Steering The Wheel of ViacomCBS in Nigeria

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BADA AKINTUNDE-JOHNSON

Debonair. Dexterous. Dedicated. Dogged. That’s the head honcho of ViacomCBS Networks Africa in Nigeria, Bada Akintunde-Johnson. His athletic sway suggests a swag that’s characteristic of his personality. Charming and calm, Akintunde-Johnson understands the nuances of the business of entertainment. He’s been there, done that. Without hesitation, AKintunde-Johnson walks Vanessa Obioha through the positioning of African content by ViacomCBS over the years

It is hard to miss Bada Akintunde-Johnson at an event. His towering height and stylish attire make him conspicuous. But being the frontman of the international multimedia and entertainment company, ViacomCBS Networks (VCN) Africa in Nigeria, he seems ubiquitous. Not too long ago, he hosted the Nigeria-South Africa Chamber of Commerce (NSACC) session on the impact of Covid-19 on the entertainment industry and the way forward.

Akintunde-Johnson kicked off his career as a presenter and producer on Galaxy TV, Lagos, climbing the corporate ladder with admirable speed, spreading his creativity and talents to other fields such as advertising.

Prior to his appointment as the country manager of VCN Africa in Nigeria, the graduate of Communication and Language Arts from the University of Ibadan was the creative director for the telecommunications company, Globacom. He was also the creative manager at the defunct HiTV, Nigeria’s biggest indigenous pay-TV platform where he led the in-house post-production and creative agency teams.

Today, he is recognised as a media personality, producer, creative director, copywriter, and of course, a musician. In his new capacity, Akintunde-Johnson’s role is to oversee the company’s entertainment brands such as MTVBase, Nickelodeon, BET and Comedy Central in Nigeria.

The year Akintunde-Johnson joined VCN Africa in Nigeria was a significant one for the company. Then, the company was known as Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN) Africa. That year, 2017, the company held its first Nickfest in Nigeria, a family-centric festival promoted by one of its children brands Nickelodeon. That same year, the company’s former Managing Director, Alex Okosi was appointed to head the BET International.

Also, afro-pop superstar Wizkid won the BET Best International Act that year. Nigeria has retained that position since then with Burna Boy’s two years’ consecutive win.
It is no news that the company initially known as MTV Networks, serves as a catalyst that propelled Nigerian music to the international market. With its flagship channel MTV Base, Nigerian music gained more airplay and the artistes more fame. It is a point that Akintunde-Johnson, an enthusiastic vocalist, loves to highlight.

“We recognised that African music, Nigerian music wasn’t getting more attention when we came into Nigeria. The music channels that existed in Africa, including radio stations, were playing mostly international music content because Nigerian music wasn’t considered developed or good enough to be showcased or celebrated,” he said.

“We looked at the video space and asked ourselves how we can change this game,” he continued. “What we did was to bring the best music video directors from across the world to come in here and teach our young budding directors, directors of photography, how to make music videos.

“It was called ‘Making of the Video’ which we did in partnership with Shell at the time. We exposed these guys to the latest technologies in creating music videos. We would change the face of how music videos were made in Africa, essentially, and as soon as the quality improved, we would change the paradigm in terms of the skew of content. We started to play more Nigeria and African videos, and less international videos and the rest of the industry had to follow suit.”

He added, “Today, you have all music channels across Africa needing to play 90 percent of the Nigerian or African content and very few international songs. That’s because we have grown. We were the catalyst for that growth at the very beginning and we will continue to amplify the narrative of Africa reimagined.”

Apart from the music channel, the company has other brands that have equally played pivotal roles such as the MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMA) that pooled international music stars and local stars on one stage. The platform was responsible for quite a number of international collaborations for local talents.

There is also the MTV Shuga TV series that throws light on sexual health issues. The Nigerian series has given birth to a slew of actors in the film industry. By 2015, VCN launched BET Africa.
The channel which is exclusively on the cable network DStv celebrates African and African- American culture. It recently premiered its first African telenovela, a South African drama series ‘Isono.’

For children, the Nickelodeon channel brings all the fun and excitement. Its annual Nickfest couldn’t hold this year because of the global pandemic caused by the strange coronavirus.
VCN Africa narrowly escaped the coronavirus-induced lockdown in March as it marks its 15th anniversary in the country. The week-long celebration held in February in grand style. However, Akintunde-Johnson disclosed that the pandemic caused the company to shut down some productions.

“For a few months, we didn’t do anything fresh on the channel but thankfully, our robust content library meant that we kept meeting the needs of our consumers, viewers and fan base. In spite of the fact that we weren’t producing fresh content, our viewership kept growing, because that didn’t really impact our ability to meet their needs and satiates their content demands.”

What Akintunde-Johnson and his team did was to translate the existing linear content to virtual as people rely on the internet for entertainment.
“One of the major trends that COVID-19 brought about essentially was in basically empowering more people to produce content within that time. So we focused on individual-led or driven content to align with consumer demands.”

Despite the many roles of the company in the entertainment space, the visionary leader reckoned that entertainment is still relegated by the government.
“There’s a lack of knowledge on the part of the government, a lack of awareness of what the music industry or the entertainment industry is about,” he pointed out.

“For the most part, they still think that music and entertainment are the fun interludes that you take in between serious stuff. So, entertainment has always been culturally seen as something not serious, you know, something you just do for fun. But entertainment is business. It’s a great driver of growth, economically,” he explained, noting that in 2019, the entertainment industry in the United States contributed five percent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the economy while in Britain, it contributed seven percent, more than the manufacturing industry.

“The governments of those places do not joke with entertainment. They create an enabling environment and structure for entertainment to thrive. That is something our government has got to do but there is a lack of interest which stems primarily from lack of knowledge. They think it’s a bunch of young people who are just catching fun and should be left alone to do whatever excites them.”

The way Akintunde-Johnson views it, the apathetic approach of the government to the affairs of the entertainment industry is hamstringing the expansion of the industry.
He rolled out the different threats the environment poses to the industry such as insecurity which he said is part of the reason the country’s biggest music superstars cannot have a music tour in the country.

He also mentioned the low number of record labels available in the country and the long-awaited switchover from analogue to digital in the broadcasting space. In his opinion, if activated, will help in scientific audience measurements and management for brands. All of these he said hampers the development of the industry.

“There needs to be an understanding of entertainment and media capacity for employment. Nigeria is a country with low employment rates and you have a predominantly youth population that is talented, that wants to get involved in entertainment.

“How about you get interested as a government, and create the enabling environment for meaningful, sustainable growth of companies, business ventures within that space, such that those companies can now employ a majority of the youth population. I don’t know of any other sector that has attracted a better foreign direct investment than music has done over the last four years.

“We have multinationals come into this economy to partner with local companies. So, the government must play its role in entertainment to accelerate growth and development,” he advised.