Digital migration. This was undoubtedly one of the most contentious issues in Kenya in 2015. When the switch from the analogue to digital signal was announced, the entire country got talking, but not in one harmonious voice.
The proponents welcomed the “long overdue” move, while the opponents voiced their scepticism about the said impact it would have on the TV broadcast industry.
Among the goodies promised with the switch was increased employment opportunities for content creators and local artists through promotion of local entertainment programs in what would be an era of diversity in products offered by the media.
Almost two years on the platform, has there been a remarkable increase in newly created jobs?
Are Kenyans watching more local content than before? Do Kenyans now regard acting as a “real” career? How is viewership of Kenyan programmes beyond our borders?
We pose these questions to actors and a producer, professionals who help us to break down the juggernaut of the digital migration, the intricacies and dynamics involved, and what the dramatic swing has meant for the country’s entertainment industry.
Age: 24 years
Programme: Pray and Prey
Tokodi’s journey in film started at Lenana School, where he participated in several dramas and plays. While in Form Three in 2010, he even won the since folded Chaguo la Teeniez award.
His first professional acting gig came a few months after he finished high school, playing Thomas in Citizen TV’s Makutano Junction. Ambition would propel him to other shows such as the Groove Theory (Africa’s first TV musical drama), Pray & Prey, Machachari and Wrath.
His talent transcends film, having garnered considerable success in music. After his debut single, Sitaki, in 2016, he went on to record another song, Milele with King Kaka. While the switch from the analogue to digital signal was hailed as one that would promote programmes produced locally, Tokodi believes Kenyans let themselves down.
“The programmes you see on your screen are requested by viewers. If people are more inclined to Mexican dramas, broadcasters will have no choice but to offer exactly that to maintain viewership. If viewers demanded more local content from broadcasters, that’s what they would get.”
Tokodi is of the view that Kenyans underestimate acting; it is a full-time career for many in the country, he observes.
“It is however risky to put all your eggs in one basket in a growing industry, that is why actors should package themselves into brands. As a brand, there will be additional income from, for instance, being the face of certain brands, appearing in advertisements and by being contracted to promote certain causes,” he says, insisting that these are equally lucrative ways for actors to make money beyond portraying characters in film, soaps or plays.
To achieve satisfactory consumption of local infotainment products, Tokodi suggests that producers should look beyond certain genres of audio-visual art, and see them as sums of a whole that complement each other.
“Local content refers to the whole spectrum of creative works. From a musician’s point of view, film producers could do justice to local music by using local songs as soundtracks in their films instead of using foreign tracks for that purpose.”
Tokodi argues that the entertainment scene in Kenya would look up if Kenyans started going to cinemas, watching theatre shows and buying films produced in Kenya.
“We need to also up our game - our products must be of high quality to lure foreigners into consuming them. We have a platform to showcase our culture, but do we have products that appeal to other cultures?” he poses.
If he had the power to overhaul Kenya’s entertainment scene, Tokodi would begin by addressing funding challenges. According to him, local talent is ripe enough to produce blockbuster movies, but cites budgetary constraints as the hindrance to such projects. “A worthy movie demands a decent budget to create. This high cost discourages funding from entities that fear possible loss of their investment.”
On whether his acting career is his mainstay, Tokodi affirms: “I do not have another job besides music and film. This is how I pay my rent, eat, dress and take care of all my needs.”
Age: 23 years
Producer, Farmers TV
Education: Diploma (Kenya Institute of Mass Communication), Studying Communication and PR in Moi University
When Margaret Muiruri enrolled for a diploma course in TV production at the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication in 2012, she hoped to work in Kenya’s mainstream media as a producer. Instead, she ended up producing agricultural programmes and documentaries.
“I was once offered a job as a correspondent for a local vernacular TV station after graduating in 2015. I was required to report in my mother tongue, in which I am not proficient.
Life on the screen was not attractive to me, I was keen on production, and therefore felt that the role of a reporter would be too underwhelming for me,” she explains. When the first chance to produce came, Margaret took it with enthusiasm, her desire to become a production pro.
“At Farmers TV, I am charged with production of most programmes. It is my duty to ensure that we have enough episodes for every programme and that the crew are on cue whenever we are shooting. I also ensure that farmers are provided with the right information and agritainment, which is basically entertainment that is agriculture-tailored.”
As a producer, Margaret’s roles go beyond the confines of the studio, occasionally visiting farms to meet and interact with farmers, to hunt for content and to film documentaries related to agriculture, undertakings that have enriched her scope of skills.
She feels that media and film graduates should stop scrambling for the few available opportunities in the traditional media, saying there are a many opportunities in digital TV. “The majority of graduates want to be associated with mainstream TV stations simply because of the status that comes with it. Young professionals should seek jobs in an environment that develops their careers on all fronts.”
On whether the switch from the analogue to digital platform has reaped the intended benefits, Margaret emphasises: “The digital migration could not have come at a better time. The digital platform allows consumers to choose from the range of content available, and in whatever formats they prefer. Unlike before, it is difficult to impose content on consumers.”
While the switch opened a floodgate of content and generated employment among hundreds of professionals, Margaret opines that this has also had the residual effect of duplication of ideas, with most programmes lacking uniqueness.
“It is possible to have a new TV station come up every month in Kenya, but without proper knowledge of what content to air and without conducting surveys to establish what market segment to target, they end up borrowing ideas from existing stations, eventually flooding the market with the same kind of programming.”
Margaret cites advertisers’ scepticism for the sluggish flow of advertisements as the biggest challenge TV on the digital platform faces. “For someone to advertise with you, they must first establish the number of people that watch your station. If dissatisfied with your coverage, they will either not advertise with you, or will place few low-cost advertisements with the station,” says Margaret, pointing out that most digital TV stations are audience-specific, and that it is difficult for smaller entities to reach the numbers commanded by mainstream media stations.
Age: 21 years
Occupation: Actress, student (University of Nairobi)
Programme: Sue na Jonnie (Maisha Magic East), Hapa Kule News (NTV)
Annstella Karimi began acting while in high school at St. Mary’s Igoji, in Meru County. In 2014, a year after finishing high school, Karimi’s talent was spotted by the Kenya Aeronautical College (KAC) who took her up to represent them in that year’s drama festivals in Nyeri County.
In 2015 edition of the festivals, Karimi was recalled by KAC. They had seen her potential, and the last thing they wanted was to see her in a rival’s camp. Their eyes were trained on victory, and by re-signing her, they knew victory would be theirs for takes.
“By this time, I had joined the University of Nairobi, taking a degree course in Literature, Theatre and Film. End of semester exams were about to begin, and I was afraid I might miss my exams, but then the opportunity was too attractive to turn down,”she narrates.
Thus Karimi headed for Nakuru for the drama festivals, representing the college for the second consecutive year. Her decision to participate in the festivals would mark the watershed in her acting career.
Karimi’s prowess on stage would soon catch the attention of Abel Mutua, a playwright and actor, who promised to sign her up if her play won in the festivals. While the promise had teased Karimi, she did not give it much thought at the time, as she did not consider herself to be much of an acting talent. “There were other bigger names representing other colleges in the country, leaving me with a slim, if any chance, to win the competition. I focused on my role, feeling flattered but challenged.”
The college’s belief in Karimi paid off when their play won in the festival, thrusting her into a world of professional acting. She spent one year with Hapa Kule News at KTN before the show moved to NTV. Karimi was later signed up by Sue na Jonnie, where she has been for six months now, portraying Becky, a receptionist at Mambo Ajab Agency who suffers from bipolar disorder.
The shift to the digital signal, she says, has made things better for those in her profession.
“At an individual capacity, my audience base has tripled. Sue na Jonnie is watched in eastern and southern Africa, exposing my work more. Who knows, this exposure could land me an even bigger acting role,” Karimi says.
She adds: “Pay TV allows production in any language and with minimal restrictions unlike traditional TV stations where the content would be packaged in either Kiswahili or English, hence locking out viewers who may not understand these languages.”
For many years, film producers had a tendency to recruit established talent to feature in their works. The cast, Karimi says, would be overused until it was boring to watch these characters, a trend that has now changed. “There are many new faces on our screens, young talent that is being nurtured, thanks to the digital platform.”
She demystifies the long-standing misconception that for one to flourish in TV, they must have had a stint in theatre, saying that after her engagement in drama, she went straight to TV.
“Theatre and TV are two different worlds, but it took me a short time to adjust to the new frontier. Some people make it on TV without having acted elsewhere. It depends on one’s ability to learn fast.”
Karimi prides herself in being versatile, a quality that has enabled her to cope with the sometimes unnerving demands of her various roles, while singling out monotony as the biggest threat to one’s acting career.
“Every week I portray a different character on Hapa Kule News. The fact that I play the bipolar Becky on Sue na Jonnie has also given me flexibility. The roles are sometimes breathtaking, but they improve my acting.”
This job pays too, says Karimi, who pays her school fees, takes care of her personal effects and even assists her parents with household bills such as electricity and TV subscription. She is eyeing a career in film after university, where she intends to use her skills in camerawork, production and directing to set up her own production company.
“Producers have the discretion to pick and use ready talent in their film projects. The fact that I was spotted when I was very green and groomed to the actress I am makes me feel indebted. I wish to pay this debt by helping to develop young talent too.”
Age: 26 years
Education: Broadcast journalism, Kenya Institute of Mass Communication
Jack was first involved in film production as a student at the Kenya institute of mass communication, producing a three-minute long film as part of his class work. He found the process of production absorbing, and went on to produce and act in more short films as a student at the institution.
“I believe everyone is born an actor or actress. It is only that some choose to make acting their career and therefore learn the tricks of the profession through continued practice.”
Jack has appeared in several notable local TV dramas, including the Real Housewives of Kawangware, Tahidi High, Inspekta Mwala and Mali.
For an actor, he admits that he felt the full upshot when the digital migration was fully effected in 2015, leaving nearly two million households in TV blackout.
“Some episodes in the programme I was acting in had to be suspended when the signal went off early 2015. The broadcaster asked us to keep the programme on hold until the signal had been restored,” he explains.
While the switch was disruptive to a considerable extent, and reception of the migration tepid, Jack says that it enabled him to venture into a territory he had erstwhile not explored.
“There were suddenly many auditions coming up, with movie and drama creators looking to recruit cast for their projects. It was a high-adrenaline moment for film in Kenya, as content was sought to fill the sudden void. I was quick to discover the shortage of stories, and pounced by writing scripts. It was a strenuous exercise but rewarding too.”
To flourish in film, Jack recommends working closely with accomplished directors, producers and mentors, and demonstrating a curiosity to learn. “Honest professionals will encourage you to look further afield and stop perceiving film strictly in the context of acting. It is these lessons that have made me a better professional,” says Jack. He is currently learning directing skills while filming has begun for a project he wrote himself.
His livelihood comes from allowances from his acting roles and for appearances in commercials. He has featured in infomercials for Isuzu Kenya, Safaricom, Fidelity Insurance and Guinness.
He has a couple of tips for those that wish to make a name and a livelihood from film. “Besides your role as an actor or an actress, what other value are you adding to the production process? What other skills do you have apart from memorising the script and portraying characters?”
He adds that filming is a laborious process, especially when there are many outdoor locations involved. “Anything could go wrong out in the field. The person in charge of setting the scene may be taken ill and you could be called upon to fill their shoes.
The more duties you can perform, the more useful you are to the project. Some Hollywood actors take millions of dollars in cheques not because of simply being cast, but by being central to the production, scripting directing and even providing creative services to the movie.”