With five digital television production studios in the HS Media complex in Oregun, Lagos, the largest being 900 square-metre (one of the largest in Africa) adjoined by four others, this media group looks set for broadcast digitization. This multi-billion naira complex will clearly help ensure the success of the digitisation process in Nigeria and attracts big productions like Big Brother Nigeria to Lagos.Already, one of the studios is producing live Bundesliga and Italian Serie A matches for StarTimes. The Chairman/CEO, HS Media Group, Mr. Taye Ige, is convinced that the revolution that would come with digitization will be close to what came when mobile telephone was introduced in 2001, with new jobs for thousands of Nigerians. He shares the dream of his media complex and benefits for the country with Yemi Adebowale
What is HS Media Group all about?
HS is an acronym from ‘HotSports’, which has been our trading platform for the past 20-21 years. When it was time for us to migrate from a one-platform organization to a multiple platform, we thought we should not lose our heritage, which is ‘HotSports’. So, our creative agency gave us HS as a way of achieving that; in order words, become new without losing our antecedent. ‘Media’ because our business here is essentially media; television and radio production and ‘Group’ because there are at least five different platforms that we trade on, or that we would eventually be trading on by the time the complex is completed.
You are building what experts describe as the largest studios in Africa. Tell us about this project; what stage are you now?
It is a television studio/production complex, situated at the heart of Ikeja, the capital of Lagos State, some 20 minutes from the Murtala Mohammed International Airport and standing on just a little over two acres of land.
There are five television production studios in the complex, the largest being 900 square-metre adjoined by two others which are 175 square metres each, and then there are two other ones that we call presentation studios, and they are 55 square metre each. So, whether the 900 square-metre studio qualifies as the biggest in Africa is what I do not know, but I know that I conceived the idea of an extra-large studio from a project I was involved in years ago with Guinness. They had what was called “Guinness the Match”, that involved simulation of a football pitch right inside a television studio. We looked everywhere from Lagos to Ogun, even as far as Ibadan and Osun State, and we could not find a suitable studio, until we had to settle for what was the biggest then, which is the LTV 8 studio.
So, when this opportunity came to do a studio of our own, I had that experience in mind and I thought, the only thing one can bring into the market that will make HS Media stand out is that size. I actually wanted a 1200 or 1300 square metre size, but superior reasoning around me thought otherwise, and said that it would be difficult to maintain good occupancy all year round and that we would be lucky to even gross 20% occupancy with that volume. We were told that we could do something smaller but still big enough to accommodate the most ambitious of productions and equipped with modern day gadgetry; and create illusion of an even bigger space. For instance, with cameras fixed with appropriate zoom lenses, you can actually create a 1,800sq.m space in a 900 square environment. But you know, money is the name of the game. For instance, some of those lenses are more expensive than the cameras themselves. So, that was why we were able to conclude at 900 square metre and create two other studios of 175 square-metre each.
What stage are you now with the five studios, and what are you currently doing with them?
We have only completed one of the two presentation studios, but studios two and three of 175 square-metre each are speedily nearing completion. I think we are right now doing the very last layer of flooring which they call the Epoxy. Of course, all acoustics solutions are in place and only waiting to receive lighting and equipment. Soon, they will both come on line at the same time. We are working on the two simultaneously. The shell (as we speak) is ready, awaiting only two things – lightening and equipment. But the “big man” himself, the one I call the “GOC”, which is Studio 1 measuring 900 square-metre, is also getting ready to the tune of the shell.
What will you be doing with 900 square-metre studio?
Let me ask you: Where did ‘The Voice Nigeria’ concluded about 3-4 months ago take place? It took place in Johannesburg, South Africa. Where is Big Brother Nigeria currently taking place? It is taking place in South Africa. Where is Coke studio? It is in Nairobi, Kenya. I can go on and on, all because of facilities. The main reason cited by production houses for taking these shows abroad is lack of the requisite facilities and expertise. The facilities needed are the kind of things we are trying to provide here at HS Media Studios. For instance, when fully completed, you can build that Big Brother house in our Studio One. And you know when digitization comes, that is when the boom will come from production, and that is what we are positioning for.
What is the extent of patronage of the already completed studio? Are you getting value for the investment?
The completed studio is busy 24/7. First, we have our programmes. We have HotSports, which has run for close to two decades, and it is still running. We are producing it every week. We have ‘UAC Unscripted’, the wave-making celebrity family game show, sponsored by Nigeria’s biggest indigenous conglomerate, UACN Plc. We have our radio programmes and we have audio booths supporting the completed studio. As matter of fact, it is those audio booth that have been making life easier for the managers of that studio, otherwise, they are already over-booked, because they manage to push a lot of things to the studio.
But far more importantly is that every weekend, from Friday to Sunday, we are locked down on StarTimes. We produce six live matches every weekend, for StarTimes. Matches of the Bundesliga, i.e the German League, the Italian Serie A, and matches of the Russia 2018 European World Cup Qualifiers. These matches are produced live on World Football Channel on StarTimes.
What we do is that we get the signals of these matches all the way from the various originating point, mix them with Nigerian studio analysis, giving it a Nigerian tune, such that the matches come closer to Nigerian football fans, and send to the StarTimes hub in Tejuosho, from where they distribute to their subscribers. We are enjoying consultancy from a number of partners, Meyone for technology/internet and ISAT Africa for satellite broadcast consultancy. So, from Fridays, you don’t come near the studio because it is live matches throughout, and we do not close on those days until, sometimes midnight.
You were trying to relate what you are doing to digitisation; was it the main source of inspiration for this studio project?
Clearly yes, because in the digitization era, you are going to find a lot of need for production. I attended a seminar in Abuja and one knowledgeable gentleman described digitization era as a city hitherto served by a four-lane highway, and all of a sudden having a fifty-lane highway serving it. So, you need vehicles to ply those highways otherwise they are useless. The metaphor here is simple: In a place like Lagos, we can have three to four terrestrial channels, but we need content/programmes for the channels because you and I will watch what appeals to us, and what appeals to us is what gives us what we want to see.
The idea therefore will be, if you have such a large number of stations, owning a station at that time will no longer be a big deal, but the main thing will be content. And television succeeds where you and I can see ourselves in it. You can see people like you in television, which is why Africa Magic today has succeeded in Nigeria because people can see themselves in it.
We believe as a matter of fact that there must be an up-surge in production activities when digitization comes. With that array of stations, therefore, we have gone into this, in order to serve the community of producers in radio and television programmes across the land.
Is Nigeria ready for Digitization?
First let me say that the entire West Africa have not digitized up till now because Nigeria could not. Nigeria has shifted twice; they have now fixed June 17th 2017 as the date for Digital Switch Over (DSO). I dare say that we do not have a choice, we have to, because the entire East Africa from Nairobi to Tanzania are fully digitized. I don’t want to talk about North Africa, Tunisia and all Magreb region. They have all long digitized. And do not forget that this is internationally-imposed and sanctioned by a body called ITU (International Telecommunications Union). Nigeria, not being able to do it in the past has not created much unease because even our neighbours have not. If any of our neighbours had digitized, the impact would have been so noticeable that we would have had no choice than to so. Nobody wants to wake up in the morning and not be able to watch television. It won’t get to that because June 17th is the DSO, and it has started because the pilot in Jos was successful. One of the companies that the government licensed for this project, Pinnacle, has done Abuja, and it was successful. They are planning Kaduna now, and very soon, they will come to Lagos. So, it is progress, and I am sure that by June, Nigeria should switch over.
How much have you invested in this massive studios?
When you talk about the worth of investment in this studio, it is difficult to answer because prior to the last two years, you could talk with some certainty. This is not the case now. If you put in a figure before now, you are most likely to be right but you cannot anymore because things like this are denominated on the basis of replacement cost. In other words, if I have to do this all over again, how much will it cost me? But we know that we cannot answer that question because we do not know, and we don’t know because the government has pegged the dollar at N360, but few weeks back, the dollar was over N500. What will the situation be in another month is most unpredictable. So we cannot put our hands to all those kind of variables.
However, the best way to put it will be to say that it has taken quite a bit. It’s taken all of twenty years of pioneering an aspect of the industry and of an active business life. This is all that we have lived for and worked for with all our lives. It could have been worse but, as they say, we thank God we are here.
As for level of support from the Nigerian financial environment, unfortunately, I will say nothing. We have ended up with nothing from the sector and it is not for want of effort on our part. But you know as the situation is with them. You would be asked to meet all kinds of conditions ranging from the sublime to the downright ridiculous which would be why we are where we are now. Well, we knew that even if we manage to complete the shell, we may not be able to fund equipment and lighting, so we have a number of options in view. The first is partnership; look for equipment manufacturers and vendors to bring in equipment, lighting and expertise to operate the equipment. We would supply infrastructure and knowledge of the market. As I have said, sports marketing is what we have done for all of our 20-21 years. The business makes money and the partners share, based on agreed percentages. In order words, we as a company are prepared to own just a percentage of this, but have something of a functional enterprise, than to own one hundred per cent of loans. You may then end up finding yourself with strange fellows, because, if you are talking to partners that know what you are doing and are industry people, they easily connect with you. They know what you are doing, rather than talking with strange bed-fellows, or you do business with companies and individuals who may not fully understand what you are doing, and whose ideas of the dialectic in terms especially of returns on their investment might be very different from what the reality can support. Next on our list of options is private placement, and the third is bank loan, which is usually our last option. Both are not really very attractive to us.
Talking about partnership, we have gone far in talking to a lot of partners. I have a very knowledgeable partner, a Belgian, who has done thirty-six years of television production across Africa. He was resident in South Africa until he moved back home to Belgium; a 63-year-old but he is very sound. He has been spear-heading our efforts to get partners, and we have been talking. In fact, one of them from Belgium came in here; we were almost signing an MoU, then this uncertainty in the Nigerian economy set in and then some conditions that are not positive to say the least, started coming up, and then we had to repudiate. It is instructive to note, at that time, anywhere we dropped this idea (of partnership) we were well received and people wanted to talk to us. Then, interest started fizzling out once the uncertainties set into the Nigerian economy.
But I must also say that we benefitted from all that engagement because they exchanged ideas with us, on how things should be done, because they are experienced equipment people, which will come in handy when we finally make progress. We have reached a point of no-return since the shell is standing ready to receive lighting and equipment.
What date and figures are you looking at in terms of completion?
With the shells virtually ready, we will be talking about $7.5 to $8 million. If we have the fund as we speak, I am sure that we will be running before digitization in June.
It is like you are not scared with the kind of money you are putting in, in relation to when the returns will start coming.
I told you earlier that we have reached a point of no return. As for the timing for the returns, it is only a matter of time, because the revolution that will with digitization will be close to what came when mobile telephone was introduced in 2001. I remember talking to a boss of mine at that time and he said “you mean Ibrahim (his driver) too will own a phone?” And I said ‘sir, not just Ibrahim, even Akpan your chef at home will own a phone.’
In 1999, we went to cover the All Africa Games in Johannesburg, South Africa, and it was such a big deal to find cleaners, at the media center where we were, with phones starched in their pockets and they were doing their work, and we were taking pictures of these and sending home to our publications, because it was so novel to us then that cleaners, drivers, and all what’s not have phones, but what do we have today? That is the kind of thing that is coming to television when digitisation comes. We are positioned to be part of it.
Talking about the challenges, in relation to the government, what are the things that you think government should do, to support investors, such as yours?
Government basically just has to be a facilitator. Nobody is asking Government for money, but they have to facilitate, and it starts from as little as body language. When investors find that there is prospect of stability and there is prospect of safety for their investment, they will come in. These funds are also there; they do not want to keep funds idle. Funds that are kept idle are nothing but a waste. But investors want to be sure of the safety of their funds. They also know that their best investment destination in a place like Nigeria is not public sector; it is private sector. And those in television industry already know what digitization is. Please go to Jos and Abuja. Go and see how many people are already getting something to do, gainfully, by way of employment, on account of digitization alone. In our live production, we have both permanent staff and stringers. That is employment. You can go on and on.
To be honest, the possibilities are humongous, if only government can just be a facilitator; i.e., create an enabling environment for people to relate, do business profitably, and maintain their partnerships. It will be very helpful. That is what I think government should do.
What is your message to Nigerians on HS Media Studios?
They should watch out for us, watch out for a revolution in television in Nigeria. I have said it; it will be akin to the revolution that came in 2001 when GSM came to this land. Digitization is coming and we are working day and night assiduously, and God is helping us to overcome various challenges in order to be a major player in digitization of television in Nigeria. As I said, in the complex, there are five different business units. One of them is a TV College. A TV College is necessary because, with digital switch over, there will be a lot of gaffes and gap in knowledge, so you need training. We are talking to two universities, one in the US, and the other in the UK, who have very good communication schools to partner with us on this. We are also hoping to be very active in signals distribution. In this we are partnering with iSAT Africa, a company that rules the waves in East Africa as far as digitisation is concerned, where, as I said, digitization has been completed. So all of these and even more will take place in our media hub.