Africa: The race to liberalise broadcast markets is just beginning

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The 1990s saw the phenomenal growth of the mobile sector in Africa turning millions of people into the proud owners of a phone. This growth was made possible by opening Africa's telecoms market to new investment and competition, lowering prices and increasing choice. Broadcasting is about to go through the same cycle only twenty years later, writes Russell Southwood, and Africa's broadcast industry may see the same kind of growth.

This issue of African Broadcast, Film and Convergence sees new pay-TV entrant GTV going into more countries and a third entrant announcing its presence in the Ugandan market. Cameroon has announced four new broadcast licences for private operators. Togo has announced the arrival of a sports channel. Two new broadcast stations appear to be on the cards, one in the capital Abuja and the other in Kogi State. As elsewhere in Africa, these last two stations have been prompted by local politicians, anxious to have access to the means of communication to promote themselves. It will take a breed of tough, brave regulators to police issues around fairness and access.

The state broadcasting sector is largely under-funded and will find it difficult to keep up with the pace of this race. Africa has not often seen public broadcasting in the purer sense (of the kind best represented by the BBC) as too many broadcasters have become the captive of Government, for whom they rely on their funding. At its worst, African state broadcasting is sadly amongst the dullest viewing on the planet.

More private broadcasters create new talent and new voices and spread the power to communicate into more hands. Africa's state broadcasters will need to create a clear role for themselves if they are to survive this onslaught. Simply repeating what the Government wants will not play well if there are alternatives. Why watch the President opening yet another something when you can watch a local football match or the Barclays Premier League?

A staggering fifty organisations were shortlisted to operate private radio or TV licences in Cameroon. Only four received licences - Spectrum TV, Canal 2 International, Sweet FM and TV+ - but according to Cameroon's Minister of Communications Professor Ebénézer Njoh Mouelle:" Amongst the 50 audio-visual stations only 4 of them have today received licences to operate. It means that 46 others should also be ready to come forth for their licences. The delay depends on them. They need to follow the example of those who have received an authorization to operate a private audio-visual media in Cameroon". In other words, show you can do it and we will give you a licence.

The process has been presented as a regularisation of the existing market as many stations already operate without a licence. According to the Minister:" The licence enables those who are already operating in the field to be formal rather than informal. Those who received the licence to operate have become more opened, recognised and can freely negotiate financial deals with foreign operators".

The main obstacle for more clearing the requirements for a licence are money. The sum paid depends on whether the station is a local or a national one. All applicants have cleared the technical requirements hurdles but the remaining 46 have found difficulty thus far in finding the money required to pay their licence fees. A lively and healthy media market in broadcasting will doubtless help with the process of raising the money. The first four entrants have a more or less clear run at it and should produce clear evidence of both listener/viewer interest and advertising revenues.

Meanwhile in Togo, a new TV channel - Télé Sport has launched that will concentrate on meeting the thirst for sport among its Togolese viewers. It will devote 90% of its content tosport, 5% to culture and 5% to science.

It wants to provide coverage of local Togolese sporting events as well as global events. Télé Sport broadcasts on Channel 29 that will start by covering the whole of the north of Lome but will eventually cover the whole region around the capital. It will employ a dozen people band its launch brings to six, the number of TV channels available to Togolese viewers. There are sixty radio stations, one of which is Sport FM.