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Process of setting up a TV station with content targeted to children – Soleil

By Harriet James
Thursday, September 24th, 2020
Jesse Soleil, co-founder Akili Network. Photo/PD/HARRIET JAMES
In summary

Jesse Soleil explains the process of setting up a TV station with content targeted to children, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

Harriet James @harriet86jim

Establishing a TV station is not for the faint hearted, particularly in these tough economic times brought about by Covid-19.

Yet, right in the midst of the pandemic, Jesse Soleil and his partner, Jeff Schon launched Akili Network, the first and only 24/7, free-to-air educational children’s network. 

The channel broadcasts a mix of programming for country’s school-age as well as pre-school children. 

“We already had set up a team, had the right content and technology and were ready for the launch before the pandemic.

We took a leap of faith in launching the product and realised it was the right time, since it’s the only time when both parents and children are at home and we would never get a chance in history to do this,” explains Soleil.

With a background in children’s entertainment education and supplemental learning product development for the last 25 years, Soleil began his career with children at Scholastic, the largest children’s publisher in the world.

Here, he created products for classroom and ended up running the research and development department.

Before leaving, he was already running e-scholastic for eight years, an online division created in 2003. 

“I learnt about children and child development, education and product development.

I also worked with cognitive scientists, educators and some top teachers in the world to create things that would assist children learn,” Soleil adds.

 Having three children and having married a Kenyan also birthed the desire to give back to the country, which he had learned to love as a result of the back and forth visits for 18 years.

During this period, Soleil met talented Kenyan interested in learning more about entertainment.

During one workshop, he met one attendee who happened to be appointed in the ICT ministry as the chairman of the content task force and had a mission to establish the creative economy content for vision 2030. 

“One of the things he asked me and my partner was how Kenya can go about creating value out of content.

So we began a landscape assessment on where opportunities were in as far as content creation was concerned.

It is here that we discovered that there was a huge gap in children’s entertainment,” he says.

Lacking content

At first, they wanted to pitch the idea a three-hour block buster childrens programming to a local broadcaster and build a business on it, but were discouraged by its impracticability as none wanted to broadcast such content.

In 2012, Soleil had an opportunity to pitch their idea to the Communications Authority of Kenya; that’s when they were informed that the country was planning a transition to digital, and that they could have their own channel. 

“We took the chance and were given a provisional license to broadcast and moved to an official license in 2015. We then began looking for cash to start the channel,” he recalls.

  They spent two years trying to pool capital for the project and were lucky to find investors.

Because of the time and planning taken to create the project, the two had promised investors that they would take six months to get on air.

They also pulled together some of their own funds; friends and family also chipped in.

During this two-year period, they also researched and discovered that apart from the country lacking content for its children, the entertainment that existed on the current channels were aired right before adult programmes, which was inappropriate.

 “There was no safe place; parents could not turn on the TV knowing their child was exposed to such content.

That also included advertising content not just about alcohol, but if you advertise candy bars children will see it and want it yet it’s not great for their health,” he says. 

They also realised Kenyan parents value education and had to come up with content that was not only entertaining, but informative.

In addition, they discovered most content for Kenyan children was not produced by Kenyans.

Consequently, they wanted both children and parents to see themselves and grow the belief they could do more by themselves. 

By 2019, Soleil had already created a great team from the relationships he made training young people on content in Kenya. 

“We managed to beat the deadline in spite of the pandemic. We got on air in the morning of March 31, and our technician had just flown from Bulgaria to install the server a day just before the borders closed.

We didn’t know how to use the software, but we learnt how to handle it as we went on,” says Soleil.

What sets them aparts that they follow the niche or specialty model. Such channels began in the 1990s, but have increased, addressing all interest groups and demographies.

Currently, around 65 per cent of today’s satellite channels are specialty channels with focus ranging from sports, women, religion and news.  

“When niche programming began, people thought it was a bad idea and was not trending then as it is now.

People don’t have to watch the channel 24 hours, but they know that when they need your content such as news or sports or religious shows, they will head to your channel.

This niche channel is what will build and revolve in the country,” explains Soleil.

School age

Thanks to the pandemic, in just five months, the broadcast has already gone ahead of schedule and have already accomplished what they had planned to do in the next two years in terms of viewership.

A recent survey conducted in July by Geopoll said Akili Kids was said to be the second most-watched channel averaging 691,000 viewers and have over 70,000 followers on their Facebook.

The downside of the pandemic however, is the shrinking advertising market, which has resulted in revenue decline.

 “Thankfully when we raised the money, we had enough to sustain us even in these tough times,” says Soleil.

Besides revenue generation, another challenge is generating original programming fast enough.

Creating a children’s programme is different from adults as they are at diverse developmental stages.

The channel caters for three distinct segments: early childhood, first year school age and teen (10-13) programming. 

“We would love to license products that are already good, but none is suitable for the children as they are not Kenyan made.

This means I have to create new content and even what exists has either been re-watched or else it is not good enough to be aired.

We are looking for programmes that support writing, Maths, Science and it’s not only educative but fun,” he explains. 

Another challenge and difference is their protective advertising policy which ensures that any advertising is appropriate for children and takes into account their health and wellbeing. 

In future, Soleil wants to get into publishing and have kids read what they watch on TV. He also hopes to have a scholarship programme at some point. 

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