives have been achieved?
The first objectives were to build a music TV business which has never been done before. People were doing music channels before then, but to build one that was Pan-African was something new. We have done that. We also wanted to build a platform that was encompassing of the entire African continent and not just a part of Africa; a platform that would project the contemporary sounds of the entire continent, and we have done that.
We also wanted to extend our brand to make sure that we touch people on the ground by doing a lot of events; we wanted to create a community of artists across Africa; we also wanted to package a show that celebrates African talents and showcase them to the rest of the world and we have done that.
There was a lot of work that we set out to do and we have done those. However, there are still much more things that we want to do and the second five years of our existence is what we are in now and we are concentrating on building even a bigger business in Nigeria.
We are going to create more content, events, lifestyle, and extend our brand beyond just TV. We would introduce some of the other brands we have to the Nigerian audience. There's Nickelodeon, our kids channel, which is about the biggest in the world. We are bringing it to Nigeria. We would provide options for parents and children to play and interact in a safe and interesting way.

Do you intend to help develop some more indigenous forms of music through MTV Base?
MTV Base is an urbanized contemporary channel. It does not mean that we would not air the music of someone singing in indigenous languages, we have been doing that. But we are focused on contemporary African and international youth culture. We like to champion artists that are original, no matter the language they are singing with. They have to be people who are talking or singing about things we can relate to in our own way. We are a champion of good music. If you have a good video, we will promote you and if you have an audience, we will connect you to them. Being indigenous should be more reflective in the creativity of one's art.

The NBC has tried so much to clamp down on indecencies in our music. How much has MTV Base assisted in this in their programmes?
We try to make sure that what we air on MTV free-to-air stations are decent because we are aware that younger people watch the channels and we need to put out decent images. There are some things you can air on free-to-air TV in other parts of the world that you can't air in Nigeria and we know this. So, we do our best to conform with the rules and regulations applicable in the various countries and places we operate in.

Are there times you seek to promote the creativity evident in a work as against its content?
The key way through which we approach an issue is that we want to promote creativity, but we also want to influence creativity that is progressive. We communicate this to the artists from time to time, as much as possible. We encourage them to play to their strength and also focus on their strength. They should remain authentic. But at the same time, you cannot allow them the freedom to make their choices. We have always reflected our preference and support for creativity in our awards.

How much do you think MTV Base has contributed to the development of African musical videos?
Without trying to blow our own trumpet, I think you should ask the artists. Before we arrived, the musical choices on TV were quite limited. We have impacted tremendously on the industry. When we started, the music video culture in Nigeria was the worst, but now Nigerians are winning more of the awards. We were on ground and we have succeeded in raising the standard of our music videos. We have got Nigerian musicians to be globally recognized.

Are there efforts to get at par with international standards as regards rewarding artists and paying them royalties for their works?
That's always the effort. The challenges with Nigeria is that there is no Collecting Rights Society; the industry is not generating enough cash. There are no advertisers paying for their products to be shown within a music video. MTV Base is a platform, a business and in a broadcast business, it is advertising that sustains you. When Nigeria gets a Collecting Rights Society, we would get to that. Even the biggest artists in the U.S are no longer waiting for their royalty cheques because music videos are no longer played that much in the U.S because there's no stickness to it. The internet has also come up and many videos could be watched online for free.

Coming to the MTV Base Africa Music Awards, what is the idea behind rating African artists side by side their foreign ones when it comes to the awards?
We didn't invent hip hop, but we have hip hop artists in Nigeria and we also listen to both local and international hip-hop artists in Nigeria. So, our hip hop artists should be competing against the other artists we listen to. For the awards to be an authentic show, it should have some kind of international appeal. Remember that some African artists have actually won European awards. It is just on three categories that we include foreign artists on the awards and this is because we felt it would be nice to have African artists stand side by side and compete with their international counterparts. The winners are still determined by voting and most times, the results are quite close.

As a Nigerian who is basically an ambassador, because you do most of your work outside, how do you see the country?
Some of the things that make me incredibly happy and proud to be Nigerian is that we are very resilient people, we work hard. In the international community, people would always want to single out Nigerians for fraud and other negatives vices, but I always tell them that we are the best at whatever we put our hands to. If you want the best doctors in America, some of them would be Nigerians. If you want the best engineers, some of them would be Nigerians, and yes, some of the best fraudsters could also be Nigerians. But the reality is that we are very talented and motivated people. I am very proud to be a Nigerian and I always make sure people know that. I have a green passport, but I am happy about it. People can't ignore us outside, but I would like to see young Nigerians take more active part in the development of our country and also showing that they have a voice in changing the country.

Over 50 percent of Nigerians are youths below 25 years, but how many of them are in places of political power where they can help shape and influence their future?
Not much changes can take place in this country where the same people remain in places of political power all the time. It has to be young Nigerians that should be in place to actually change things, because we are much close to what's happening on the ground. I love seeing Nigeria and Nigerians successful because we are hardworking people and we deserve to be successful.

What were some of the challenges you faced in bringing MTV to Africa?
First, was convincing MTV to invest and come to Africa. The rest of the world doesn't believe in a TV business in Africa, so convincing MTV to do that was a very tough challenge. When we succeeded in doing that, there was still the challenge of trying to make profit, create content that sell, create campaigns that would succeed and so on.

How do you intend to use your position to help develop Nigeria?
I think my position is to find a way to engage young people through our brand and get them to believe that they can have a material impact in the development of the country. Music is a very powerful medium and we have been able to create stars and celebrities in it. So, the challenge is now to galvanize them and make them positive influences on others. I also need to use my experience in business to educate, mentor and nurture others through the various channels at my disposal.
Nigeria is 50 this year and this is an opportunity to bring the country together and also let the world know that we are united. We need to let the world know that we are a great people and that we care about each other.

Trace your progression through the ranks at MTV for us.
I have been on MTV since I started working in 1998. I first worked in New York, before moving to Los Angeles; then I moved to our international strategy office in London where we explored how we could extend the brand to other parts of the world. That was when I started working on a business plan to bring MTV to Africa.

When did the idea of MTV Africa come to you?
I got the idea in 2001 while I was still in our L.A office and I first had a conversation with our CEO at the time about it. Then, one day, I was in my office when my boss introduced me to a guy who had the same idea with me. We later talked about it at length and the rest is now history. What I know is that if I had not been hardworking and dedicated, I might not have had that opportunity. In 2005, we launched the channel and we are five years old this year.

Any chance of slowing down to get married soon?
Yes, I will definitely get married. I like marriage and I will soon do that. But that would only be to be right woman. I will marry when the right woman comes.

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