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With the digital transition coming, Africa needs a manifesto for change in its public broadcasting

The digital transition is not simply a technical changeover but an opportunity to provide better broadcasting for Africa’s citizens. The best of the continent’s telecoms policy-makers and regulators have been innovative in how they have tackled the issues they have faced. But in an area like broadcasting that is closer to the “powers that be” and potentially more threatening, there has been little sign of much needed innovation. Russell Southwood thinks the time has come to re-examine how public broadcasting works (or perhaps more accurately, doesn’t work) in Africa.

Public broadcasting in Africa had a poor start in life. The colonial administrations who set up radio stations often exerted a strong control over their media so for newly-independent Governments, the former colonialists were in a poor position to be giving lectures about public purposes: the views expressed on the colonial radio stations reflected those of the administration and sometimes settlers in the country in question.

The former colonial radio stations were inherited by the newly independent Governments. Most of them then went on to launch their own television stations during the 1960s, with Nigeria being the first in 1959. In the years after independence, a number of factors came together that made Government control of the media seem essential. Part of the challenge for post-independence Governments was the task described as “nation-building”. Countries that were often fragile coalitions of different ethnic groups within sometimes arbitrary borders and Governments felt an understandable need to try and bring people together around a common understanding of national citizenship.

But however worthy this aspiration was, Governments soon found themselves trying
to clamp down on any criticism or difference expressed through the media. This
was sometimes defended on the grounds that it was more important for people to
have food in their bellies than have the right to disagree about issues. Anti-
imperialist rhetoric and a sensitivity to criticism meant that many Governments
sometimes also took control of print media to ensure that any opposition found it hard to find a voice.

Cold War alliances meant that international Governments were keener on preventing countries falling under the influence of the communist Soviet Union than on stressing a regard for human rights and democracy. A concern for independent or public service media was simply lost as collateral damage.

Very rapidly the content of TV and radio became either the captive of
the ruling party or subsequent military rulers: indeed, one of the first targets of
any coup was control of a national television or radio station to announce the coup
was taking place.

That was then and this now. And today, most state-controlled broadcasters are in a state of crisis about their identity and purposes, worsened in those countries that have liberalised the airwaves by new private competitors.

The public broadcasters are caught between a rock and hard place. They have both to provide what they see as a public service (vernacular languages, wider transmission coverage, education and so on) but almost all (with only three exceptions) have to fund themselves directly from advertising. Any additional money they get from Government is often given on an arbitrary basis (with no understanding of rights and responsibilities between the giver and receiver) and is rarely sufficient to support a range of public purposes.

Worse still, state-controlled broadcasters feel under an obligation to please their paymasters by providing plentiful coverage of their activities. His Excellency the President opens this, the honourable Minister opens that: never has Mr President TV been so predictable and boring.

The net result is that viewers and listeners do not trust Mr President TV: they may watch to know what the Government thinks but they are not committed viewers. Except for older people who were bought up on this diet and have become fixed in their ways and those for whom it provides the only source of their own vernacular language.

In these circumstances, private media is either “in opposition” or is owned by other politicians, sometimes in power, sometimes not. Survey after survey shows that with only a few exceptions, state –controlled broadcasters in liberalised markets have lost the trust of their audiences. Loss of trust means loss of audiences means less advertising. News is a key advertising moment in the schedule and suffers accordingly. The periodic panics over state-controlled broadcasters’ inability to buy rights for things like the Cup of Nations show how far they have sunk.

But this squeeze on the state-controlled broadcasters’ existence is only a symptom of a deeper set of changes. In the old days, the public discussion through media and elsewhere was often dominated by the President and his party. It sought to set the agenda for discussion and tightly police its limits. In a liberalised market there are many voices and many different ways of getting to hear them. Governments can police SMS and the Internet by closing it down (as happened during the food price riots in Mozambique and for two years in Ethiopia) but this is a “nuclear” option that cannot be kept in place for any length of time.

African societies are becoming more complex and as that happens the public discussion of issues becomes more fragmented and harder to control. Civil society organisations and NGOs are an obvious source of points of view but there is now also a more vibrant private sector that has things to say. Beyond the rise of interest groups, there is also the emergence of an African middle class that is beginning to articulate what it wants from life and how it thinks the country should be run. It’s no longer a few educated people who can be bought off by Government jobs.

But the fire-storm brewing in Africa is the age and attitudes of tomorrow’s “power generation”. The average age on the continent is 18.2 years but with some exceptions, all of its countries are run by old men whose mental landscape was formed before the arrival of things like the Internet. The key 18-30 demographic is interested in the Internet, uses Facebook and expects to know and be told things. Anecdotally, at the Digital Africa Summit in March, two different African fathers confessed that they found that their daughters challenged them in ways that they would never have spoken to their parents. The young and educated have different attitudes: they do not necessarily show the same deference to age and authority as their parents were expected to do.

All of these factors mean that state-controlled broadcasting has to find a way of becoming broadcasting for its citizens or it will be left as an expensive vanity project for the Government: shrinking audiences and bigger bills.

So what are the elements of a manifesto for change?

* Swopping control for influence: At the heart of state-controlled broadcaster’s dilemma is the umbilical cord that Heads of State have insisted on having between themselves and the broadcaster. They want the comfort of knowing that there will be a station or stations that will reflect their views in the terms that they set. But once the door is opened to liberalised private media it becomes more difficult. In some countries they have hedged their bets by encouraging individuals close to them to take ownership (directly or through proxies) of the new private stations.

But Heads of State and political parties need to acknowledge that at times of crisis, it will not be possible to control all information flows in a way that it was in the past. A combination of SMS and Internet will always let the cat out of the bag. Therefore the wise African Head of State needs to trade absolute control for the more sophisticated power of influence. There needs to be a recognition that arguments and disagreements can be aired in public without needing to jail or kill those who disagree with you.

* Providing that which the market does not: The point of public broadcasting is that it provides the means of communication in those areas where the market is unlikely to generate money doing so. So for example, the Nigerian public broadcaster NTA has set up an education channel as part of its digital transition. Likewise, the Government in Kenya has given a channel to the Kenya Institute of Education. This is not a cheap commitment but an education channel can provide learning experiences for a wide range of ages across the day and not just for trapped schoolchildren. Adults and parents and children have a thirst for acquiring a better education.

In many countries, the state broadcaster’s output is largely in the official language of the country, which tends to be the language of the elite. So for example in North Africa, much of the output is in French whereas a larger part of the audience would be comfortable in Arabic. However, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the issue is one where each country is a patchwork quilt of languages, not all of which appear in the broadcasting output, public or private. The rise of vernacular radio stations in liberalised markets has done much to address these needs but talk/music radio formats provide a fairly limited diet of content.

In Mauritius, the Government and the state broadcaster MBC will be offering new channels that are in several of the languages spoken on the island. The languages chosen for transmission are tamil, télégou, urdu, marathi and mandarin as these are “taught languages”. Kreol, which is spoken but not taught will have to wait for a digital TV channel devoted to it.

* Local content and knowing who you are: Although there are some notable exceptions, as much as 80-90% of content on African television stations comes from US, European and Latin American international content providers. These international content providers produce programmes for their own markets but offset the costs through selling global rights. However not surprisingly, locally generated programmes across the globe are nearly always more widely watched than international ones. Nollywood has demonstrated that fiction programmes from one African country can be watched widely by people in other countries. Several other African countries have also started to produce programmes that are more widely seen outside of where they were made.

In these circumstances, the public broadcaster has a responsibility to provide both local content and a diversity of content. Some do, whilst many do not. The public broadcaster should be responsible for attracting the most talented film and programme-makers. Public television should find ways of commissioning new dramas and comedies that look at how people live and not just at the lives of the African professional middle classes. Fiction programmes are the landscape of the imagination and shape how people see their own country and what they think they can achieve in it.

* Convergence and the viewers and listeners speak back: Television and radio broadcasting is a “one-to-many” experience. The new media like Internet are “many-to-many” in how they operate. The huge rise of the number of blogs in places like South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal and Kenya show that there is a thirst for less-mediated expressions of opinion and debate.

Public broadcasters need to understand the interactive nature of new media and use it to build a position where citizens can express their views about a whole range of things on the public channels. A Nigerian public broadcaster gave an example at the 1st African Broadcast and Film Conference of a phone-in show where a Minister announced the completion of a local road project. Minutes later a listener phoned in to complain that the road was not completed. Citizens speak truth unto power. These kinds of interaction may be one way in which the delivery of all public services is improved. New media is a key element of this interactivity and it is not always a central part of what state-controlled broadcasters do.

* Changing structures to achieve better public broadcasting: Without a commitment to change how public broadcasting works, nothing will happen. But there are structural routes that interested Governments might explore.

At the top of the list is finding ways to create some “arms-length” distance between the Government and the public broadcaster. A separate public entity with its board drawn from a mixture of Government nominees, civil society organisations, the private sector and interested individuals would be a starting point. This separate entity would have a published agreement with Government that laid out rights and responsibilities on both sides: this would be the document against which the public entity would be judged. So whenever Government complains about things it doesn’t like, it talks to the Chair of the Board, not the Director-General. It can seek to influence through the nomination process but no longer has absolute control.

Funding is a key issue that has to be tackled. One way would be to change how state-controlled broadcasters operated. Instead of producing all programmes in-house, there would need to be a shift towards the public broadcaster becoming more like a commissioning agency. In this way, it would commission the majority of its output from independent production companies. This would have a dual effect: firstly, it would drive out some of the waste (the messengers, the drivers, etc) from the state-controlled broadcasters and begin to focus resources on the creation of original local content; and secondly, it would allow the development of a wider range of skills and facilities in the audio-visual sector.

But the public broadcaster should also have a foundation arm that allowed it to collect money to fund its public purposes. In this way, NGOs, donors and international broadcasters could provide funding for core public purposes rather than simply buying a place for their own programmes or giving them away. Local charities and the private sector could also provide money for the same purposes. In the case of the private sector, this would out of a commitment for a well-funded media out their Corporate Social Relations budget, not sponsorship for product placement.

Africa is undergoing a period of profound change and deserves to have public broadcasting that can genuinely reflect on these changes. The digital transition provides an opportunity to look again at how things are being done and look for ways to improve them.

Service improvements for readers:

Video interview clips

Readers of this Broadcast, Film and Convergence e-letter, now have the opportunity to get see a video clip of Balancing Act CEO, Russell Southwood talking to CNBC Africa about developments in African broadcasting during the African Broadcast and Film Conference in July. Go to our web site (www.balancingact-africa.com) and click on the You Tube box to watch.

If you’d like to be interviewed on camera about news developments or your views about what’s happening in the African broadcast space, just write to: info@balancingact-africa.com

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