By Aaron Ross
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - On a muddy side-street in Abidjan, Alex Ogou directs his cast of young locals in a TV drama about gangsters in Ivory Coast that French media giant Vivendi hopes will help revive its fortunes.
"Invisibles" is the first original series produced in Africa by Vivendi's
Canal+ has lost 1.3 million individual subscribers in mainland France since 2013 due to stiff competition for rights to sports events, series from upstart rivals and the rise of streaming services such as Netflix
At the same time, Canal+ has added twice as many subscribers in Africa, now its second-largest market. Rights to European and African soccer have long been a draw in Africa and Canal+ has also invested heavily in locally produced content.
But unlike the tried and tested telenovelas and tales of witchcraft that account for an outsized portion of African TV consumption, "Invisibles" tells the story of a violent gang of youngsters in 10 episodes of 52 minutes.
Shot mainly in a bustling sprawl of open-air markets and run-down auto body shops in the working-class Yopougon district, the series will debut in Africa on Oct. 29.
"Africans want us to address them directly and not offer them programmes that reference things they don't know, just because that's what's shown in Paris," said Fabrice Faux, Canal+ International's chief content officer.
"The African public wants things made by them, for them and, if possible, on site," he said.
Vivendi said in February that Canal+ aimed to add 1.5 million African subscribers by 2020 to bring the total to about 5 million, up from some 1 million five years ago.
With more Africans buying TVs - and streaming services not widely accessible due to relatively high data costs - the continent is fertile ground for satellite pay-TV companies to provide original content and generate customer loyalty.
"It is a market that is very important for us. It is the market with the fastest growth," said Faux.
Besides "Invisibles", at least two more African-produced series are in the works, a Senegalese police drama called "Sakho & Mangane" and an action series called "African Special Forces" which Canal+ is co-producing with a Moroccan station.
Series are also cheaper to produce in Africa than Europe or the United States, sometimes by a factor of 40. Karamoko Toure, the "Invisibles" producer, said it cost about $1 million.
And it is already attracting plaudits. Last month, it became the first francophone African series to win an award outside the continent at the TV Fiction Festival http://www.festival-fictiontv.com/en/home-2 in the French city of La Rochelle.
Canal+'s success in Africa, where it has nearly 4 million subscribers across more than 25 countries contrasts with its struggles in France and largely stable business in its other main markets, Poland and Vietnam.
Canal+ is Vivendi's second-highest grossing company behind Universal Music so its welfare is key. In 2015, the haemorrhaging of French subscribers from Canal+ became so alarming Vivendi said it could not finance the company's losses in the long run.
Last year, it said a turnaround plan emphasising themed packages had staunched the bleeding: sales were growing again, cancellations were declining and partnerships with mobile operators such as Orange
Even so, Canal+ has shed nearly 200,000 subscribers in France over the past year. In May, it lost out on broadcast rights in France for the national soccer league for 2020-24, which sent Vivendi's shares tumbling 5.5 percent.
One advantage Canal+ has over new entrants is strong brand recognition built up over three decades in francophone Africa, where a white Canal+ dish is a status symbol.
"Here, prestige can be seen. Canal+ and its satellite dish are prestigious," said Ndeye Diagne, a managing director at marketing research firm Kantar TNS http://www.tnsglobal.com in Ivory Coast's commercial capital Abidjan. "They must not lose that."
Originally-produced comedy and news programmes, as well as A+, an all-Africa channel Canal+ launched in 2014, have enjoyed success. It also carries a range of African telenovelas, which are heavily advertised on billboards around Abidjan.
The move to feature-length dramas such as "Invisibles" is something of a leap into the unknown but French-Ivorian director Ogou thinks it will resonate widely.
"People are looking for things to watch that concern them ... Talking about stories in which people can recognise themselves."
Success in Africa has not come easy. To help attract more subscribers, Canal+ slashed prices about five years ago, Faux said, without providing exact figures.
According to company data, the average African subscriber brings in less than half the revenue of a French customer - and Africa still only accounts for 10.6 percent of Canal+ revenues.
Canal+ also faces growing competition from Chinese rival StarTimes, which began operating in Africa in 2002 and is pushing deeper into francophone markets.
With nearly 10 million subscribers across 30 African countries, it is challenging the long-time dominance of Canal+ in French-speaking countries and MultiChoice's
Philippe Zou, director general for StarTimes in francophone Africa, said its strategy was focussed on content in African languages such as Swahili and Yoruba, televising domestic soccer leagues and offering more programmes online.
StarTimes entered Ivory Coast two years ago and has made inroads with monthly plans from 4,500 CFA francs to 15,000 CFA ($8.02-$26.73), compared with Canal+'s 5,000 CFA to 40,000.
By the end of the year, London-based Digital TV Research Limited estimates that Canal+ will have 579,000 subscribers in Ivory Coast and StarTimes 125,000. Competition remains fierce and original content may help win the fight.
At a Canal+ retailer in Abidjan's Cocody district, where TV boxes were on sale for 15,000 CFA in a promotion, saleswoman Rachel Kouame said business was brisk.
"There are some clients who have left for StarTimes but many of them come back. They say they prefer our programming."
(Additional reporting by Media Coulibaly in Abidjan and Mathieu Rosemain in Paris; editing by David Clarke)