" ITREALMS: Wanted! Business model for public Tv stations


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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Wanted! Business model for public Tv stations

Rising from a three-day Africast event penultimate week the global community would actually have left Nigeria with a great sense of satisfaction that something tangible is being done in the broadcast sector to migrate Nigerian broadcasters from analogue to digital.

The International Telecommunications Union, ITU, put a 2015 window but Nigeria has set 2012 for the migration.

Africast is a biennial programme of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), which brings together broadcast experts from different parts of the world, to brainstorm on broadcast issues and chart a way forward.

This year’s event explored the theme: Digitization and the Challenges of Broadcasting; a theme most apt because the world is at the verge of a major broadcast shift and Nigeria provided the much needed platform for a major discourse.

Information and Communications Minister, Mr. John Ogar Odey made the best of the moment by informing the international community how prepared Nigeria was for the digital shift, explaining that he had just set up a Presidential Committee to prepare the country’s position and suggest things that were possible and could help the government of Nigeria in taking a crucial step that could impact positively on the people.

However, Africast 2008 happened at a time there are very great and positive developments in the country’s broadcast market. This was demonstrated at the robust exhibition which held at the Ladi Kwali Hall of the Sheraton Hotel, Abuja. Big Nigerian broadcasters were all present including the African Independent Television (AIT), Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Voice of Nigeria (VON), Radio Nigeria, Multichoice and a host of others as well as hardware manufacturers and marketers.

Most of them were broadcasting live. In fact, AIT, actually took some of its programmes from their exhibition standard.

Africast came up at time that the country’s Digital Satellite Television (DSTv), sub-sector of broadcasting, is getting fully deregulated. After a period of protracted monopoly enjoyed by Multichoice, the NBC has breathed some fresh air into the DSTV sector immediately giving birth to HiTV and lately DaarSat.

At the moment HiTV is hitting over 150, 000 subscribers and DaarSat recently launched services in a major outing demonstrating to the rest of the world that it was ready to do business in that globally competitive sector.

For a start, all the signals coming into DaarSat will be received and turned around at the Kpaduma Hills, headquarters of the organisation. Even now quite a number of other operators are warming up for services. This was something very positive that the international community saw in Abuja.

However, when the special guest at the occasion, Senate President, represented by Senator Ayogu Eze was being taken round the stands, some remarks made by some people in government suddenly prompted the question: how prepared are Nigerian broadcasters to compete globally?

Asked to visit the VON and the NTA facilities, somebody suddenly asked, I hope they are not going to show us those things they have always shown us? The simple explanation is that in terms of technology those organisations may not be ready to compete globally.

But this issue quickly gave rise to another one: the deregulation of the Broadcast industry and the readiness of the public broadcaster, the NTA, to compete globally. Pursuing this position, somebody close by quickly remarked that in spite of previous efforts by government to dress up the station, it doesn’t seem to be in a position to compete. That on its own is a problem. The other problem, according to his submission is that as an international broadcaster, the station also engages in activities that will stifle the competition or the voice that NBC is trying to create in the sector.

Unable to understand his line of thought, one could only ask for some explanations. Readily obliging, the gentleman who looked versed in broadcasting traced some recent developments in the broadcast industry and juxtaposed them with the position of the government broadcast stations in international broadcasting.

He remarked that watching the DaarSat launch on television, the chairman of the organization, Chief Raymond Dokpesi had bragged that his station would serve Nigerian news and Nigerian type programming to the international community. This, the organization hopes to achieve because of heavy investment in satellite space and downlink facilities. What could be very encouraging, he continued, is that if the station succeeds others would follow. Nigeria would have a very strong voice at the international community, having joined the prestigious pay TV business.

In the past few years, NTA has been hitting the international community with Nigerian contents. What cannot be guaranteed, according to this young man who wished to remain anonymous, is the quality of content being dished out. However, one certain thing is that the contents are taken on Intelsat 907 as the main vehicle into the United Kingdom (UK) and gets into the United States through Globecast, a major platform for international broadcasters. While the other channels are paid for and have received equipment, NTA signals are free.

Meanwhile, the station pays at least $3m dollars to satellite owners every year. The reason for this kind of attitude is that as a public broadcaster, the station has not attached a business edge to its operation. Buttressing his position, he pointed out that when South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) came into Nigeria, it was through a pay TV platform. When British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television also came into Nigeria it was through a pay TV platform. But the locals receive free signals on their TV back home.

Since payments were made for those services, it then means the national broadcaster is able to send quality signals to its international arm and be able to make some money from subscription to upset the cost of programming and satellite space. This is not the practice at the NTA presently.

For this gentleman, the position of the NTA is quite ironical. With a devastating global financial crisis, organisations should be looking at more avenues through which to make money and survive, and not waste the tax payers’ funds.

Why not discounting that there is always a mutual distrust between public and private broadcasters, he noted that such mistrust is always addressed by the regulator through appropriate regulations. He pointed to the case of Public-service TVs and Private broadcasters in Europe who are on each other’s neck over sports rights which the public broadcasters are buying with tax payers’ money but are being given out to subscribers cheaply. The private broadcasters are accusing the public broadcasters of exorbitant right fees by tapping into the triple source of revenue – public subsidy, advertising, and the ability to generate huge deficits.

The European Commission is addressing the situation by revisiting the 2001 Broadcasting Communication, although there seems to be a consensus that “a state channel’s output should be predominantly public-service, but it needs to be viable service too.

His position is that at least the European public broadcasters are making efforts to do modern business but not the NTA which is giving out signals free in prime markets. Just as the European Commission is addressing the case between the Public-service and Private broadcasters in Europe, he urged the Nigerian government through the NBC to, as a matter of urgency, do something about the NTA situation.

What does he therefore suggest? He advocated a regulation that could create better business models for Nigerian broadcasters. Granted that any station has liberty to decide what it does with its signals, whether to give it free or not, he is of the opinion that properly licensing NTA and bringing it in line with the regulations of the NBC may go a long way into putting the station in a position to know that it has to make money apart from the subventions by government, and decide on reasonable channels through which to spend the money.

Broadcast contents coming out of Nigeria must be made competitive both in quality and in terms of cost and only competition and fair trade practices can guarantee survival and success of the various organisations rushing to give the country a voice at the international level.

•Funtua Ahmed, broadcast analyst, writes from Kaduna.

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